QB greats understand Buck Pierce's desire to keep playing | Football | CBC Sports

CFLQB greats understand Buck Pierce's desire to keep playing

Posted: Friday, October 12, 2012 | 02:04 PM

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Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Buck Pierce, right, suffered a concussion after sustaining a blow to the head by Toronto Argonauts defender Brandon Isaac on Sept. 29. (John Woods/Canadian Press) Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Buck Pierce, right, suffered a concussion after sustaining a blow to the head by Toronto Argonauts defender Brandon Isaac on Sept. 29. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

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Former CFL QB greats understand what Winnipeg Blue Bombers pivot Buck Pierce is going through as he recovers from yet another in a serious of injuries, this one a concussion caused by a vicious hit to the chin by Toronto's Brandon Isaac on Sept. 29.
Dave Dickenson was coming down the stairs with his young daughter in his arms late in his run with the B.C. Lions this past decade, when he was overcome with dizziness and lost his bearings.

It wasn't that he was about to drop her, he said, but it was like an attack of vertigo, or like being hung over, and his wife, Tammy, had to step in to steady him.

This was one of the first clear indications the quarterback had that it was time to consider the end of his Canadian Football League career.

"I thought [then] I was risking more than any reward that football could give me," he says now, over the phone from Calgary, where Dickenson finished his run before becoming a coach.

"And yet, I still played another year and a half. I wanted to keep playing because I loved it."
What finally pulled the all-star up short were the team doctors with the Stamps (he went back for 2008), and head coach John Hufnagel, who refused his requests to play.

Dickenson understands, then, what Buck Pierce is going through as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers pivot recovers from yet another in a serious of injuries, this one a concussion caused by a vicious hit to the chin by Toronto's Brandon Isaac on Sept. 29.

Matt Dunigan, the TSN commentator who still battles with post-concussion syndrome 16 years after his own career ended, looked at the camera and called for Pierce to think about his future and retire.

They even chatted about it face-to-face a couple of days later.

Pierce, who it's fair to say has had only one official concussion, will not quit, and other old quarterbacks, who might want him to, understand why.

"I don't think very many athletes ever retire willingly," said Dickenson, who played for 12 years and was in B.C. when Pierce was a rookie. "They get advice, or people are tugging at them, or potentially family issues are tugging at them.

"Basically, I think most of us would play as long as the job is available and you can stay competitive."

Leaving the life isn't easy

The problem, for all football players certainly, and quarterbacks in particular, is the very things that make you a pro - a heart as big as all outdoors and an ego large enough to know you can do it - are the very things that make leaving the life you've been part of since childhood so difficult.

Dickenson agrees. So does Danny McManus, who played the professional version of forever (17 seasons), throwing for over 50,000 yards and winning a trio of Grey Cups.

"Especially in our position at quarterback," says McManus, now a pro scout for Hamilton. "We are looked at as the leader of our team. Even when things are going bad, guys look at you, when things are going good, guys are looking at you.

"You have to keep that brave face on."

Pierce is a master of the brave face, through his five years in B.C. where injuries piled up to the point he was nicknamed the "walking bruise," and then on to Winnipeg two seasons ago for just five games before having a relatively safe 2011.

This year, however, has seen a return to the old band-aid days and he's made five appearances in 14 contests.

He isn't quitting, however.

Just like Dickenson, who had a history of getting smacked in the head during an excellent career with Calgary, B.C. and then one year back with the Stamps.

Just like McManus, who called it quits after a career of small and big injuries.

Injuries part of the job

Getting up, brushing yourself off, rubbing a little dirt into the wound - it goes along with the position.

"It's just the competitive nature," McManus said. "Those guys are very competitive, all those who have played the position, they want to get back. Look at the NFL. Peyton Manning [now the Broncos' quarterback] has a messed up neck, and he's back doing it."

It comes down to "not wanting to go down the road and say 'I wish I would have tried it.'"

No regrets. But regrets can come in different packages, such as the late arriving ones that ask, after the career is over, whether it was worth it.

Dickenson basically had to be dragged out of the saddle. When he came back to Calgary in 2008, he dressed for nine games with limited action but was hampered with post-concussion symptoms.

As the playoffs loomed, knowing how good the team was (the Stamps would beat Montreal for the Grey Cup), he hatched a plan.

"I tried to lobby my way on to the roster for the playoff run ... because I felt like I could at least help the team, if needed, for a small [period] ... if there was an injury in one game. I thought I could fill in and do a better job than the [backup] guys we had on the roster."

Fortunately, the administration wasn't buying in.

"The medical staff here, and Huf [Hufnagel] wouldn't even hear it. I said 'Just let me practise,' and he was like 'No ... we're not clearing you.' He couldn't live with himself if something bad would have happened, he told me later."

Out of QB's hands

So the decision was taken out of the quarterback's hands, something an athlete who is used to leading, used to making decisions, used to being the man, likely needs more than anything.

"You need somebody who has no vested interest on whether you play football or not, but has a vested interest in you as a person," said Dickenson.

"The lady I talked to was Karen Johnston (a world-leading expert in concussion management), in Toronto, and she gave me a lot of help - not to say I could or couldn't play, but she said if you take care of yourself ... and these are the symptoms ... and this is what you have to be careful of, and you will get better."

McManus is on the same field as Dickenson.

"That's probably the best way forward - to be told no, you just can't do it anymore," he said, and then suggested why quarterbacks, going back forever, have such a problem with it.

"I keep bringing up coach [and former Hall of Fame quarterback Ron] Lancaster, because his whole thing to me was, don't ever tell them you can't play, fight 'em as much as you can to get out there and play.

"Whether you are injured or not, at the tail end of your career, claw, scratch, do whatever you can to stay in that locker room. Because once you leave that locker room, it's going to be completely different."

So, what is a beaten up quarterback to do? Dickenson had coaching to go to. McManus had a TSN gig as an analyst lined up. Find something.

And make sure there are no regrets.

"I wanted to [be certain] I was ready for that decision," said McManus. "I didn't want to do that 'I'm retiring, I'm coming back, no I'm retiring' thing. I wanted it out of my system, and I did not make a decision right after the season, it was a couple of months after."

In other words, check in with Buck again around January.

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