Dave Mirra: a hero's death and CTE's arrival
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 6 World Football Issue. Subscribe today.
DAVE MIRRA IS a BMX legend. For two decades, he was his sport's steely-eyed, strong-jawed representative to the mainstream. He inspired a generation of fans, posing for covers, hosting a show on MTV and fronting his own video game series. As action sports took off, there was Tony Hawk, and there was Dave Mirra. He was the first rider to land a double backflip, the first to win three gold medals at a single X Games.
Following his death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Feb. 4, Mirra has become the first action sports athlete to be diagnosed with CTE, the brain disease associated with concussions that the medical community is just beginning to understand. Dr. Lili-Naz Hazrati, a University of Toronto neuropathologist who examined Mirra's brain, says it was indistinguishable from those of afflicted former football and hockey players. "I couldn't tell the difference," she says.
Mirra, who was 41 when he died, suffered a fractured skull when a car hit him at age 19, and he dabbled in boxing after his retirement from BMX in 2011. But he also endured countless concussions during his BMX career, beginning at a young age. Hazrati says Mirra's brain showed abnormal tau protein deposits -- chronic traumatic encephalopathy's trademark -- in the frontal and temporal lobes. "It's assumed it is related to multiple concussions that happened years before," Hazrati says.
Dave's wife, Lauren, received the diagnosis in March and is now speaking about it for the first time. She feels his presence as she walks though the home she and Dave built in Greenville, North Carolina. His bikes hang on the wall; his favorite quotes are cut into shelves above the bar. Then there's the downstairs bathroom. One night two years ago, Dave interrupted a living room dance party with his daughters, Madison, now 9, and Mackenzie, 8, with an idea: They'd use paint pens to scribble on the bathroom's black walls. They've since created a neon yearbook of notes and drawings.
I am thankful for my family, my friends, my school, Madison wrote. Hope anchors the soul. Hebrews 6:19, Lauren wrote. Go Big! Or take a nap! You didn't get where you are by the path of least resistance, Dave wrote near a drawing of a BMX rider above a ramp. It's Lauren's favorite.
"Dave didn't take his life for granted," Lauren says. "It was work hard, play hard, love with all you are and give to those in need. It was a lifestyle he was trying to instill in our girls."
Throughout his life, Dave Mirra possessed an ability to reach into impossible spaces and create something new. In action sports, this is called progression: pushing to invent and improve upon what exists. In his death, Lauren believes her husband will continue to shape his sport's future.
We're going to spend a lot of time talking about Dave, so let's start with you. How are you?
I'm good. I feel strong. I feel happy. I am thankful he's at peace now. There has not been a moment, outside of the day it happened, where I felt like the carpet's been ripped out from underneath me. I've felt grace through this entire thing, and I have an awesome group of friends and family, and they will not let me fall. I've gained so much strength from my faith. I feel at peace right now.
How are your girls?
My girls give me strength and joy. They are doing so well. We comfortably talk about him. We can laugh and share memories and stories. I feel like they have this divine perspective.
What made Dave most proud in his career?
Of course there were some things he would get really stoked on. That bomb drop flip off the wall in Orlando at Dew Tour. The double backflip. The no-hander. But he never grasped how much of an impact he made. I loved that about him. If he were to find out he was going to be inducted into the National BMX Hall of Fame [in Chula Vista, California, on June 11], he would be surprised.
Was there a point when you realized you were in love with someone who was in a really risky profession?
Yeah, the magnitude of it tripped me out. I didn't know what I was getting into. But I never worried about the risk. There was something so divine about what he did. Watching him ride was heavenly. He knew it was his gift.
What moments were the toughest for you?
I was pregnant with Madison when he lacerated his liver at X Games. It was in practice, and people in the stadium stood up out of panic, and I saw that he didn't get up. Times like that were really hard. But I always knew he would pull through.
How did he view risk? Was he able to verbalize how he balanced risk and reward?
He worked so many years at balancing it, but he kept it to himself. He seemed fearless to me. I don't think he acknowledged having fear until the girls started to get older and he started to slow down. That's what you do when you have a family and want to be around them more often.
What was hardest for him about retiring from BMX?
It was his purpose, and he was fulfilling it. There was a void. You go from having two sessions at the warehouse to all of a sudden having an entire day.
Dave picked up rally car racing in 2008 and triathlon in 2013. Did they fill the void?
Not fully. I don't think anything could.
He talked of a return to BMX. What did you think?
It made me happy because it made him happy. It brought him life.
When did you first notice his behavior change?
He was always a really intense person. His intensity just started to increase. For sure last summer, I started to notice changes in his mood. And then it quickly started to get worse. The last couple months before he died were really intense, and then, of course, the last couple weeks were hard. We didn't know what we were dealing with.
Was he experiencing other symptoms?
Fatigue, definitely, both physically and emotionally. And forgetfulness, moodiness. He would repeat conversations and topics to the point where it was obvious to the person he was talking to but not to him. He would dwell on a subject and not want to move on from it.
Did Dave realize something was wrong?
Had you heard the term CTE?
No, I really didn't until his last week or two.
How did it come into your awareness?
It was obvious he wasn't himself, to the point where friends and family were concerned. The movie Concussion had just come out, and a couple of friends had asked him to watch it.
Did you watch the film?
Dave watched it. He was at a friend's house in the last couple weeks of his life. He watched half of it. He didn't finish it. I didn't find that out until after he passed. That was hard.
