RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
High school athletes often go door-to-door to raise money for their teams. That's what a football player in Newton, Mass., was doing when he met one of the leading authorities on football and brain injury. Stephanie Leydon from member station WGBH in Boston tells us that chance encounter turned into a reality check for the football player and the brain doctor.
STEPHANIE LEYDON, BYLINE: When the doorbell rang, Lee Goldstein was writing about new research she hoped would resonate with one group in particular - high school football players. He didn't expect one to be standing at the door.
ALEX RIVERO: Hi. My name is Alex Rivero. I'm with the Newton North Tigers. We're trying to raise money for the football team. We're selling these tiger cards.
LEE GOLDSTEIN: And I just kind of - I just laughed. I mean, I couldn't believe the coincidence of this.
LEYDON: Seventeen-year-old Alex Rivero couldn't believe it, either.
ALEX: It could have been any random, you know, dad who just came down the stairs like, oh, football, I used to play it. No. It was like the one dude who knows probably the most about CTE out of like probably like 99.9 percent of the world.
LEYDON: CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is the dementia-causing brain disease linked to football. Goldstein was working on a paper that would be published in Brain, a leading research journal. He told Rivero he had found new evidence that CTE can start with high school football.
GOLDSTEIN: So we sat down on the porch, and he starts telling me about how it's like not just concussions that are the problem.
GOLDSTEIN: It's about getting hit in the head. And then the more hits he gets, the greater the risk for this disease - even if he never has a concussion ever.
ALEX: I didn't realize how prevalent it was. I didn't realize how little you needed, you know, how little damage you needed to actually suffer from CTE.
LEYDON: Were you hoping to convince him to perhaps no longer play football?
GOLDSTEIN: That was my hope. He seems like such a - he's such a lovely kid. And I'm thinking, why do this?
LEYDON: Because he loves it, just like he loves his off-season sport - boxing. It's the only sport with a higher risk of CTE than football. Rivero says both sports are full of physical and mental challenge unlike anything else. Still, meeting Goldstein made him think. And when his English teacher assigned a research project, Rivero decided to write his own paper on CTE.
ALEX: The symptoms include violent outbursts, impaired thinking and judgment, depression, memory loss, loss of...
LEYDON: Rivero still works out at the boxing gym but says he hardly ever spars. He doesn't want to get hit in the head. So what about football?
ALEX: You know, it's kind of hard to think about, but it's the kind of thing I'm like, I'm still going to play. This is something that I love.
LEYDON: How worried are you about developing CTE?
ALEX: It's a thought. I mean, it's definitely a thought. I know it's entirely possible. But right now, I'm just trying to enjoy life.
LEYDON: You had one-on-one time with this boy and you did not change his mind.
GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter) Did not change his mind. That is very daunting and humbling.
LEYDON: Goldstein says it's going to take time for his research to change minds. But when he meets a kid like Alex Rivero, it's hard to be patient. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Leydon in Newton, Mass.
(SOUNDBITE OF METAFORM'S "URBAN VELVET")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.