Sep. 5, 2007 -- Chris Benoit, the world-famous wrestler, was an enormous public success, but Benoit also appeared to be a devoted parent, according to his father, Michael Benoit.
"What you saw in the ring was not the Chris Benoit on the outside," Michael told ABC's Bob Woodruff. "He loved to be at home, playing with his children. That's where he wanted to be."
So, when Michael first learned the horrific news of his son's death, the details made no sense to him.
"He phoned me on Father's Day, which was a week before [his death]. … And he said, 'Unfortunately, Dad, I'm on the road. It's Father's Day today, I wish I was home, with my family,'" Michael recalled. "A week later, we end up with this tragedy."
It was in his own home, over a June weekend, that the seemingly happy family man did the unthinkable. Benoit suffocated his wife and son, then killed himself, and his father is still shocked by what happened.
"We would've never, never dreamt that Chris was capable of doing this," he said.
Devastated in his grief, and plagued by unanswered questions, a surprising single phone call offered Michael a small ray of light. Four days after the tragedy, Michael says Chris Nowinski, of the Sports Legacy Institute, contacted him.
"I told him I think there was something worth investigating," said Nowinski. "That I thought brain injuries may have played a role in what happened … and it was worth doing the studies."
"I was grasping for anything," Michael said. "The world was very black. I mean, we were, we didn't even know how to deal with this."
'More Concussions Than He Could Count'
Nowinski has studied the long-term effects of concussions on the brain. It's a life mission for the former professional wrestler who has struggled with the effects of his own multiple concussions.
"It was the cumulative effects from all of [the concussions], combined with the fact that the last one — I didn't know that I needed to rest my concussion when I got it," Nowinski said. "So, for three weeks, I kept wrestling night after night with bad headaches, and in a fog every night, and it made that one a lot worse."
Nowinski knew he couldn't be the only wrestler suffering this way, and said he and Benoit had discussed their respective concussions.
"The reason that I … really wanted to look into this case was because Chris had told me that, you know, we talked about our concussion histories, that he had more than he could count," Nowinski said.
The Sports Legacy Institute has studied the brains of four NFL players who committed suicide, and found — in their opinion — that the players' brains were badly damaged, resulting in a dementia that, doctors say, looks similar to Alzheimer's. They speculate that the dementia, itself, may cause suicidal tendancies, and, possibly, even homicide.
Nowinski said that doctors have only recently begun to realize that "concussions can affect your brain in such a drastic way … at such a young age."
He added that molecular sections of Benoit's brain showed the same results as the other athletes who had all committed suicide. (Click here to read more on this story from ESPN The Magazine).
Brain Trauma, Not 'Roid Rage?
Dr. Julian Bailes, who works with Nowinski, examined Benoit's brain by using a unique staining method that highlights areas of trauma. The condition they found is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Bailes said they found damage that was the result of "multiple traumatic injuries."
After Benoit's toxicology report showed positive for steroids, the initial thinking was that so-called "'roid rage" might have been behind what happened that fateful weekend.
"There's no consensus in the medical community that this issue of 'roid rage — uncontrolled violence, precipitated by seemingly normal life stressors — there's no consensus that that even exists," said Bailes.
"The changes that we see in his brain tissue were not caused by steroids. There's no medical evidence or research that's ever shown that anabolic steroids cause those dead neurons. Some people would even say that steroids are good for the brain, that they support the brain. They don't destroy it."
"Everyone is pointing to steroids and drug abuse," said Michael Benoit. "It's my feeling now, that it's much more than that — that it's brain injury that has been causing these problems in the wrestling community."
Bailes says that the risk of brain damage begins after three concussions.
"Our research in football players is that it seems to be a cutoff at three," he said. "That with three or more major, or noted concussions, that that's where the risk really begins."
The get-back-in the-game mentality engrained in the culture of contact sports make this message a tough one to spread. Concussions often go undiagnosed — and sometimes even undetected — by those who suffer them, making the unchartered waters of studying their long-term effects all the more difficult.
This difficulty is, of course, compounded by the fact that one has to have died in order to be examined."
Researchers know that all five athletes who were studied showed disturbing behaviorial commonalities: seemingly happy dispositions turned sour, then, severe depression, and then, suicide.
"We certainly were aware, or have been made aware, of some issues that he was having, from some neighbors — of some strange behavior that was going on," Michael Benoit said. "He had started to wear a rosary around his neck … he wasn't all that religious a person."
A sudden shift toward spiritualty can be interpreted as the result of dementia.
"Right now, I don't know what role it played, but the fact that he became more religious at the end did set off alarms in my head," said Nowinski. "I had heard that Chris placed Bibles next to the body. That actually did raise red flags in my head, because … a few of our prior cases had become very religious, where they had not been, at the end of their lives."
The implications of the scientific findings are startling, but connecting the evidence to homicidal behavior is a distinct challenge.
"I think we don't have the answer," said Bailes. "I think Chris Benoit was an extreme example, obviously."
Could the condition of Benoit's brain have impacted what he did?
"That's a very hard question to answer," said Bailes. "The workings of the human brain, especially, when … violence of that type is carried out — I don't think anybody in science or medicine knows. But I do think … that it did have a major impact. And I think there are other cases where this sort of brain damage does have very abnormal, uncharacteristic behavior, extreme behavior, including suicide."
'Parents Shouldn't Have to Bury Their Children'
Bailes believes Benoit's trademark violent behavior in the ring didn't help.
"I think by now, everyone's seen the pictures of him jumping off the ladder, and jumping off the top rope, and being hit over the head with chairs," he said. "And so, none of that is good."
"There's a major safety issue in the wrestling industry today," said Michael Benoit. "When you start introducing ladders, and tables, and chairs, that's real — there's nothing fake about that. I asked [Chris] one time, I said, 'When you get hit in the head with a chair, does it hurt?' He said, 'You're damned right it does, Dad.'"
Benoit says he is angry about the way his son has been treated, and about what happened to him during his wrestling career.
"Let me put it this way. The company that I work for — the number one priority of the person that owns the company is the health and safety of the people that work in the company. I wish that the same could be said for the company that Chris worked for."
"Nightline" contacted World Wrestling Entertainment for a response, and they sent a statement. They called the analysis that concussions might have led to Benoit's murderous rampage, "speculative," and went on to say that "WWE can certainly understand the anguish of a father having to deal with the fact that his son allegedly murdered his wife and young son … We respect the desire of that father to do whatever he can to find some explanation."
"Wresting has got completely out of hand," said Benoit, who now asks the question that every parent who has lost a child to suicide asks: Why?
"He was a kind and gentle man," said Benoit. "We gotta remember that this story isn't only about my son. We lost our daughter-in-law. We lost our grandson. Parents shouldn't have to bury their children."