About an hour after sunset recently, Ryan Hoffman rode his bike, a hot pink Huffy, into oncoming traffic on an unlit stretch of Highway 17-92 here.
Hoffman, once a standout college football player at the University of North Carolina, collided violently with a white Ford Mustang, first striking the front bumper and then slamming into the windshield with so much force it sounded like a gunshot. As the car skidded to a stop, Hoffman was hurled down the road.
When his body came to rest on the pavement, his long limbs took up most of the southbound lane.
In the glow of headlights, the driver looked into Hoffman’s eyes, open wide and searching. His head was turning left and right, left and right. He made no sounds. The only noise was from chickens roosting in an empty flea market across the street.
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“What was he doing riding up the highway, the wrong way, in the dark?” the driver, 65-year-old Francis Gulzinski, recalled thinking. “It was like he had a suicide pact.”
No one may ever know what Hoffman had been doing there, riding a girls’ bike into traffic on a road with a 50-mile-per-hour speed limit, no streetlights and less than a foot of shoulder.
No one even knew his name until long after he took his final breath, in an ambulance on the way to Heart of Florida Regional Medical Center that night.
The police confirmed his identity only after finding a match for his fingerprints. Ryan Christopher Hoffman. Born July 15, 1974. Died Nov. 16, 2015, with nothing to his name but the $13 discovered in a pocket of his khaki shorts.
On the Streets
I visited Ryan Hoffman in January on the streets of Lakeland, Fla., a town about 25 miles southwest of Haines City. A native of Jacksonville, he had been living in Lakeland, homeless, for about eight months, battling mental illness, sleeping in abandoned buildings or empty fields, panhandling — which he called “flying signs” — at street corners and abusing prescription drugs and alcohol. At the urging of his sister, Kira Soto, I had tracked down Hoffman to tell his story.
In some ways, Hoffman’s story is ordinary for a former football player these days. After his athletic career, his mental health deteriorated, and he encountered substance abuse and legal problems. Mounting scientific evidence suggests a link between repeated head trauma sustained by players in the inherently violent game and long-term cognitive impairment.
While former players are alive, they and their families can only wonder if football had damaged their brain and, for some, subsequently caused their troubles. Once they die, more and more families are racing to get the player’s brain, or some portion of it, to a neurological expert who can look for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive disease widely believed to be caused by repeated hits to the head.
Researchers for Boston University and the Department of Veterans Affairs have found C.T.E. in 120 of the 132 brains they have examined from former N.F.L., semipro and college players. That’s more than 90 percent.
Hoffman and his family believed that the hits he took during his football career had profoundly damaged his brain, and they were sure that the sport had caused him to unravel, thread by thread, until there was hardly anything left for him to live for.
He had been a physical marvel once: a 6-foot-5, 287-pound left tackle for North Carolina in the 1990s, a starter for a team ranked in the top 10. When I met him in January, he was 100 pounds thinner, with his old jeans held up by a belt on its ninth notch.
Hoffman’s former coaches remembered him as trusty No. 79, a tough guy who played almost every offensive snap in 1997, his final season. Hoffman said that he remembered sustaining only one concussion, but was sure he would not have mentioned it — or any injury — to his coaches because he did not want to lose his starting spot. Perhaps more devastating, in hindsight, were the countless lesser blows to the head, known as subconcussive hits, that a player like Hoffman sustains through years of youth and college football.
After college, Hoffman married and had a daughter, but he could not keep a job. He abused Valium and alcohol, spent time in jail and battled depression, sensitivity to light and unbearable headaches.
Various mental disorders were diagnosed, including manic depression and borderline personality disorder, but no one could trace the genesis of Hoffman’s problems. He divorced in 2008. His parents and sister said they tried everything to help him get back on track. They gave him places to live, bought him cars, paid his legal and medical bills.
“Nothing we did could stop his downward spiral,” his father, Chad Hoffman, said. “I can’t even describe how heart-wrenching it was to watch him tumble farther and farther from us. It’s like you’re trying to catch him, but he keeps slipping between your fingers.”
