Professional sports players are often viewed as overpaid and under-worked. But after the glory is gone, little is reported about the physical toll the game takes. the fifth estate investigates why professional football players have a life expectancy that is at least 20 years less than that of the general population.
The Edmonton Eskimos of the late 1970s and early 1980s were arguably the greatest football team in CFL history, winning five consecutive Grey Cups (1978-82). Players like York Hentschel, Bill Stevenson and David Boone took the team to the top, but life after football would prove to be so much harder than winning those Grey Cups. In Head Games, the fifth estate’s Bob McKeown discovers that years after retirement, the lives of these players share disturbing similarities with contemporaries who played in the NFL—failure in their personal and business lives, depression, alcoholism, even suicide.
To find the answers as to why this is happening, the story begins not with a football player, but a wrestler. On June 25th, 2007, just outside Atlanta, Georgia police were called to the home of Canadian WWE wrestling superstar Chris Benoit. Inside the home, police found the bodies of Benoit’s wife and 7-year-old son and Benoit himself. It was soon called a murder-suicide.
Benoit’s brain was donated by his family to a team of doctors and researchers at the West Virginia University Medical Center. The scientists had already looked at the brain tissue of several former NFL players and found damage so profound that it could only be compared to the brain tissue of the very elderly. Christ Benoit’s brain was the most damaged they’d ever seen, similar to that of an 85-year-old with dementia. The common cause, the doctors believe, of the dramatic shifts in personality and behaviour in the wrestler and football players was the continuous concussions sustained by the athletes in the ring or on the field.
In Head Games, you’ll hear from a member of that formidable Eskimos team that owned CFL football in the late 1970s and early 80s, legendary linebacker Dan Kepley. As well, Mike Benoit reflects on the changes in his son’s behaviour: the brighter Chris’ star shone in the WWE firmament, the more erratic he became. The son of legendary NFL all-pro center Mike Webster recalls watching his father’s life spin out of control. Mike Webster was only 50 when he died. And Ted Johnson, who won three Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots explains the torment his life became even before his career ended—depression, divorce, addiction to amphetamines—and reveals his plans to leave his brain to medical science so that more can be known about the price paid by these modern day gladiators.