Canadian Sport Concussion Project educates CFLers on brain traumas
The Sport Concussion Project is leading many CFL players to consider donating their brains to science.
Chris Walby, a Canadian Football Hall of Fame offensive lineman for 16 years with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and former football broadcaster, recalls once finding himself in the wrong huddle after taking a big hit.
“I couldn’t see where I was,” Walby recalled last in Hamilton at the Angelo Mosca fundraising event for Alzheimer’s, held on Aug. 26.
“I was blacked out. The next thing I knew I was standing in Hamilton’s huddle. Mike Campbell, the defensive tackle, kicked me in the ass and said, ‘Hey fat boy, you’re in the wrong huddle, get over there.’ It was crazy.”
Years ago, people would simply laugh at such situations. Today, however, much more is known about brain injuries.
Sport concussions have been linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy — CTE — a degenerative brain disease that can cause dementia, depression and aggression.
CTE can only be diagnosed after death.
When Mosca was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s two weeks after his 78th birthday in February, his family and the CFL alumni got behind efforts to honour Mosca and shine a light on Alzheimer’s, a form of dementia.
The Canadian Sport Concussion Project, based at Toronto Western Hospital, is being led by concussion expert Dr. Charles Tator.
Leo Ezerins, 59, a former CFL linebacker and now president of the CFL Alumni Association, said a “chance meeting” with Tator about five years ago led to him to spearhead the Sport Concussion Project for the alumni.
As a result, in the past few years, 18 brains of former CFL players have been donated for analysis, including those of John Forzani, Tony Proudfoot, Peter Ribbins, Bill Frank, Jeffrey Croonen, Jay Roberts, Bobby Kuntz, Doug McIvor, Cookie Gilchrist, Ted Toogood and Bryan Illerbrun.
“The point is we need to get a solution,” Ezerins said.
Matt Dunigan, 58, a Canadian Football Hall of Fame quarterback for the Argonauts and a number of other CFL teams, got his bell rung several times over his career from 1983 to 1996. He is now a television analyst for TSN.
Dunigan is a spokesperson for ThinkFirst, which is now part of Parachute Canada, a charitable organization and advocacy group that supports efforts to prevent injury.
Dunigan said he has been dealing with post-concussion syndrome for 19 years.
“I have good days and bad. That’s the opponent today, as opposed to Hamilton or Winnipeg. The opponent is lost equilibrium, memory loss, an inability to speak clearly. It’s something you would never know if you didn’t know me.”
Dunigan said 16 years of broadcasting has been like “constant therapy” because it forces him to be “precise, concise and clear with your thoughts.”
“Not only do I love what I do, but it helps me rehab on a weekly basis.”
Peter Dalla Riva, a Hall of Fame tight end for the Montreal Alouettes from 1968-1981, said he shocked himself how he reacted once after being knocked out.
“I remember that one because when I came out of it, I was really, really aggressive,” Dalla Riva said. “The guys told me they were going to send for the St. John’s Ambulance. And I kind of blew up. To one of my teammates I said, ‘Don’t ever call the ambulance on me, or I’ll kill you.’ ”
Joe Poplawski, former wide receiver with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, said he’s torn over the concussion issue.
“I’ve always thought that football is a beautiful game,” Poplawski said. “This brings a dark cloud over the sport itself. When you do that, you’re creating some awareness but you’re also potentially taking some people away from playing the game who would never have suffered a brain injury.”