Shadow on the game

He remembers the four Grey Cup wins. He remembers his Hall of Fame teammates. He even remembers single plays he authored that changed the history of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers franchise and which fans still talk about more than 50 years later.

But what Canadian Football Hall of Fame quarterback Ken Ploen no longer remembers is what he did yesterday. The greatest Bombers player who ever lived has been diagnosed — like an alarming number of his aging CFL teammates — with dementia.

“He’s still in great health otherwise. We just had our checkups and the doctors say he has the heart of a 16-year-old,” says Janet Ploen, his wife of 55 years.

“He’s still able to get out and he’s still able to do things. It’s just that he doesn’t remember the experience the next day.”

Case in point: Ploen, 80, got together last weekend with football legend and former Bombers head coach Bud Grant, 88, during a Grey Cup event in Winnipeg. Ploen remembered Grant vividly, Janet says, and the two men spent time together reminiscing about their CFL glory days in the 1950s and ’60s.

The following day, Ploen had mostly forgotten the meeting.

Fifty years ago? No problem. Yesterday? Not so much. It is the insidious nature of dementia, a catch-all diagnosis for a wide range of brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s, that slowly rob sufferers of cognitive abilities and memory.

It’s a tender mercy Ploen thus far retains his long-term memories and can recall the greatest moments of an exceptional life. Who needs to remember yesterday, after all, when your yesteryear is so rich and so full?

“Ken likes to tell me,” says Janet, “that he remembers what he wants to remember.”

Among those memories Ploen has retained are some of the savage hits to the head he took during a 10-year career with the Blue Bombers from 1957 to 1967.

“They didn’t talk about concussions in those days; they said you got your bell rung,” says Janet. “And Ken says he can remember a few times when he got his bell rung.”

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