ATLANTA — Former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, who helped lead the team's vaunted defense in the 1970s and later filed a high-profile lawsuit against the NFL targeting the league's handling of concussion-related injuries, has died. He was 62.
Easterling played for the Falcons from 1972 to 1979, helping to lead the team's "Gritz Blitz" defense in 1977 that set the NFL record for fewest points allowed in a season. After his football career, he went on to start a successful financial services company in Richmond, Va. He died Thursday in Richmond, said his wife, Mary Ann Easterling. She declined to release the cause of his death.
"He was a wonderful husband and father," said his wife. "In everything he did, he was a charger. He went full tilt."
After his playing days were over, Easterling started to suffer the consequences of the years of bruising hits, his wife said. He suffered from depression and insomnia, and as his dementia progressed he lost the ability to focus, organize his thoughts and relate to people, she said.
"It's been a progression over the last 20 years," she said. "It's very sad to see."
Easterling was born on Sept. 3, 1949 and played in college at the University of Richmond. He was drafted by the Falcons with the 9th round pick in 1972 and played for seven years, starting four seasons. He was a leader of the secondary that established a team record in 1977 with 26 interceptions. The defense that year set the NFL record at the time for allowing just 129 points in a season.
"He was one of the hardest working football players, most disciplined football players I've ever played with," said Greg Brezina, a friend and former Falcons teammate. "He loved the lord. We roomed together in training camp and every morning we would get up early and pray for everybody on the team. We did that every day. He was a very unselfish person."
After his playing days ended, he returned to Richmond where he ran a financial services company and started a youth football camp. But he started showing signs of brain damage about 20 years ago, his wife and friends said.
"He just wasn't thinking right. You could tell that 20 years ago," said Brezina. "He'd start talking to you about one topic, and then he'd end up in another topic and he wouldn't know how he got there."
He was part of a group of seven former players who sued the NFL in Philadelphia in August, claiming that the league failed to properly treat players for concussion and tried to conceal for decades any links between football and brain injuries. It was the first potential class-action lawsuit that was filed.
The NFL has said any allegation that the league intentionally sought to mislead players is without merit.
His wife said she will fight to continue the lawsuit despite her husband's death, and will urge the league to establish a fund for players like her husband who suffered traumatic brain injuries from their playing days.
"Half the time the player puts themselves back in the game, and they don't know what kind of impact it has," she said. "Somehow this has got to be stopped. It's destroying people's lives."