After the Loss of a Son, a Football Coach Confronts a Terrible Truth

Michael Locksley was helping coach Alabama to a national championship in 2017 when his 25-year-old son, Meiko, was shot and killed.

Meiko was a standout high-school football player who bounced between college programs as his mind and life slipped into darkness in his early 20s.

His father is now the head coach at the University of Maryland. Michael Locksley has mourned Meiko’s loss, in part, by leading discussions about mental health and trying to destigmatize it among the young men he coaches.

One thing he has not said publicly, until now: Meiko had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., the degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head and often associated with football.

C.T.E. can only be diagnosed, with certainty, posthumously.

“I always thought, like, how do you go from a normal 21-year-old Division I football-playing person to, literally six months later, saying you hear people in the basement of an apartment where you lived on the eighth floor and you don’t have a basement?” Locksley said.

He continued: “That didn’t make sense to me. So I just always would go back to saying, ‘Maybe it had something to do with these concussions.’”

Locksley said that he did not know the precise role that C.T.E. played in Meiko’s decline, and he is right. Researchers cannot make direct links, either. Were Meiko’s severe symptoms and mental-health issues caused by, exacerbated by or unaffected by C.T.E.?

A direct and personal — deeply personal — link to C.T.E. would be the most inconvenient of truths.

Locksley still coaches, leading a major program in a major conference. And he has another son, Kai, playing professionally in the Canadian Football League. He justifies his continued role in football with a risk-vs.-reward calculation.

“I want to be able to teach it and present it as safe as possible while still allowing this great game to give the rewards that it’s given to so many families that I’ve seen over the 30-something years I’ve been coaching,” he said.

“My goal is to walk that thin line very truthfully,” he added.

Is it the view of a man who has suffered the incalculable loss of a son, but also has more to lose?

The brain of Meiko Locksley is one of 152 belonging to contact-sport athletes under the age of 30 that were donated between 2008 and 2022 to the UNITE Brain Bank and studied by researchers at Boston University.

In a paper published Monday in JAMA Neurology, the researchers reported that 63 of the athletes, or 41.4 percent of them, had C.T.E. Most were football players who never played past college, sometimes not past high school. One was 17.

That does not suggest that nearly half of young football players will get C.T.E.; the donations were made by mourning families desperate to find answers, most often after a suicide.

“This study clearly shows that the pathology of C.T.E. starts early,” said Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist and director of Boston University’s C.T.E. Center.

What came to be known as C.T.E. was first diagnosed decades ago in “punch-drunk” boxers. Symptoms can include memory loss, erratic behavior and depression.

These days, despite discoveries in contact-sport athletes and military personnel of all kinds, C.T.E. is most often associated with aging football players. Junior Seau, Ken Stabler, Mike Webster and Dave Duerson are some of its most famous victims.

Researchers reported earlier this year that 345 of 376 donated brains of deceased N.F.L. players had C.T.E.

But there is a growing subset of young people, too, like the 63 in the latest study, whose lives, deaths and C.T.E. diagnoses are hidden in relative anonymity.

One was the son of one of the top football coaches in the country.

On the kitchen wall where Michael and Kia Locksley live is a framed piece of wood that reads, “Home is wherever football takes us.”

Below it are 11 hanging wooden slats, one below another, listing all the coaching stops. Towson. Navy. Pacific. Army. Maryland. Florida. Illinois. New Mexico as a head coach. Maryland again. Alabama. Maryland as head coach.

They almost reach the floor.

“I don’t know if I have room for any more stops,” Locksley said.

Meiko Locksley was born on April 24, 1992, at the start of that chain. His mother was in college. His father was an assistant football coach at Towson, where he had played safety, making $12,000, he said.

Michael Locksley had one son already, also named Michael. The Locksleys had two more children after Meiko: a boy named Kai and a girl named Kori.

Meiko was reading at 4 and finished his first Harry Potter book at 6. Kia insisted that he balance athletics with art, so he took piano lessons; he played “Here Comes the Bride” for a wedding at 9. He did some child acting and modeling. He wrote poetry and rap. He got good grades. He laughed easily, danced routinely.