Have you seen it?
I watched it right after we found out the diagnosis. I wanted to learn all I could and see if I could understand it. Surprisingly, it wasn't hard to watch. It just makes me so thankful he's not tormented anymore. It could have gotten a lot worse. That movie, it's gnarly. I definitely felt after watching it that we have to do something.
Did concussions worry you during his career?
I was used to them and used to hearing about them and probably didn't take them seriously. A couple days before [he died], Dave went over to a friend's house to hang out and the friend said he saw Dave's wheels turning. He had a conversation with another friend the Sunday before. They sat at a restaurant and Dave bawled his eyes out for a complete hour. He was very emotional in the end. He couldn't have a conversation without being moody and then crying.
Was that typical of his personality?
Not at all. He had a big heart and does get emotional, but I'd never seen him cry as frequently. He was very fragile.
Were you able to piece together what was happening to him in any way?
No. Not until afterward. Everyone was wondering what was going on and had their own piece of the puzzle. If we would have all put our pieces together before, maybe we still wouldn't have been able to answer it, but we would have been able to put all of our red flags together.
It seems like, typical of his personality, he was trying to break this down and figure it out.
Yes, however he could. He was desperate for help. He was showing emotion. He was trying to piece it together but not look like he was troubled. He wasn't trying to hide it but trying to be Dave, trying to figure it out for himself.
If it were possible to diagnose CTE in the living, would that have helped?
Knowing Dave, he probably wouldn't have chosen to be tested for it. He wouldn't want to sit and dwell on a problem. That's not what he did. He kept moving and progressing in life.
Friends said they were worried, that Dave told them he was tired, that it seemed as if he'd lost his passion. Did you see the same changes?
Yeah. I did. But it wasn't necessarily a lack of passion. It's that when I looked at him, I could see straight through him. He wasn't able to be present in any situation or conversation, so it was hard to be in a relationship with him to any degree, whether it was father, sister, brother, mother, friend. He was lost. I looked straight through him on a few occasions. And I was like, "Where are you? Where are you? What is wrong?"
Was there a specific instance when the change in his behavior began to worry you?
I remember seeing him sitting on our bed one day, in the last month of his life. I had just gotten out of the shower and saw him hunched over with the blankest lost look. I sat down next to him and held his hand. I said, "What is wrong? Are you OK?" And he just shrugged his shoulders. He couldn't even speak. He didn't know. He couldn't put it into words. He was lost. He was helpless. It was completely different from who he was.
Was it hard for him to leave the dark moods?
Yeah, it was. But I saw him noticing, knowing: "This is not me. Why am I doing this? Why am I saying this? Why am I acting like this?" That was the hardest thing. I always wanted to make his burden less. It was really tough that I couldn't fix this. There was nothing I could say or do to make it better. He knew something was wrong, and he couldn't figure it out either.
There has been speculation that he had a painkiller addiction. Was he taking any?
No. I just felt overall that he felt lost. He was gone. I could see straight through him. It was the hardest thing to see, looking at someone you love, and you can't have a conversation with them, and you can see straight through their eyes.
You mentioned that you found peace not long after receiving news of Dave's death. How?
There was a lot of relief because he's not being tormented anymore. He's in heaven. He's at peace. And I felt like I have a job to do now. It gives me a responsibility and something to be focused on.
This is likely the first CTE story that many action sports athletes and their families will read. What do you want to say to them?
My biggest takeaway is that [suicide] is something Dave would never, ever, in his right mind, have chosen. He was sick. And this is real. This is a real disease. At the same time, I don't want people to live in fear or stop doing what they are passionate about. I don't want this to be associated with any one sport. Let's carry on like he would. Let's continue to progress and turn this into good. Stay strong. He autographed that on everything. When I sat down and talked to our girls, I said, "You know how Daddy always said to stay strong? Well, it's our time to be brave now." So that's our motto. Be brave. Stay strong.
Who first approached you about testing Dave's brain? How did you prepare for the results?
It came up naturally. I knew, in his right mind, he would never, ever have done this. And I braced myself in case the test came back differently. I flew to Toronto. I met with the doctor. I wanted to meet her in her space. I wanted to see what she had been studying, see what she found. I surprised myself. I was pretty strong. It was nice to have it labeled and have an answer, not just for me. I want his fans to know that wasn't him. I've always felt this sense of protection over him and his legacy and his reputation.
As you decide how you want to use this platform, how important is the next generation of athletes in the conversation?
Very. Teach them young, and if this can be prevented. That's where you want to start.
What do you want your husband's legacy to be? And how much of a role does this play into it?
It's a little early to define that, exactly. But his girls are his legacy. And whatever we decide to do with this information, whatever we can do. This is the beginning of bringing awareness, of talks of better equipment. It would be amazing if this is something we can detect in life one day. If we can detect it, prevent it, stop it, let's do all of the above. I don't know my exact role yet or how we will use our platform, and I appreciate patience as I figure that out. I believe we have a story for a reason, and it is healing to share and help others.
Dave's name is synonymous with progression. Can you continue to have progression in these sports while also making them relatively safe?
You can't stop living your life. You can't live in fear. What would the world be without progression? That would be terrible.
Former Steelers center Mike Webster was the first NFL player diagnosed with CTE and gave the disease a face. Is Dave the Mike Webster of action sports?
That's how I see it, that through him we have an opportunity to help and change. Beauty from ashes. That's how I will always choose to see it.