After a year of searching, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim's family finally filled in the gaps — which included a CTE diagnosis — and now, they want to help others going through similar situations before it's too late.
In Waimea, a small town of 9,212 in the northeastern corner of Hawaii’s Big Island, no one had a bigger presence than Daniel Te’o-Nesheim. The Washington Huskies’ one-time sack king, after four years in the NFL, returned to the island and last year took over as the head football coach at his alma mater, Hawaii Preparatory Academy.
Daniel’s mysterious death on Oct. 29, 2017, at age 30, rocked the island and left his mother, Ailota Te’o, and older sister, Marie Aiona, to face a repeated question to which they didn’t have a clear answer: What happened to Daniel?
After much searching, and much heartache, over the past year, the family finally found an answer: Daniel suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, the degenerative brain disease found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma. He died after a night of drinking at a friend’s house, with a mixture of pills and alcohol in his system, the local medical examiner told The Seattle Times.
After Daniel’s death, Marie and her mother dug deeper into his behavior. They needed answers.
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Through his handwritten journal entries, they learned about surgeries they never knew he had. Through his friends, they learned about sudden blackouts he had been having. Through his attorney, they learned about the efforts he began just four weeks before his death to qualify for the NFL’s “total and permanent” disability benefits.
“That’s when we then realized the depth of his pain,” Marie said.
A standout defensive end and team captain for the Huskies in the late 2000s, Daniel played four seasons in the NFL, for the Philadelphia Eagles and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was prescribed four types of pain medication during his first year in the NFL, with the Eagles in 2010, and his family says he never stopped using medication.
After his death, the family donated his brain to be studied at the Boston University School of Medicine, and neuropathologists there concluded Daniel had Stage 2 CTE, with Stage 4 being the worst. Daniel had played 15 years of football, plus six years of youth soccer. He played tackle football beginning from age 11, on through high school, then Washington and then the NFL. The neuropathologists at Boston University reported that Daniel’s brain showed signs of “approximately 100 concussions, all from contact sports, 10 with loss of consciousness.”
The report concluded that CTE and depression were the “primary” causes of Daniel’s death, while also noting that a “substance abuse disorder, chronic pain disorder and headache disorder” were contributing factors.
“I feel like we’re getting stronger because we have a little bit of closure,” Marie said. “But it still feels unreal at times. There are days where it feels like it just happened and it’s raw.”
• • •
Daniel was a student at Heatherwood Middle School in Mill Creek when his father taught him how to snap a football between his legs one day in their backyard. David Nesheim died soon after, during the middle of a work day in September 1999, of an aortic aneurysm. His passing shook the family.
David Nesheim was Norwegian. Ailota Te’o is Samoan. It was in American Samoa where the couple had met and where their children would be born. Ailota and the kids moved back to Samoa after David’s death, and Daniel was later enrolled at Hawaii Prep, a private boarding school in Waimea.
The connection to his father was part of the reason Daniel had decided to come back to Seattle from Hawaii to play for the Huskies in 2005. In the late 1980s, David was a painter for his family’s contracting business, and one job he had was painting Husky Stadium during a renovation project.
“I sometimes wonder how many times it has been painted over, or what he actually did here,” Daniel said in a 2006 interview. “He loved football. He played center at Edmonds High and was teaching me to snap the ball that summer.”
Daniel and Marie, two years older, spent much of their childhood in the Seattle area, nine years in all. Marie, now raising four children on the Big Island with her husband, Max, still feels a strong connection here, and they still have family here. She has brought family back to Seattle this week. On Saturday, they plan to attend the Huskies’ game against BYU, to show her kids where Uncle Daniel became the Huskies’ all-time sack leader in 2009.
It will be the family’s first game at Husky Stadium since Daniel’s passing.
• • •
In April 2010, on the day Daniel would be drafted by the Eagles, he went to breakfast at Beth’s Café near Green Lake with Max Unger, Daniel’s high-school teammate and a former Seahawks offensive lineman, and another friend. Beth’s is famous for its 12-egg omelet, and all three men ordered one. Unger recalled that he finished about three-quarters of his omelet before calling quits; the other friend did roughly the same. Daniel not only ate his entire 12-egg omelet, but he took the plates from the other two and finished off what was left of their breakfast, too.
Through the years, Unger remained close with Daniel, even as they played against each other three times in college (Unger starred at Oregon) and once more in the NFL. Last fall, they talked every other week as Daniel went through the typical growing pains of a first-time head coach (Hawaii Prep went 2-7 last season).
On Unger’s desk at his offseason home on the Big Island, there’s a picture of the two of them from their early days of high school. Unger chuckled at that image of Daniel as a 135-pound freshman. By the time he graduated, Daniel had nearly doubled in size — arriving at UW standing 6-feet-4 and some 250 pounds — thanks, at least in part, Unger joked, to their regular two-hour roundtrip drives to the nearest Taco Bell in Hilo.
“His transformation was pure comedy,” Unger said.
