Major new medical research linking motor neurone disease with heading a football can be revealed for the first time today.
American scientists made the discovery after examining the brain of a player who suffered from the condition before his death.
It has led to calls for a more detailed programme of research to look at the link between the sport and MND.
Already the family of one of football’s most famous MND sufferers, Celtic and Scotland legend Jimmy Johnstone, have said the findings have convinced them his decline could be linked to the game.
It follows increasing evidence, highlighted by the Sunday Mail, linking dementia with heading a football.
Researchers working on the new project looked at the case of former Chicago Fire player Patrick Grange, who died of MND, known as ALS in the US, aged 29.
His family donated his brain to scientists at Boston University’s Sports Legacy Institute.
Analysis found he had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy – a condition thought to be a trigger for several cognitive diseases including MND, dementia and Parkinson’s.
In the National Geographic documentary A Blow to the Header, experts say Patrick, the first footballer diagnosed with CTE, died because he repeatedly headed a ball.
It is the first time a link has been made between playing football and MND.
The documentary will put pressure on the sport’s governing bodies, including FIFA, to do more to protect players.
It show medics examining former striker Patrick’s remains following his death in 2012 and claiming that his MND was caused by CTE as a result of playing football.
Dr Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at Boston University, diagnosed Patrick. She said: “He was so young when he died. His brain was really scary. You could see tremendous atrophy of his frontal lobes.
“It’s just unbelievable that a young person could have such dramatic damage so there was no doubt in our mind that he had CTE – and he’d only played soccer.
“At death, he clearly had CTE. It affected his brain in a very substantial way.”
Dr McKee expected immediate action from football bodies such as FIFA after her discoveries but was shocked by their reaction.
She said: “I met with FIFA in Zurich at a concussion conference. I am very unpopular there. They just have a very low opinion of my work and they told me that it was very poor science.
“You would think they would be concerned about the players that made them wealthy. Apparently not. I really do think it’s denial and deflection.
“They are not taking care of the players that made them such a big deal in the first place. They should be funding this research.
“ALS can be caused by contact sport. FIFA are hoping this will go away but it won’t.
“Patrick Grange headed the ball constantly and was 29 when he died. He had terrible CTE.
“The evidence is mounting for this connection with contact sport and CTE. ALS, dementia and Parkinson’s are
“It was so controversial when we started making this link. I got so much heat but we just need one more paper to really put this in the bag.”
CTE is also known as boxer’s brain because it is most commonly linked to fighters who had taken regular blows to the head.
In 2002, neuropathologist Dr Bennet Omalu also linked the condition to other contact sports after studying the brain of American football hero Mike Webster, who died aged 50 after suffering from dementia.
The findings triggered a $1billion (£740million) lawsuit payout from governing body the NFL.
Dr Omalu’s discovery inspired Will Smith’s 2015 movie Concussion.
In A Blow to the Header, Dr Omalu says: “Heading is an intentional exposure to a blow to the head. Look at the ball coming at you at velocity.
“It downloads energy to your head and because your brain moves like a balloon inside your skull, it begins to bump around and you suffer sub-concussive blows.
“There is no such thing as a safe blow to the human head.
“All types of blows or impacts to the human head have the potential to cause brain damage.
“You begin to manifest symptoms including mood disorders, cognitive problems and eventually it becomes a full-blown dementia.
“Some of us would develop motor symptoms that would resemble ALS.”
Chris Nowinski, founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, agreed.
He said: “There are parallels with soccer and what happened with (American) football.
“You look at this game and now there are 10 CTE cases and you think, ‘How has this happened? What are the activities involved in soccer that are potentially causing head trauma?’
“People are so worried about the legal ramifications that no one’s going to admit it until we force them to.
“This is a threat to profits for sports. The best example is that the NFL has had to settle what will be a larger than $1billion settlement that is uncapped for former players because of how many of them are developing CTE.
“The sports that can keep the spotlight off them the longest with regard to this issue are the ones who will attract the most children.
“I worry that part of the reason why we’re not owning up to the problem in soccer is because they want the sport to succeed potentially more than they want the players to succeed.”
Patrick’s heartbroken family in Albuquerque, New Mexico, believe football cost him his life.