Hoffman’s mother, Irene, understood the gravity of her son’s struggles.
“If Ryan can’t get help soon,” she said through tears in January, “I’m afraid we’ll find him dead on the side of the road.”
Glimmers of Hope
Upon learning of Hoffman’s situation in March, old friends, former teammates and even strangers reached out to help him.
North Carolina’s athletic director, Bubba Cunningham, pledged that the university would do what it could to help Hoffman, one of its own. The Tar Heel machine was set in motion.
Officials at the university offered to fly Hoffman to Chapel Hill for a free medical evaluation at the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes. There, Hoffman’s brain and body would be examined to try to see what was causing his problems, Kevin Guskiewicz, a professor who runs the center, told me.
A former teammate, Beau Parry, documented the university’s rescue efforts on social media, at times closing his Twitter posts with #NoManLeftBehind. Parry set up an online fund-raising page, which collected pledges for more than $5,000 before it was taken down weeks later.
Hoffman initially balked at traveling to North Carolina to get medical help; he was uneasy about leaving his girlfriend, a homeless woman who at the time was living on the streets of Lakeland with him. But his family begged him to go.
“He said he was scared to death about what U.N.C. would find, but told me to promise that when he died, we’d send his brain to be tested for C.T.E., and I promised, and his sister promised,” his mother, Irene, said. “We all agreed that we wanted to know what happened to Ryan there at U.N.C. It’s the million-dollar question.”
The trip to Chapel Hill began with a limousine ride for Hoffman and his mother to the Jacksonville, Fla., airport, where they boarded a private jet with Parry and Rick Steinbacher, an athletic department official and former Tar Heels football player. An off-duty police officer went along.
At the airport, Irene Hoffman said, her son was showered with Tar Heels gear: jerseys, shorts, sweatshirts, duffel bags, caps. A video camera recorded it all.
“I go from flying signs to flying in a D-4 private jet,” Ryan Hoffman said into the camera, in a clip that was eventually set to music and posted online by Parry. “How do you like me now?”
On campus, Hoffman visited the football offices, was given more gear and toured the football locker room. He and his mother had dinner at Steinbacher’s house one night.
“So, this is America, where dreams can be made,” Hoffman said to the camera, before reciting a line from the Tar Heels’ fight song: “I’m a Tar Heel born, and I’m a Tar Heel bred, and when I die, I’m a Tar Heel dead.”
Hoffman’s former coach at North Carolina, Mack Brown, was on campus during the visit, so he and Hoffman posed for photographs. The week before, Brown had told me that he and Hoffman had lost touch after they left Chapel Hill, “but now that we’ve found him, we have to do all we can do so we don’t lose him for good.”
Hoffman said he was evaluated by doctors and told to fill out forms. His mother said nothing ever came of any of that — no fix-all, no definitive diagnosis for what might have caused Hoffman’s steep decline.
“One person at the testing facility came out and told me, ‘Your son has a beautiful brain,’ ” Irene said. “And I thought: Are they kidding? He’s had memory loss for years. I wouldn’t call that beautiful. I’d call it pitiful.
“After that,” she said, “I was pretty much left out of the process.”
When I asked the university about Hoffman’s campus visit and medical examinations, I was directed to Robbi Pickeral Evans, the university’s director of content development. She said she could not “even confirm that he was here.”
Irene Hoffman soon took a second trip with her son — again on a private jet — to West Palm Beach, Fla., where Hoffman entered a rehabilitation facility, Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches. Randy Grimes, an interventionist and community liaison at the facility, had reached out to Hoffman after reading about him.
Grimes, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers lineman who had battled painkiller addiction, told me that Hoffman remained in the program for two months before being discharged. The first month was free; the second was paid for by North Carolina alumni, Grimes said, at a discounted rate.
Hoffman was a model client, Grimes said, and quickly became a mentor for younger men there. He participated in group sessions, opened up about his problems and recognized that he needed to escape from his enablers. Grimes said Hoffman “embraced the structure” and enjoyed being accountable for himself, for the first time in a long time.
