Sports

Does Football Bear Responsibility for a Chiefs Legend’s 1980 Murder-Suicide?

Jim Tyrer was headed for the Hall of Fame before his horrible final acts.

Jim Tyrer, wearing a football jersey
Jim Tyrer, pictured on Oct. 2, 1971.
Denver Post via Getty Images

It might have been the biggest cranium in the American Football League, but nobody officially measured Jim Tyrer’s dome against the monstrous skull of Jim (“Buckethead”) Otto, the Oakland Raiders’ Hall of Fame center. Nevertheless, none of the players who battled Tyrer—the mammoth offensive tackle for the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1960s and 1970s—would forget that head. In Tyrer’s era, offensive linemen were prohibited from using their hands to block, so the ability to batter defensive linemen with a helmet was prized.

And nobody rammed their head into opponents with more skill and power than big Jim Tyrer.

The exhausting brutality of facing Tyrer remained etched in opponents’ memories. Ben Davidson, Oakland’s towering defensive end, recalled how Tyrer would explode from his crouch and propel his helmet directly into Davidson’s chest. With surprisingly quick feet and powerful thighs, every collision felt like a heavyweight’s haymaker right to the sternum. Davidson considered Tyrer “easily the best blocker” he ever faced. The Raider once joked that Tyrer’s head was so large that he “basically wore a big red trash can as a helmet when he played.” “He was the preeminent left tackle in all of football,” Hall of Fame defensive lineman Elvin Bethea recalled. “All other blockers I faced in the NFL were mediocre compared to him.”

At 6-foot-6 and 280 pounds, Jim Tyrer was a rare physical specimen in 1960s professional football. Yet his enormousness did not diminish his ability to move with a ballet dancer’s grace. He possessed quick feet and hands, displaying the skills he honed leading his high school basketball team to a Central Ohio championship. As his Dallas Texans and Kansas City Chiefs racked up three AFL titles, Tyrer collected numerous awards for his blocking excellence. He played in nine Pro Bowls and was named an All-Pro six times. He was one of the tackles named to the historic All-AFL team, and he anchored the offensive line that dominated Minnesota’s front four in Super Bowl IV. That game—the last time the Chiefs played in the Super Bowl before this Sunday—cemented Tyrer’s place in NFL history.

Without question, Jim Tyrer’s career achievements merit enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Several sports writers consider Tyrer the hall’s most notable omission.

Why is Tyrer’s bust missing from Canton? Because in the early morning hours of Sept. 15, 1980, he woke up, fumbled for the loaded gun he kept in his bedroom, and shot his wife, Martha, before killing himself. Martha Tyrer was 40 years old, and Jim was 41. They had four kids, three of whom were in the house at the time. The murder-suicide sparked sensational headlines around the country.

Tyrer had spent the previous afternoon at Arrowhead Stadium with his son, Jason. The two had watched the Seattle Seahawks narrowly beat the Chiefs. Fans sitting near the pair later recalled Tyrer being oddly transfixed by the action. He spent most of the game just staring at the field, paradoxically preoccupied yet distant.

Tyrer’s impulsive violence baffled his friends, family, teammates, and coach. It seemed utterly out of character for the quiet but collegial giant. In 1982, one of Tyrer’s teammates, Michael Oriard, published a football memoir titled The End of Autumn. Oriard struggled to explain the unfathomable, and tried to find clues to elucidate the radical transformation that had seemingly overtaken Tyrer since his retirement from professional football in 1974. (Tyrer played one final season with Washington.) “Jim Tyrer was the unlikeliest suicide-murderer to those who knew him,” Oriard wrote. He further noted that despite Tyrer’s studious entrepreneurism, his post-football investments ultimately amounted to three failed businesses and their accumulated debts. The Chiefs offered Tyrer a $25,000 contract to scout college players, but he turned them down. Tyrer sold his house, and rumors circulated that he’d been hocking his wife’s fur coats. He began selling Amway products, but his depression, irrationality, and erratic behavior continued causing problems.

Today, we’re more familiar with retired NFL players who suffer from paranoia and act impulsively. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the Boston University CTE Center says, is associated with “memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, suicidality, parkinsonism, and eventually progressive dementia.” Although no test for CTE existed in the early 1980s, Tyrer’s son Brad recently told a TV station in Kansas City that he believes his father suffered from the disease. Oriard, too, told me in an interview, “I would be surprised if he didn’t have it.” Chris Nowinski, the CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, has studied CTE for years and knows the Tyrer story well. “Having looked at over 200 football players,” he told me, “I think it would be nearly impossible that he didn’t have CTE.”

Even if we knew with certainty that Tyrer did have CTE, it would be irresponsible to attribute his murderous act to the brain disease. It’s not clear what medications Tyrer might have ingested or injected in his career, nor how such medications may have interacted with any underlying psychiatric conditions that could have been exacerbated by his retirement and business failures. Consider that when the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team investigated the murderous behavior of Aaron Hernandez, the New England Patriots tight end who died by suicide in prison in 2017, it could not conclusively attribute his actions to CTE, and this despite a posthumous examination of Hernandez’s brain revealing one of the most severe CTE cases ever diagnosed. Hernandez allegedly suffered from childhood abuse and regularly self-medicated with narcotics. Disentangling the myriad intertwined issues in cases like Hernandez’s and Tyrer’s remains almost impossible, leading the Globe to conclude that “it’s by no means clear that CTE can lead to homicidal acts.”

Dr. Ann McKee, the neuropathologist in charge of Boston University’s CTE Center, no longer answers questions about her examination of Hernandez’s brain. But at the news conference announcing her findings, she explained the impossibility of attributing specific acts to the disease. “In any individual, we can’t take the pathology and explain the behavior,” she said, “but we can say collectively, in our collective experience, that individuals with CTE, and CTE of this severity, have difficulty with impulse control, decision-making, inhibition of impulses or aggression, often emotional volatility, and rage behaviors.”

What can we say, then, about Jim Tyrer? Only that we have suggestive evidence that several factors, of which brain trauma caused by a long career in professional football is one, may have combined to ignite his violent actions.

After his NFL career was over, Michael Oriard went on to become an acclaimed academic and scholar of sport literature. When I spoke with him, Oriard argued that current medical knowledge helps explain, but not excuse, what happened that night in 1980. Tyrer “was a victim of his own impulsive behavior, over which he didn’t have full control, if in fact, he had this severe case of CTE, which seems so likely,” Oriard told me.

Jim Tyrer was, without question, one of the greatest to ever play the game of football. But the game itself likely bears some responsibility for his death, and for his wife Martha’s murder. Martha, one of her friends told Sports Illustrated, was more than simply a victim living in her husband’s shadow. When Jim was in the depths of his struggles, she was the rock holding her family together.

As we struggle to grapple with the Chiefs lineman’s legacy, we shouldn’t forget who Martha Tyrer was, and the tragedy of her death. Ultimately, Jim’s football legacy means little when compared with Martha’s murder. “If they put him in the Hall of Fame, the NFL will have to acknowledge how his life ended,” Oriard told me. “And the NFL doesn’t want to go there.”