Mum Michele said: “Patrick’s first word was ‘ball’. He was never without a ball. He was heading the ball from very young. Soccer became his passion.
“I guess we need to say we were naïve because we didn’t know much about head bangs and head trauma.
“He was knocked out once and had 17 stitches above the eye. We were like, ‘Oh, he was playing his hardest. He was doing his best.’
“We were proud that he’d played that hard even though he had that injury.
“We would’ve done things a little differently. We wouldn’t have had him doing repeated headers.
“But we couldn’t take soccer away – that was who he was.”
Patrick was diagnosed with MND two weeks after his 28th birthday in 2010. He died 17 months later.
His dad Mike said: “I think about him every day. It rips my heart out.”
Before he succumbed to MND, Patrick insisted: “Even after I’m gone, I want to make a difference.”
Dr Willie Stewart, a neuropathologist at Glasgow University, said that more evidence is needed to establish a link between headers and MND.
He said: “It’s really interesting and it’s worth looking into the research they’ve done but you can’t draw any conclusions from it at all.
“I think Dr McKee is doing fine work but it is a single case. There is not yet enough data for me to form an opinion.
“We need to look at large numbers and get a picture across the nation and that’s not been done.
“I don’t think there’s enough data to be confident of anything.”
It’s disgraceful – I think there’s been a cover-up
The son of Celtic legend Jimmy “Jinky” Johnstone has said he is concerned that playing football caused the motor neurone disease that killed his dad after looking at new medical evidence.
James, 46, spoke out after the Sunday Mail showed him the explosive documentary A Blow to the Header about Patrick Grange’s death.
After listening to the research, just broadcast in the US, he said he is worried the sport is to blame for his father’s untimely death.
James has called football bosses disgraceful for ignoring repeated warnings about links between the sport and the incurable disease.
He drew comparisons between the NFL, who were forced to make a £740million payout to the families of their players diagnosed with dementia and MND after similar research.
He said: “Until now I’d considered dad’s MND was just bad luck but I think there’s been a cover-up.
“There’s been so many players suffering problems with their brains.
“You have Billy McNeill and Stevie Chalmers battling dementia.
“There are other guys dad played with suffering brain problems – and that’s just one team.
“There are loads and loads of players suffering and being left on the scrapheap and it’s not right. My dad was just 61 when we lost him.
“Families are losing their loved ones earlier than they should be and football is just turning a blind eye to it.
“It’s disgraceful. It’s a shame money comes before life.
“I watched the Will Smith film Concussion and it seems FIFA haven’t learned any lessons. They’ve been repeatedly warned of the link but have done nothing.
“What happened with the NFL was a big cover-up and it’s the same here. It’s pretty scary, isn’t it?”
Scientists say Patrick, who suffered the same condition as Jinky, died because of repeatedly heading a football.
They diagnosed him with degenerative Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, known as “boxer’s brain”.
Now medics say CTE is the trigger for cognitive conditions such as MND, dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
It is the first time a footballer has been officially diagnosed with CTE and a link made between football and MND.
Hoops fans’ favourite Jimmy lost his battle with MND in 2006.
Johnstone’s fellow Lisbon Lion squad member John Cushley died from MND, aged 65, in 2008. Former Rangers captain Fernando Ricksen is the latest footballer to be diagnosed with the condition. The 41-year-old Dutchman announced in October 2013 that he had been hit with the devastating muscle-wasting illness.
Ex-Dundee defender Lee Bertie, 39, died from MND in January. Ex-Leeds and England boss Don Revie was 61 when he died from MND in Edinburgh in 1989.
Italian scientists found that former footballers are six-and-a-half times more likely to suffer from MND. The Italian game has been rocked by the deaths of ex-AC Milan striker Stefano Borgonovo, 49, former Genoa captain Gianluca Signorini, 41, and ex-Como midfielder Adriano Lombardi, 62.
Scotland rugby star Doddie Weir, 46, revealed his own MND battle in June. His former 90s opponent, ex-South African skipper Joost van der Westhuizen, died of MND, in February, .
Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has survived over 40 years with MND but most patients die within five years of diagnosis.
CTE has also been blamed for the worrying number of professional ex-footballers suffering from dementia, including former player and broadcaster Jimmy Hill.