Jason Hairston was everywhere on Wednesday morning.
Large photos of him looked down over the gathering inside The Father’s House church in Vacaville. Portraits of Hairston in his element — with his wife and kids, on a hunt in the wilderness — appeared in a program loved ones clutched to their hearts during a funeral service that for them seemed too surreal, too sad and too sudden.
The UC Davis All-America linebacker who later became a renowned big-game hunter and savvy businessman was said to have had it all. Family, friends, fame, fortune. But Hairston didn’t have peace of mind.
Hairston, 47, took his life on Sept. 4 after years of battling turbulent emotions that he and those close to him feared were signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The degenerative brain disease has been linked to repeated concussions and blows to the head.
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Lingering effects from injuries, including a broken neck suffered during his junior season at UCD, led to his retirement in 1996 after two seasons in the NFL with the 49ers and Denver Broncos.
He was found dead in the Dixon home he shared with wife Kirstyn and two young children, not far from the headquarters of the thriving hunting-gear company he founded called KUIU, which closed its offices Wednesday to honor Hairston.
Bob Biggs, who coached Hairston at UCD and is now retired, took the stage at The Father’s House, several feet behind a camouflage casket surrounded by flowers. He told the gathering that Hairston was best defined by being “a great teammate.”
“You look behind his hunting gear and into Jason’s face and see a tremendous human being,” Biggs said. “That’s what we all want to be. His loss is all of our loss.”
‘Jason was pleading for help’
George Visger said he received a call five years ago from an anxious and panicked Hairston.
Visger, a 49ers defensive lineman in the early 1980s who has endured nine brain surgeries, is a national advocate about the dangers football poses. He became friends with Hairston through coaching and hunting circles.
“Jason called me and said, ‘George, I took a shotgun to bed with me,’” Visger recalled this week. “Talked him out of it — ‘Man, don’t go there, please.’ He really struggled with CTE. One thing I know about CTE is it damages judgment. Jason was pleading for help. Some filters are just gone, and you don’t think straight. His kids were in the house, for crying out loud. He’d never want to do that, but I can tell you that brain trauma does things to you.
“There were times in my life I’d wind up in jail and had no idea how I got there, and then found out I’d thrown a chair through a window the night before.”
Visger paused, then spoke emotionally about the rigors of football.
“What we do as players, what we sacrifice, it’s all for a game. That’s all it is — a football game, entertainment, gladiators,” he said. “Back then, with gladiators, they put a sword into your heart to end it. Now, we just get dragged off and slowly die a slow death. Then the next guy steps in because he can’t wait to play this game. We’re losing too many people because of this.”
Kirstyn Hairston told People Magazine that her husband spoke about CTE symptoms last month, and brain scans administered after his football career showed his frontal lobe was “completely compromised.” He at times experienced depression, impulsive behavior and forgetfulness, but a couple hours before he took his life, they had been laughing together on the phone, she told People.
“I don’t know what flipped all of the sudden; he wasn’t depressed, we didn’t have any sort of those troubles going on,” she told the magazine.
The disease can only be identified posthumously. Dr. Bennet Omalu, who has been paramount to CTE research and its effects on dozens of retired NFL players, agreed to perform an autopsy.
The Hairston family asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to CTE research led by the Boston University Concussion Legacy Foundation.
Biggs earlier this week told The Bee, “Gosh, it seemed like he was on top of the world: beautiful family, wonderful wife and kids, so many friends. I can’t make sense of it. None of us can.
“None of us knows how a brain responds to trauma over time, and it’s such a scary thing — depression. It just takes one weak moment and the world closes in.”
‘His legacy is not this moment’
Attending Wednesday’s service were 21 of Hairston’s UCD teammates. They stood to be recognized, each wearing suits and ashen expressions. One of the pallbearers was Donald Trump Jr., a hunting buddy of Hairston’s. They went on a big-horn sheep expedition in Canada this summer.
A theme among the speakers was Hairston’s passion for activity. He was a natural leader who enjoyed the hunt of a ballcarrier well before he grew to love the hunt of big game. He started playing football while growing up in Orange County, landing at UCD despite being recruited by bigger schools such as Stanford.
He was relentless and would play hurt — not wanting to let teammates and coaches down.
Hairston told CNBC in 2016, “I played linebacker, and the way I played the game, I led with my head. I played the way they tell us not to play now. I have all the symptoms of CTE.”
Biggs said Hairston was, “as great a linebacker as we’ve ever had. He played hard, a tremendous player. Looking back, I don’t know if he had concussions. We didn’t have concussion protocols like we do now. It’s so different now, and it needed to change.”
Jason White met Hairston through their real estate ventures years ago in Idaho. They fast became pals. They would hunt, watch football, plot ways to carve out successful careers.
White drove nine hours from Boise to Vacaville to give Hairston’s eulogy. He joked early in his speech that Hairston influenced “the redneck vote.” It drew laughter amid tears.
“Don’t be afraid to shine light where there is darkness,” White said. “His legacy is not this moment, but his life’s work.”
Follow The Bee’s Joe Davidson: firstname.lastname@example.org, @SacBee_JoeD, sacbee.com/high-school.