South Jordan • “I’d probably be dead.”

Larry Carr doesn’t want to think about the what-ifs, but he does in this moment, wondering what the alternate timeline might’ve looked like if he hadn’t found an answer for himself. That’s where he was as recently as a couple of years ago, this former BYU great, a school legend, a Hall of Famer, a man once known for being a tackling machine with a blond mop and a mustache. That was just so long ago, though.

Before the lost words.

Before the gibberish.

Before the paranoia.

Before the debilitating anxiety.

Before the triggers at nearly every turn.

For over two decades, symptoms bubbled to the surface.

“This isn’t like you’re losing your mind and you don’t have any idea what you’re doing,” Carr explains. “You know exactly what’s going on. I know I shouldn’t be feeling like this.”

But he was. Nearly every hour of every day. Year after year. Eventually, he heard the news back home in Southern California, news he and his wife figured was the case all along. Carr, now 67, suffered from what he describes as significant brain damage due to his years playing football. A few years later, he asked specialists if he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease becoming more common among former gridiron greats. There’s currently no surefire way of knowing if a patient suffers from CTE. Tests to confirm the disease can only be conducted posthumously.

Specialists told Carr, however, that yes, he probably has CTE and will for the rest of his life. That gave him peace. It helped him come to grips with the erratic behavior. With becoming someone completely different at times. For so many days over the years, he wasn’t Larry Carr. He was someone else. The man who grew increasingly uncomfortable working in records preservation in a probate court in Boston while on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with his wife, Laurie.

Even as the pair entered the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Laurie Carr said she would think to herself: “Who is this man?”

While in Boston, as Larry’s condition worsened and his mind continued to turn against him, they found something new in the treatment of former football players suffering from traumatic brain injuries. Where there was mainly just darkness before, they stumbled into light.

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(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Laurie Carr, wife of former BYU football great Larry Carr, in South Jordan on Wednesday, May 29, 2019.
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Larry and Laurie emailed Dr. Ann McKee, professor of neurology and pathology at the CTE Center at Boston University. They were desperate. They said so in the initial email. It was, as Larry explains now, “the very last straw.” McKee eventually suggested meeting with Margaret Naeser at the Boston V.A. hospital. Naeser was testing infrared light treatment on returning soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The same treatment has been used on patients suffering from other degenerative brain diseases such as dementia and Alzheimers.

The treatment process is known as photobiomodulation. For six weeks, Carr sat in a reclining chair at the Boston V.A. three times a week for 45 minutes while the light treatment touched the four corners of the brain. It was the summer of 2017, less than a year after the Carrs left for their mission in Boston. Those previous months, Laurie Carr said, were basically unbearable. Larry obsessed over why employees in the probate court were standing too close to them while the Carrs sifted through records for preservation purposes. Laurie had to remind him each time that they, too, worked in the courthouse. Larry wasn’t sleeping, either. He barely made it through gatherings with other senior missionary couples.

One time, while their son was in Boston visiting, Larry had to be restrained from bursting out of the car after a man in the crosswalk taunted him at a red light.

The treatment, which Carr details thoroughly on his personal website, FootballandtheBrain.com, is performed by a company called VieLight, which created the technology to attach headwear for photobiomodulation. A few weeks into the six-week trial, however, Laurie noticed subtle changes in her husband. He was less anxious. There was less bickering. He was letting little things go. He started talking to folks in the courthouse too, whereas before, his irrational fears would swiftly take hold.

The initial tests showed legitimate change: His PTSD levels were down, his depression levels were down. The cognitive tests were changing for the better. Larry brought home his first MRI slide color-coated vs. the latest one after the treatment. There were less dark spots and more light. Blue coloring was bad. Yellow was good. There was lots more yellow. After the trial, he had to take an eight-week break for research purposes. Those old symptoms returned. Once allowed to use the VieLight again, Larry was improving again.

“There was organic changes going on in his brain,” Laurie Carr said.

In an interview with Seeker.com in 2017, just months before Larry was allowed to be treated, Naeser explained that the LED treatments unclogged enzymes in parts of the brain that become stuck with nitric oxide.

“When you deliver near-infrared photons to that brain cell, the nitric oxide is pushed outside the cell wall, and that promotes increased blood flow, which is what you want in an area that’s damaged,” said Naeser in the interview. “And that’s what we see on our MRI images, the increase in blood flow targeted to where we put the photons. I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked.”

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photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Members of the BYU football team, including Larry Carr (67), pose for a photo in 1973.

When Laurie Carr told Naeser that the treatment was bringing the old Larry back bit by bit, she said Naeser was giddy beyond belief. Larry was the first former football player to use photobiomodulation in this trial. It was a Hail Mary attempt, in the most literal of terms. Larry said if not for this treatment, he’d likely be dead. Suicidal thoughts ran rampant in his mind before the trial.

He told doctors he thought about it every single day. In recent years, several high-profile former football players have been eventually diagnosed with CTE after death by suicide. Larry Carr is speaking out for this very reason. He wants others out there like him to know that there could be a treatment that helps. After every interview they give and once the story is posted online or in print, the Carrs are flooded with emails and responses from around the country.

Like he once was, Larry said some people are essentially near desperation for answers.

“All I tell them is, No. 1, I’m not selling anything,” he said. “I don’t make a cent on anything that you buy at VieLight. This is what happened to me. I hope it happens for you, if you take that step.” Of all the suggestions the Carrs have sent out, they’re yet to hear any feedback. They remain hopeful.

Larry remains part of the ongoing lawsuit filed against BYU, the Western Athletic Conference and the NCAA back in 2016. He is one of dozers of former college players suffering from concussion-related symptoms who have since filed suits.

“It was a really tough decision,” he said. “I think most of people I know, teammates, acquaintances understand. It’s not that BYU is a bad place. But the NCAA in general are not doing anything. Whether it’s afraid of the money they’ll lose or the moral conflicts it’ll create that here we’re promoting a sport that is basically killing people or hurting them long term.”

As for any developments in the suit, Larry added: “It’s still on. I haven’t heard anything about it.”

The Carrs are back home off their mission in Valencia, Calif. Larry still watches BYU football games. Still yells at the TV. His license plate has the trademark “Y” on the back. He is ranked third all-time in career tackles at BYU, a total of 389 from 1972 to ’74. His son is a football coach. His fight for those suffering from the same crippling thoughts as he did for decades is not about ending football. In fact, he says it’s about finding a way to bring it longevity instead of demise.

“CTE or possible CTE took away 25 years of my life,” Larry Carr said. “Do I know this is a permanent solution? I hope it is. I don’t know if I’ll have to go into a home in five years. Unfortunately, legal action is another way to solve a problem. It keeps the conversation going. It puts pressure on people to evaluate what they’re doing. Are they doing enough? Should they be doing more? In that sense, I look at it as a positive.

“This could be a possible football solution to a question they’re not answering. To accept a possible solution is to admit there’s a problem.”