“He had very few bad days as a child,” his father said.

Meiko began playing tackle football at 7. It was the late 1990s. Concerns over concussions almost didn’t exist, especially for children.

“They were 7 and weighed nothing,” Kia Locksley said. “And the hits, it almost looked like they just bounced off each other.”

She is haunted by her carefree attitude. She remembers Meiko being knocked out on the field in middle school. Moments later, he seemed OK.

“Everything that I looked for at that time was in place: He was walking, he was talking,” Kia Locksley said. “But I look back now with the information, definitely, I should have had him evaluated then and taken precautions then.”

What makes C.T.E. especially tricky is that it is caused not just by obvious concussions, researchers say, but by the cumulative effect of subconcussive hits — all the smacks and jolts that might barely register at the time.

While Michael Locksley was offensive coordinator at Illinois, Meiko became a star high school quarterback. When his father was offered the head job at New Mexico, Meiko played for a high school in Albuquerque.

He went to college to play at Youngstown State. It was about then that his parents noticed worrying changes.

Meiko had discipline problems and stopped going to class — uncharacteristic for Meiko and embarrassing for Michael, who presumed that his son was merely running with the wrong crowd.

Meiko transferred to New Mexico to play for his father, moving from quarterback to safety. Kia Locksley was in graduate school there. She and Meiko would meet on campus for coffee.

“He started talking about how he was depressed,” Kia said. “And that was very new.”

The Locksleys got Meiko into counseling, and Michael had “guardrails” to keep him on the right path — as coach, he could monitor class attendance and request drug tests. Meiko’s behavior seemed to stabilize.

But Michael Locksley was fired early in their first season together. Meiko stayed. He sustained a concussion that kept him out of several games because of severe headaches.

Meiko transferred to a Pennsylvania junior college, then to Towson. His parents were nearby. Michael had become offensive coordinator at Maryland.

Meiko’s mother noticed he had a growing inability to understand simple conversations.

“I would be on the phone with him for so long about little things, and I just didn’t understand,” Kia said. “I was confused, like: ‘What is wrong with you? Why are you unable to process this?’”

He was moody and easily agitated. He lost a worrying amount of weight and became less concerned about how he dressed and looked. He got into an off-campus fight and was kicked off the football team. He argued routinely with a girlfriend.

Then he began hallucinating.

“I got a call in the middle of the night, and Meiko was on the other end and his girlfriend had left,” Kia Locksley said. “She went back to, he thought, New Mexico, but he told me she was still here. And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he goes: ‘She didn’t leave. She’s in this closet.’”

Meiko played what he said was a recording of her, but it was completely silent. “I heard nothing. But he heard her voice,” Kia Locksley said.

Kia Locksley thought it was a mental breakdown, signs of an illness. Michael Locksley suspected drugs.

Neither considered C.T.E. or the impact of football.

The Locksleys felt lucky to have money and connections. Meiko went through a string of therapists and medications. He went to Florida for a brain scan that turned up “hot spots” (damage from concussions, presumably), but offered no real answers.

He was ultimately diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.

Once, at home, Meiko became enraged and smashed a window. Police were summoned.

“And that’s when I heard him say,” Kia Locksley said, “‘Why is this happening? I didn’t ask for this disease. Why do I have this? Just shoot me now. Just kill me.’ He went for the police officer’s gun. He wanted to die as opposed to dealing with the mental illness that he was struggling with.”

Kia Locksley learned to care for Meiko by “emotionally detaching” from her expectations of him.

“I remember praying one night and just crying,” she said. “I had to release and let go of who I wanted him to be, who I thought he was going to be, all the dreams that I had for him.”

Michael Locksley coped with his son’s decline differently.

“I kept wanting to knock the wall down to say, ‘Come on out of here, man,’” Locksley said. “It felt like he was a prisoner in his own brain.”

Then came the night of Sept. 3, 2017.

The season opened the night before Meiko died. No. 1 Alabama played No. 3 Florida State in Atlanta.

