Author’s note: an earlier version of this story said Boston University’s CTE center confirmed CTE in Carlton Haselrig. That’s been removed due to only having one source.
Steelers fans of a certain age need no reminders about the career and impact of offensive lineman Carlton Haselrig. Drafted by Pittsburgh in 1989 in the 12th round without ever playing a snap of college football, Haselrig became a starter in his third year, and received Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors in his fourth. But for 6x Emmy-nominated journalist Josh Rushing, Carlton’s story wasn’t on his radar until after he passed in 2020.
“We were looking at doing a story that asked the question of how well the NFL was really taking care of these players who were suffering the effects of CTE,” Rushing says. “There were families across the country that we were going to go visit and spend time with. But once we got to Johnstown, we started to learn more about Carlton. We talked to childhood friends, uncles, wrestlers, people who coached with him, his widow. It’s a story that sounds like a bad Disney film that I would hate.”
What Rushing means is that Carlton’s rise to prominence is such a fairytale story, it’s almost unbelievable. In 1984, Haselrig was a state high school champion in wrestling, even though his school didn’t even have a team, and he didn’t compete in the regular season. In college, he didn’t just win the Division II wrestling title in his sophomore, junior and senior seasons, he also entered the Division I tournaments and won all three years as well (the NCAA created a rule in his name to prevent that from ever happening again). He even once defeated Kurt Angle. Then, he was drafted by the Steelers.
“Who gets drafted into the NFL without playing a down a college ball?” Rushing asks. “Who then is starting the next year? Who then, as an All-Pro lineman, has a guy who sets a rushing record running behind him? That doesn’t happen except in Disney films, and it annoys me when it does. And yet, that’s honestly Carlton’s story. Carlton could be one of the most gifted athletes this country has ever produced, and that’s saying a lot.”
Rushing has produced a new documentary on Haselrig, his battle with CTE, and his widow’s quest for compensation from the NFL. “Bloodsport” from Al Jazeera English includes sobering footage of Carlton in his final weeks. It shows him in extreme distress, screaming profanities, and crying out for his father who had passed years earlier.
“I know he was over 300 pounds when he was on the Steelers,” Rushing says. “And then you see that. He can’t be 160, 170 in some of these videos. And then the way he’s talking. You know, it’s such a tragic story, because Carlton and Michelle have been gaslit by the NFL’s concussion doctors, and their neuropsychologist and neurologist.”
In 2013, the NFL agreed to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit from more than 4,500 players who claimed the league concealed what it knew about the potential for brain injuries in the game. At the time, it was seen as a victory for players, but when Haselrig applied for an award from the settlement, his claim was denied.
“They told Carlton, ‘You’re okay,’” Rushing says. “He didn’t qualify for any settlement. So while Michelle, his wife, was trying to care for him in these extremely difficult times, he’s putting the dirty laundry in the freezer because he thinks it’s a washing machine. He’s becoming angry. He keeps saying, ‘It’s the NFL. They know what they’re doing. These are the best doctors in the world. And they said, I’m okay.’ It turns out his scores are only okay because they were race-normed.”
Race-norming refers to the practice of using a person’s race as a factor in adjusting the results of a medical test. When it comes to brain injuries, doctors regularly consider a patient’s background (for instance, a healthy 85-year-old brain performs differently than a healthy 25-year-old brain). Doctors have used race as a factor in these tests since the 1990s, because researchers found that the tests themselves can actually be biased against minorities. So defenders of race-norming will say the practice was actually intended to prevent healthy African Americans from being diagnosed from brain injuries. Unfortunately, in the case of the NFL concussion settlement, it’s had the opposite effect. Race-norming caused some Black players, including Haselrig, to be deemed healthy when they were not.
“We took Carlton’s test to a neurologist at Mount Sinai Hospital and had him run it through the NFL concussion software,” Rushing says. “And just simply changed one thing on it from African-American to Caucasian. It looked like the scores of a completely different person, who would have more than qualified for the settlement had he not been identified as as African American.”
The NFL ended race-norming in its medical assessments in 2021, in part because of a lawsuit from a pair of former Steelers, Najeh Davenport and Kevin Henry. The league said it was going to make it right with the players. But that meant having players retested. By that point, Carlton had already passed. The Haselrig family donated his brain to Boston University’s CTE Center for research.
“70% of the players are Black, so this is a huge money-saving thing for the NFL,” Rushing says. “We interviewed a neurologist who said he was pressured to use race-norming. And when he wouldn’t use race-norming, they stopped sending players to him. He told us he had seen over 160 NFL players before that. So the NFL was forcing these doctors to use race-norming.”
Haselrig battled demons, off the field, throughout his life. He was notably convicted of DUI in 1993, and tested positive for cocaine later that same year. But Rushing says anyone who chooses to focus on those aspects of his life are misguided.
“Those very factors are a part of having CTE,” says Rushing. “No one dies of CTE. Justin Strzelczyk didn’t die of CTE. He died from driving his truck into an oil tanker at 90 miles an hour. Terry Long didn’t die from CTE. He drank antifreeze. Carlton might have been self-medicating, but that’s also a part of it. These personality difficulties are a part of what’s happening to your brain. So I think it’s it’s either naïve or disingenuous to dismiss someone’s suffering because of because of that.
In the documentary, Rushing takes Carlton’s widow, Michelle, to Acrisure Stadium for the first time. Rushing says Art Rooney II was going to sit down with him for the doc, but it never worked out. He says Carlton was very fond of the Rooney family and respected how they took care of their players.
“We took Michelle to the Steelers first home game this year and we walked through the tailgating,” Rushing says. “She was wearing his uniform and everyone knew, everyone knew. And on one hand, that made Michelle feel so great. And then we chatted with them a bit about the concussion settlement. They all thought that he must have been taken care of by it, and that she must have been taken care of by the settlement. They couldn’t believe when she said no, she’s received nothing. Zero. They expressed sympathy for her, and then they went in to watch the game that she couldn’t afford a ticket to.”
Michelle Haselrig has filed for an appeal, but while she’s waiting on that decision, she’s struggling to pay her bills and keep her house.
“I grew up playing football, Rushing says. “My goal when I was a kid was to play pro football. I loved football, and I still love football. I watch it every weekend. I get sad when the season’s over. I’m bummed for six months a year waiting for it to start again. But it’s becoming harder to tolerate that the damage is causing to these guys. So let’s make it as safe as possible for them, but it’s always going to have some inherent risk. So let’s just take care of them. We call the NFL a company, but really it’s a collection of like 32 billionaires. They could take care of these guys. They could do better.”
Kyle Chrise is the host of the BTSC podcast “What Yinz Talkin’ Bout.” Hear more about Carlton Haselrig from Josh Rushing in this week’s episode. Check out the episode in the player below: