Michael Locksley was helping Alabama's coach to a national championship in 2017 when his 25-year-old son Meiko was shot and killed.
Meiko was a standout high school football player who transitioned between college programs in his early 20s while his mind and life fell into obscurity.
His father is now the head coach at the University of Maryland. Michael Locksley has mourned Meiko's loss, including by spearheading discussions about mental health and trying to destigmatize it among the young men he coaches.
One thing he hasn't said publicly, however, is that Meiko suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head and often associated with football.
CTE can only be diagnosed with certainty posthumously.
“I've always thought, ‘How do you go about telling a normal 21-year-old playing Division I football, literally six months later, that you can hear people in the basement of an apartment where you lived on the eighth floor? “You don't have a basement?” Locksley said.
He continued, “That didn't make any sense to me. So I kept saying, ‘Maybe it has something to do with those concussions.'”
Locksley said he doesn't know exactly what role CTE played in Meiko's downfall, and he's right. Even researchers cannot make direct connections. Were Meiko's severe symptoms and mental health problems caused, aggravated, or unaffected by CTE?
A direct and personal – deeply personal – connection to the CTE would be the most uncomfortable truth.
Still a trainer, Locksley is leading an important program at a major conference. And he has another son Kai, who plays professionally in the Canadian Football League. He justifies his further role in football with a risk-return calculation.
“I want to be able to teach and present it as confidently as possible while also allowing this great game to give the rewards it has given to so many families I have coached in the 30+ years that I have been training , have seen. ” he said.
“My goal is to walk that fine line very truthfully,” he added.
Is it the perspective of a man who has suffered the incalculable loss of his son but has more to lose?
Meiko Locksley's brain is one of 152 brains from contact athletes under the age of 30 donated to the organization between 2008 and 2022 UNITE Brain Bank and studied by researchers at Boston University.
In an article published Monday in JAMA Neurology, the researchers reported that 63 of the athletes, or 41.4 percent of them, had a CTE. Most were football players who had never played out of college, sometimes not out of high school. One was 17.
That doesn't mean that nearly half of young soccer players get a CTE; The donations came from grieving families desperate for answers, usually after a suicide.
“This study clearly shows that the pathology of CTE begins early,” said Dr. Ann McKee, neuropathologist and principal at Boston University CTE center.
What has come to be known as CTE was first diagnosed in “bumping drunk” boxers decades ago. Symptoms can include memory loss, erratic behavior, and depression.
Today, CTE is most commonly associated with aging soccer players, despite discoveries in contact athletes and military personnel of all types. Notable victims include Junior Seau, Ken Stabler, Mike Webster, and Dave Duerson.
Researchers reported earlier this year Of 376 brains donated from deceased NFL players, 345 had CTE.
But there's also a growing subset of young people, like the 63 in the latest study, whose life, death and CTE diagnoses remain shrouded in relative anonymity.
One was the son of one of the top football coaches in the country.
From Few Bad Days to Shoot Me Now
On the kitchen wall where Michael and Kia Locksley live hangs a framed piece of wood that reads “Home Is Where Football Takes Us.”
Beneath it are 11 wooden slats hanging one below the other, on which all stops are listed. towson Marine. Pacific. Army. Maryland. Florida. Illinois. New Mexico as head coach. Maryland again. Alabama. Maryland as head coach.
You almost reach the ground.
“I don't know if I have room for more stops,” Locksley said.
Meiko Locksley was born on April 24, 1992 at the beginning of this chain. His mother was in college. His father was an assistant football coach at Towson, where he played safety and earned $12,000, he said.
Michael Locksley already had a son who was also named Michael. The Locksleys had two more children after Meiko: a boy named Kai and a girl named Kori.
Meiko was reading at age 4 and finished his first Harry Potter book at age 6. Kia insisted he balance sport and art, so he took piano lessons; He performed “Here Comes the Bride” for a wedding at age 9. He was a child actor and model. He wrote poetry and rap. He got good grades. He laughed lightly and danced routinely.
