Football in B.C. more successful and popular than ever despite concussion concerns
CFL star Shea Emry retired this week saying he owes a lot to the game but wouldn't encourage his son to play
The inspiring and alarming in football intersected this past week. laying bare the best of the game — achievement, fame, and the potential for big money; and the worst — an uncertain future caused by a brain that's been bashed one too many times.
On Wednesday, Abbotsford Secondary wide receiver Chase Claypool became the first B.C. player to sign with the fabled Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
On the same day, Surrey defensive end Jonathon Kongbo — a former Holy Cross Crusader — made the highly anticipated announcement he had chosen Tennessee over countless other division one NCAA programs that were jockeying to land him.
Slightly less prominent Wednesday was the retirement announcement by former B.C. high school and CFL star Shea Emry, due to the estimated 10 concussions he suffered in his career and continued headaches and blurred vision he's dealing with at age 29.
"It's a relief," said Emry about making retirement official. "There's mixed emotions around not being able to play football again. But at this point in time I've recognized I've got a few too many concussions and realized that I'm not willing to put myself through that anymore."
Emry's story is hardly uncommon. News about the potentially grim toll the game can take — concussion, brain injury, CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) — abounds, providing cautionary tale after cautionary tale.
- Football concussion risk too great for high school, say doctors
- Ontario's proposed youth concussion law needed in B.C., says football association
- Concussions plague Quebec's young football players
And yet, football has never been more popular or successful in B.C., thriving despite all the worrying news.
Long time high school football writer Howard Tsumura says there's no simple explanation but believes leaders in B.C.'s football community deserve credit for not only building the sport, but tackling the concussion issue head on.
"[High school football] is better right now than it's ever been, and that comes amidst all of these issues with head injuries," said Tsumura, calling Notre Dame's signing of Claypool the most significant recruitment in B.C. high school football history.
"I think they've been — at the highest level of Football B.C. and B.C. high school football — so acutely aware of what's out there around concussions ... and know they have to be proactive."
In fact, Football B.C. was the first provincial association in Canada to come up with a concussion policy, something that was motivated by a 2008 CBC fifth estate investigation into the premature deaths of Edmonton Eskimos players from the 1970s and '80s.
"When I saw that I said 'oh my God this is terrible. We have to do more."' said Pat Waslen, executive director of Football B.C., recounting the impact the show had on the football community.
"We worked with Think First Canada to put the policy together in 2010," he said. "It's still a work in progress, and we struggle to get the information out and to get people to buy in. But it's something you have to do."
The policy includes mandatory training for all coaches in concussion recognition and protocol and a volume of on-line resources and educational material. As well, there is a huge emphasis on making sure players learn how to tackle properly.
Waslen has also lobbied provincial politicians to adopt something similar to Rowan's Law — proposed legislation in Ontario named for Rowan Springer, the 17-year-old Ottawa girl who died after suffering a concussion playing high school rugby.
"I'll say this until I'm blue in the face," said Waslen. "Rowan's law is going in because Rowan is dead. For the love of God, who wants to put their name on the B.C. one?"
Education and research are key to making football safer, but as in any sport where hitting is part of the game, it will never be completely risk free.
That's something Shea Emry knows and lives every day. The two-time Grey Cup Champion has moved back to Vancouver to be near his "concussion support network," a team at UBC that's helping him cope with and hopefully recover from, the headaches and vision problems.
As the father of a 16-month-old boy, he's also now considering the game from the perspective of a parent.
"For me, I'm not going to say that my son can't play football, but I'm definitely not going to be feeding him football helmets and pads and cleats anytime soon," he said.
"To say that openly and honestly about something that's given me so much and allowed me to learn so much about myself, it breaks my heart," he said. "But that doesn't mean there isn't an issue."