Michael Locksley, an offensive coordinator for Alabama under Nick Saban, traded text messages with Meiko before the game, then called him after the Crimson Tide won, 24-7.

“I can remember him saying, like, ‘Dang, Pops, man, y’all killed those boys,’” Locksley recalled.

Locksley cried while retelling the conversation.

The next night, Sept. 3, Michael and Kia were at their Alabama apartment. They were awakened by police officers at their door.

Meiko had been shot in the chest in Columbia, Md., near where he lived. He died at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Circumstances were unknown that night, and the case remains unsolved, six years later. Michael Locksley sometimes goes to the scene and sits in his car, hoping someone might recognize him and tell him what happened to his son.

It was Michael who recommended the brain donation. By 2017, C.T.E. had received a lot of attention, and football coaches could not feign ignorance about concussions.

Locksley had seen the 2015 film “Concussion.” A year before Meiko’s death, the N.F.L. admitted C.T.E.’s link to football.

“I really wanted to know if the concussions played any part in the connection with his deteriorating mental health,” Locksley said.

The results came in a conference call with researchers. Meiko had C.T.E.

The damage to his brain was deemed to be Stage 1 of four stages, like 38 others in the under-30 study. Another 21 brains were classified as Stage 2. The remaining three — one N.F.L. player, one college football player and one rugby player — were Stage 3.

The news of C.T.E. swamped Kia Locksley with regret.

“My God, I could have done something differently,” she said, tearing up. After a pause, she added: “A little guilt.”

Michael Locksley found unexpected comfort in the diagnosis. It was not drugs, he was relieved to know.

But he was now a football coach with a conundrum. He has spent years separating Meiko’s mental-health struggles from his C.T.E. diagnosis.

He frequently talks about “mental health” and his program’s open-door policy for players experiencing personal problems. He has spoken at length about Meiko’s struggles.

It is natural to wonder, knowing the C.T.E. diagnosis, if “mental health” is a convenient euphemism, if not a bit of strategic misdirection.

“I continue to differentiate between the two,” Locksley said. “I’m a layman, and my layman’s mind-set is that they weren’t really connected, and maybe they aren’t. Maybe they were. I don’t know.”

Michael Locksley has rebuilt Maryland’s football program, winning back-to-back bowl games for the first time in nearly 20 years. He is paid several million dollars a year. He has a large home, drives nice cars and oversees a program with shimmering new offices and football facilities.

It is his dream job. Locksley grew up in an area of Washington, D.C., that is still troubled and dangerous. He was the first in his family to go to college, thanks to football. It is where he met Kia.

“The benefits of playing the game of football, coming from where I was, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he said. “The brown leather ball with however many ounces of air in it, it changed the lineage of my family.”

He continued, putting his feelings to words.

“Does it hurt that I lost my son? One-hundred percent it does. Does it hurt to know that he had C.T.E. and it possibly could have been because of playing college football, high-school football, youth football? Sure. But if you were to ask me today how I feel — I have grandsons now that love football and are playing contact football before high school.”

Kia Locksley now believes that children should not play tackle football, perhaps until high school. That echoes the recommendation of C.T.E. researchers who see a correlation between C.T.E. and the number of years of full-contact participation.

Her husband sees that as impractical unless a ban were widely implemented “and everybody did it.”

Meiko’s diagnosis has changed the way he coaches, Locksley said. He is more aware of the signs of concussions and appreciative of the protocols.

“It definitely makes me think twice about how we practice, how often we are having contact,” he said.

But he dismissed the idea that Maryland might consider following the lead of some colleges, like those in the Ivy League, that limit contact only to games, which researchers think would greatly reduce brain injuries in athletes.

“If one team is doing things a certain way and another is doing it differently, then sometimes that does create a competitive disadvantage,” he said. “I’m judged Saturday on winning games.”

That form of judgment begins again this Saturday, as Maryland opens its season against Towson — the school where Locksley got his start and met his wife, and where Meiko last played football.

The next day will be the anniversary of Meiko’s death.

Audio produced by Parin Behrooz.

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