Daniel didn’t always say much. He was outgoing but not an extrovert, and he had an offbeat sense of humor. Former Husky linebacker Mason Foster came from Seaside, Calif., to UW in 2007, and soon found a mentor in a defensive end born in Samoa. Daniel, two years older, and Foster played three seasons together at UW (2007-09), three more in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2011-13), bonding over food and their love of the beach.
“When I was a young guy,” Foster said, “he would always put his arm around me: ‘You’re not doing that bad. Come on, you got it.’
“The example he set for a lot of young guys was incredible. To see a guy like him run to the ball on every play and be in the weight room all the time and running extra after practice — he didn’t have to say much because the example he set was so high. … He was what any coach would want in a player and what any player would want as a teammate next to him.”
A decade ago, the Huskies labored through one of the darkest periods in program history. But Daniel, teammates and coaches say, was a steady source of encouragement, even through the 0-12 season in 2008.
“He was a light, man, that’s for sure,” former UW defensive lineman Jordan Reffett said.
Most days, Daniel could be found in the office of Randy Hart, the Huskies’ longtime defensive-line coach. They would watch film together, and after critiquing his own game, Daniel would ask Hart how he could help motivate teammates.
The last to leave a dinner table, Daniel was often the first to arrive in the weight room for 6 a.m. workouts — sometimes arriving at the football facility before the coaching staff.
“He had a tremendous ability to flip the switch — to go from a compassionate, wonderful human being to an I-want-to-be-the-best, I-want-to-help-my-team ideal teammate,” Hart said. “We talked about that — how he wanted to make his teammates comfortable, how he wanted to take care of them.”
• • •
“Can you grab me some food?”
That was the first text message Daniel sent to his attorney, Sam Katz, after Daniel’s flight arrived in San Antonio on Oct. 2, 2017. “I’ll eat whatever,” Daniel typed, and Katz came through with some leftover ribs. They later went to an In-N-Out, and Daniel ordered seven Triple-Triple cheeseburgers. He finished all of them.
Katz, an attorney at the Beverly Hills-based ATHLAW law firm, had flown to Texas from California to be with Daniel for an appointment arranged by the NFL with Dr. Paul Saenz. Saenz performed an orthopedic evaluation and found, according to Katz, that Daniel met eight out of the 10 requirements, as outlined by the NFL Disability Board, for a retired player to receive the NFL’s Line of Duty benefits.
Included in his injury history, Daniel had undergone surgery on his left shoulder in 2012 for a labral tear; surgery on his right knee in 2012; a ruptured finger; and, perhaps worse of all, multiple right-ankle injuries. Daniel also discussed with Saenz pinched nerves in his neck and a sore lower back.
It was clear to Katz that the shoulder and ankle injuries were “extensive” and continued to trouble Daniel almost four years after he had played his final NFL game.
The NFL set up a second appointment for Daniel later in October — this one with a neurologist in Los Angeles — but at the last minute Daniel asked Katz to reschedule that evaluation; he had to coach his Hawaii Prep team in a game that night.
Daniel died two weeks later, having never seen the neuropathologist.
Katz said he has obtained some 1,000 pages of documentation from the Eagles and Buccaneers on Daniel’s NFL injury history, which shows that as early as the 2010 season, Daniel’s first in the league, he had been prescribed four types of pain medication.
Throughout Daniel’s football career, the documents recorded three known concussions. Katz said it’s difficult to peg the exact number, even with the detailed documents he obtained. There was one concussion Daniel had later referenced to NFL trainers from 2007 while he was at UW, and at various times two others that had been recorded in the NFL in 2010 and 2011.
The NFL Disability Board initially denied Daniel’s application for the Line of Duty claim, which provides at minimum $3,500 a month in benefits. After Daniel’s passing, his family appealed that decision and won. The New York Times has described the NFL’s benefits system “among the most byzantine of any employer,” and a successful appeal to the disability board is believed to be extremely rare. Paul Scott, who for 13 years help run the NFL’s benefits plan and later started a company to help player seek benefits, said this week he could recall only one other NFL player whose estate won an appeal after the player’s death.
Katz argues Daniel was eligible for the NFL’s “Total and Permanent Disability Benefits,” and he and the family are planning to file a lawsuit against the NFL, which has been under intense scrutiny regarding CTE.
“There is no way in hell Daniel did not deserve these benefits,” Katz said.
• • •
The family has planned a celebration of life get-together in Waimea on the anniversary of Daniel’s death. Marie and Ailota have taken great care in the menu selection. Daniel, they know, would have insisted that one of his favorite restaurants, Earl’s, cater the event. He loved Earl’s hamburger steak, the Korean chicken, the teriyaki beef.
Moving forward, Marie wants to be open, to be more vocal, about the issues surrounding brain injuries. The family has been working with the Boston-based Concussion Legacy Foundation, whose mission is to provide support for athletes and their families living with the effects of concussions.
Marie wants to be the foundation’s point person in Hawaii. She wants to share Daniel’s story, to pass on what she’s learned about CTE. She believes he can help.
She and her mom aren’t sure what that means just yet, how they can best offer support, but they can start by sharing some answers over a plate of Earl’s hamburger steak at the celebration of life next month.
“It’s going to be a big party,” Marie said.
They’re hoping to have enough food for everyone.