Steve Murra was gone long before Feb. 20, 2016.
There were glimpses of him, of course. Flashes of a charismatic smile. Exchanges of die-hard liberal political dialogue. He was ever present at his kids’ sporting events. Physically, he was there.
But the Iowa Falls native, an enigmatic wild man with kinetic energy who propelled his hometown to international recognition for his beloved sport of rugby?
That guy was gone a long time ago.
A year removed from the death of her husband of 23 years, Jennifer Murra has some answers because of a demand she had the awareness to make through crippling shock and grief.
“I want his brain tested for CTE.”
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disease that researchers are just beginning to understand; there’s no test for it, no cure and the only way to diagnose it is by studying the brain of a victim.
Jennifer watched for 10 years as her husband disappeared. Now, she hopes to revive his legacy by sharing their story and recruiting others to donate their brains to the cause.
In the event of a suicide, sentiments like “of all people…” and “he always seemed so happy…” are uttered by those left behind. In the case of Steve Murra, they were even more prevalent. That’s why it was so difficult for the people who knew Murra as a coach, teacher and neighbor - to understand what could have happened.
For those closest to him it was less of a shock. Jennifer, herself a licensed mental health counselor, had watched Steve’s decline up close in recent years and urged him to seek care. Knowing what she does now about CTE, she believes she can identify symptoms that go back nearly 15 years.
The man she married, made a life and family with, built a collegiate women’s rugby program with at the University of Northern Iowa, had been unflappable.
“Literally nothing would upset him. Laid back, easy-going, a type B personality,” Jennifer said. “He blew his knee out playing rugby when our daughter was 4, about 11 years ago. When his physical therapist had to write the report to the surgeon to release him, he described Steve as a tightly-wound type A personality. Steve freaked out when he read it. It was kind of starting to be him; the change goes back that far.”
More recently, the devolution was dramatic. Once the perpetual life of the party, Steve avoided socializing. Always the cook in his house, he stopped thinking about dinner. He was always angry.
“It became a conversation where I said ‘You have to do something; I can’t come home every day and not know what I’m going to get when I walk through the door,’” Jennifer said. “The kids would tell me he’d been yelling at them but he wasn’t able to explain to me why.”
Cutbacks at Hawkeye Community College, where Steve had long taught, meant he wasn’t getting as many hours in the classroom. He told Jennifer he was looking for something else but nothing ever materialized.
Steve had always handled the family finances, too. In the year before his death he stopped paying the bills. The money wasn’t being spent elsewhere.
“At the time I thought he was being obstinate with me. Now I know he honestly did not know,” Jennifer said.
She wasn’t alone in her observations. Longtime best friends, Chris and Heather Lindgren, helped the Murras with rugby trips and shared family vacations with them. Chris said his connection with Steve was so tight, he called him his “undercover brother from another mother.”
“We just always clicked,” said Chris. “It wasn’t just about having fun. It was always a competition with us to be a step ahead knowing what the other guy needed and taking care of it for them.”
Steve had been an attentive friend since he and Chris met 20 years ago, but in the last year Steve stopped returning Chris’ texts and phone calls. After helping the Murras with one rugby camp in Colorado, Steve mentioned he could use Chris’ help with another in Las Vegas, then went ahead with the planning without another word.
“He just became more erratic and that wasn’t like Steve,” Chris said. “It was much easier for him to get aggravated; he couldn’t just brush things off . . . he had definitely changed.”
Heather, seeing the dramatic change in Steve, was the one who planted the seed with Jennifer that he could be suffering from CTE.
Ultimately, Jennifer asked Steve to leave the house in the hope he would get help and be able to return. To her surprise, he started the conversation, admitting that he knew something was wrong and agreeing he had to fix it.
Steve told then- 9-year-old Ian and 14-year-old Riley that he’d messed up and he was leaving so he could fix things. But he would be back. He moved in with Jennifer’s parents, Craig and Marci Gallagher, in Iowa Falls. He said he’d get help. Jennifer knows he made it to one counseling session.
One year ago, the week before he died, Steve asked to talk with Jennifer. They met in a parking lot. Steve, who had insisted he had a lot to say, couldn’t summon words. He rubbed his chest and told Jennifer his blood pressure was through the roof.
“I looked at him but I couldn’t see him. It was a shell of a person. He was gone by that point.”
Through it all, Steve was omnipresent at his kids’ events. The weekend following Jennifer and Steve’s meeting, son Ian was competing at the State Swimming Meet in Iowa City. When Steve didn’t arrive that day, they knew something was wrong.
Jennifer’s parents left Iowa City with instructions to call with news that Steve was OK.
Instead of a call from Iowa Falls, Jennifer’s aunt and uncle arrived in person at the meet.
“The minute I looked at their faces I knew what he had done, but I really didn’t think he was dead,” she said. “When they told me, I was just done.”
It was Ian’s coach, seeing Jennifer sprawled on the ground, who sprinted to her side. No explanation was needed; there was only one thing that could reduce her to this. The coach would take care of Ian.
Jennifer stumbled through the parking lot, unable to find the car. An agonizing ride followed with her uncle. That’s when Jennifer spoke to the medical examiner and insisted Steve’s brain be tested.
Through Jennifer’s job, the Murras had encountered suicide in the months leading up to Steve’s death. She remembers his reaction.
“He couldn’t believe someone would do that to their family,” she said. “He thought it was stupid, he thought it was chickenshit. There’s no way in hell I ever thought he would do it.”
What Jennifer has since learned from researchers is that all of it - the anger, the avoidance, the forgetfulness - were symptoms of Steve’s brain’s atrophy.
Steve’s frontal lobes were diminished further than researchers at Boston University’s CTE Center expected for a 47-year-old man with CTE. They didn’t even have to use a microscope to see the deterioration, they told her.
“We have an opportunity to look at his illness. Nobody ever gets that,” she said. “I just wanted to be able to explain it to my kids that way. He had this disease that wasn’t curable. It’s very clear.”
It’s harder to resolve the idea that the sport they so love led to Steve’s death. Though he was never diagnosed with a concussion, Jennifer can think of no other trauma that would have contributed. Concussions and sub-concussive blows to the head are the only known causes of CTE.
“Honestly, I don’t blame rugby. He loved rugby, we both loved it. There’s something different about how his body was made that made this happen. Not everyone who plays rugby gets CTE. Not everyone who plays football gets CTE. Is it biological? Chemical? Psychological? That’s what Boston is trying to figure out.”
The next logical step for Jennifer was to leverage Steve’s story to help researchers’ cause.
“I want his donation of his brain to matter,” Jennifer said. “They don’t get rugby people. I have that world. I can try to get people to do this.”
She met with their rugby friends in Alden shortly after receiving Steve’s diagnosis last fall. She had a request: donate your own brains for the study. Steve’s story, written by Jennifer, was posted this week on the Concussion Legacy Foundation website. His connection to the rugby world makes it all the more valuable for their fledgling effort.
But his story isn’t unique; just one of many examples in a sporting world that’s just beginning to grasp how devastating the effects of impact sports can be. Every community has already or will soon come to grips with its own CTE nightmare. With its own Steve Murra.