“He had very few bad days as a kid,” his father said.
Meiko started playing tackle football when he was 7 years old. It was the late 1990s. Concerns about concussion were almost non-existent, especially among children.
“They were seven years old and weighed nothing,” said Kia Locksley. “And the hits almost looked like they just ricocheted off each other.”
Her carelessness haunts her. She remembers how Meiko passed out in the field in middle school. Moments later he seemed fine.
“Everything I was looking for at the time was there: he walked, he talked,” said Kia Locksley. “But looking back now with the information, I definitely should have had him checked out at the time and taken precautions.”
What makes CTE especially thorny is that it's caused not just by obvious concussions, researchers say, but by the cumulative effect of subconcussive blows — all of the hits and jolts that may be barely noticeable at the time.
While Michael Locksley was offensive coordinator at Illinois, Meiko became a star high school quarterback. When his father was offered the position of principal in New Mexico, Meiko was playing at an Albuquerque high school.
He went to college to play at Youngstown State. It was around this time that his parents noticed troubling changes.
Meiko had discipline problems and no longer went to class – atypical for Meiko and embarrassing for Michael, who suspected that his son was just running with the wrong group.
Meiko moved to New Mexico to play for his father, going from quarterback to safety. Kia Locksley was in grad school there. She and Meiko met on campus for coffee.
“He started talking about how depressed he was,” Kia said. “And that was very new.”
The Locksleys brought Meiko into counseling and Michael had “guard rails” to keep him on track – as a coach, he could monitor class attendance and request drug tests. Meiko's behavior seemed to stabilize.
But Michael Locksley was fired early in their first season together. Meiko stayed. He suffered a concussion that kept him from several games due to severe headaches.
Meiko transferred to a junior college in Pennsylvania and then to Towson. His parents were nearby. Michael had become offensive coordinator in Maryland.
Meiko's mother noticed that he was becoming increasingly unable to understand simple conversations.
“I've been on the phone with him about little things for so long, but I just didn't get it,” Kia said. “I was confused and thought, ‘What's wrong with you?' Why can't you process that?'”
He was moody and easily agitated. He lost a worrying amount of weight and worried less about his clothes and appearance. He got into an off-campus brawl and was kicked off the soccer team. He regularly quarreled with a friend.
Then he started hallucinating.
“I got a call in the middle of the night and Meiko was on the other end and his girlfriend was gone,” said Kia Locksley. “She went back to New Mexico, he thought, but he told me she was still here. And I said, ‘What do you mean?' And he says, ‘She didn't leave. She's in that closet.'”
Meiko played back what he said was a recording of her, but it was completely silent. “I have not heard anything. But he heard her voice,” Kia Locksley said.
Kia Locksley thought it was a nervous breakdown, signs of illness. Michael Locksley suspected drugs.
Neither the CTE nor the impact of football were taken into account.
The Locksleys were fortunate to have money and connections. Meiko went through a series of therapists and medications. He traveled to Florida for a brain scan that revealed “hot spots” (believed to be concussion damage) but didn't provide any real answers.
He was eventually diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.
Once at home, Meiko got angry and smashed a window. The police were called.
“And that's when I heard him say,” said Kia Locksley, “Why is this happening?” I wasn't asking about this disease. Why do I have this? Just shoot me now Just kill me.' He grabbed the cop's gun. He wanted to die rather than deal with the mental illness he was struggling with.”
Kia Locksley learned to care for Meiko by emotionally detaching from her expectations of him.
“I remember praying one night and just crying,” she said. “I had to let go and let go of who I wanted him to be, who I thought he would be, all the dreams I had for him.”
Michael Locksley coped differently with his son's demise.
“I kept wanting to tear down the wall to say, ‘Get out of here, man,'” Locksley said. “It felt like he was a prisoner in his own brain.”
Then came the night of September 3, 2017.