After those two months, Hoffman left the facility to go home to Jacksonville so he could obtain an official identification card, which he had lost months before. The plan, Grimes said last week, was for Hoffman to return to West Palm Beach, where he would live in a halfway house and attend intensive outpatient treatment three times a week, for four hours a day. That treatment would not be free, Grimes said, but there were ways to pay for it — if only Hoffman had asked for financial help.
“I think he had enough people here who were behind him and who invested in him that Ryan didn’t have to worry about money or about paying for his treatment,” Grimes said. “But it just never got to that point because he just never came back.”
Hoffman and his mother told me that he was released from treatment with five days of prescription medication to stabilize his moods. Soon after, Grimes called me to say that Hoffman was ready to start another chapter in his life.
“Ryan has all the tools he needs to succeed,” he said. “Now it’s got to be up to him.”
Hoffman, too, told me after his stay that he felt as if he had a chance to rebound from his years of struggling. But the conversations always turned bleak.
Hoffman said he was depressed. He said he never obtained the identification card, which meant he could not stay in a shelter. He said he was just as bad as he had been before North Carolina reached out to him, or worse.
“They turned their backs on me,” he said about North Carolina officials. “I feel like nothing has changed. There is still something wrong with my head.”
When I asked him where he was one day in mid-August, how he was surviving, he didn’t answer. There was only silence on the other end of the line. His prepaid cellphone minutes had run out.
The Final Days
In the end, Irene helped piece together the final weeks of her son’s life.
In early October, she had assumed that Ryan, who was 41, was in Orlando, where she said someone from North Carolina had set up a job interview for him through a temp agency. Instead, Ryan told her in a text message, he was living in Haines City, where Irene was also living after she had taken a job as an art teacher at a public school.
At the time, Hoffman was sleeping in an abandoned warehouse by a lake and eating out of garbage cans. He wore sunglasses, even at night, because bright lights hurt his eyes. Re-engaging with his family, he stayed with Irene for two weeks, the maximum allowed for a guest in her senior community. But on Oct. 21, he was arrested after running from the police, who suspected that he was stealing a bicycle from outside a McDonald’s. After a short foot chase, a plastic baggie containing methamphetamine was found near him.
On Nov. 16, he sent his mother a text message saying that most of his belongings had been stolen. Everything but his bike was gone. She told him not to worry, that she would replace whatever was taken.
At 3:59 p.m., another text arrived: “loveless. homeless. no food. no clothes. no anything.”
At 6:15 p.m., she wrote back: “Where are you? Can I pick you up?”
That was about the time Hoffman steered his hot pink Huffy into traffic on Highway 17-92.
“It was a horrible death, a violent death, and my son didn’t deserve this,” Irene said. “My son’s dead, and he’s never coming back.”
When Hoffman’s sister, Kira Soto, received a phone call from the police telling her that her brother was dead, she immediately asked, “Can we save his brain?” This is the new normal for the families of deceased football players. Even before obituaries are written and funeral services are arranged, they scramble to have the player’s brain preserved and examined, hoping for any bit of clarity amid the unanswerable questions.
The final tests
The results of toxicology tests and a final autopsy report for Ryan Hoffman will be completed within three months, according to the Polk County medical examiner’s office. The Haines City Police Department said there was no indication that the driver of the car that struck Hoffman was impaired or speeding.
“Yes, it could just be an accident,” Brian J. McNulty, the Haines City assistant police chief, said when asked how investigators might distinguish between a suicide and an accident. “But there can be a thousand different answers to that question you just asked me. That’s why cases like this take so long.”
Two weeks after Hoffman’s death, at the spot where his body came to rest on the pavement, a large dark spot remained on the road. Rain had yet to wash away the stain of his blood.
Closure might come in the form of a medical diagnosis. Hoffman’s family arranged to have the medical examiner send his brain to Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at Boston University and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Although Hoffman was cremated, his brain was set aside and preserved in formaldehyde until it is shipped to Boston via FedEx. On Wednesday, a note on his file at the medical examiner’s office said, “Waiting for a box.”