An unsolved death and a diagnosis
The season began the night before Meiko's death. No. 1 Alabama played No. 3 Florida State in Atlanta.
Michael Locksley, an offensive coordinator for Alabama under Nick Saban, texted Meiko before the game and called him after the game Crimson Tide won 24-7.
“I remember him saying, ‘Damn, Pops, man, you killed all these guys,'” Locksley recalls.
Locksley cried as he recounted the conversation.
The next evening, September 3rd, Michael and Kia were at their home in Alabama. They were woken up by police officers at their door.
Meiko had been shot in the chest in Columbia, Maryland, near where he lived. He died at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
The circumstances were unknown that night and the The case remains unsolved, six years later. Sometimes Michael Locksley goes to the crime scene and gets in his car hoping someone will recognize him and tell him what happened to his son.
It was Michael who recommended brain donation. By 2017, CTE had received a lot of attention, and football coaches couldn't pretend they knew nothing about concussions.
Locksley saw the 2015 film Concussion. A year before Meiko's death, the NFL admitted CTE's connection to football.
“I really wanted to know if the concussions played any role in relation to his deteriorating mental health,” Locksley said.
The results came in a conference call with researchers. Meiko had CTE
The damage to his brain was classified as stage 1 of four stages, like 38 others in the under-30s study. Another 21 brains were classified as Stage 2. The remaining three — an NFL player, a college football player, and a rugby player — were Level 3.
The news from CTE filled Kia Locksley with regret.
“My God, I could have done something differently,” she said, breaking down in tears. After a pause, she added, “A little guilt.”
Michael Locksley found the diagnosis an unexpected comfort. It wasn't drugs, he realized with relief.
But now he was a football coach who faced a conundrum. He has spent years separating Meiko's mental health issues from his CTE diagnosis.
He frequently speaks about “mental health” and his program's open-door policy for players with personal issues. He has spoken extensively about Meiko's struggles.
Given the CTE diagnosis, one naturally wonders whether “mental health” is a convenient euphemism or a strategic misdirection.
“I continue to differentiate between the two,” Locksley said. “I'm a layman, and my layman's mindset is they weren't really connected, and maybe they weren't. Maybe they were. I don't know.”
Football has ‘changed my family's lineage'
Michael Locksley has rebuilt Maryland's football program and won back-to-back bowl games for the first time in nearly 20 years. He receives several million dollars a year. He has a big home, drives nice cars and oversees a program of shiny new offices and football pitches.
It's his dream job. Locksley grew up in an area of Washington, DC that is still troubled and dangerous. Football made him the first in his family to go to college. There he met Kia.
“The benefits of playing the game of football would get me from where I was not where I am today,” he said. “The brown leather ball with so much air in it changed my family lineage.”
He continued, putting his feelings into words.
“Does it hurt that I lost my son? That's one hundred percent true. Does it hurt to know he had CTE and that it might have been because he played college football, high school football, or youth football? Secure. But if you were to ask me today how I feel – I now have grandchildren who love football and played contact football before high school.”
Kia Locksley now thinks kids shouldn't play tackle football, maybe until high school. This reflects the recommendation of CTE researchers who see a link between CTE and the number of years of full contact participation.
Her husband thinks this is impracticable unless a ban is implemented across the board, “and everyone has done it”.
Meiko's diagnosis has changed the way he trains, Locksley said. He is more aware of the signs of concussion and appreciates the logs.
“It definitely makes me think twice about how we train and how much contact we have,” he said.
However, he dismissed the idea that Maryland might consider following the lead of some colleges, such as the Ivy League, in restricting contact to games only, which researchers believe would significantly reduce brain injuries in athletes.
“If one team does things one way and another does things differently, sometimes that creates a competitive disadvantage,” he said. “On Saturday I will be judged on whether I have won games.”
That form of judgment begins again this Saturday when Maryland opens its season against Towson – the school where Locksley started, met his wife and where Meiko last played football.
The next day marks the anniversary of Meiko's death.