A researcher in Montreal is exploring a possible link between the sport of football and the deadly Lou Gehrig's disease, or ALS.
Dr. Angela Genge, who runs an ALS Clinic in Montreal, has begun an epidemiological study that will attempt to reveal some answers.
Former CFL player Larry Uteck was a teammate of Tony Proudfoot during the 1970s.
(Aaron Harris/Canadian Press)
Genge is examining athletes in different sports and why some, like former CFL all-star Tony Proudfoot, have been affected by the disease.
Proudfoot, a game analyst for the Montreal Alouettes, was diagnosed with ALS last May.
He has difficulty getting his words across and the muscles in his mouth have tightened because of the neurological disease.
The diagnosis almost devastated Proudfoot, but it encouraged him to do some research. He found that a former Alouettes teammate, Larry Uteck, died from ALS a few years ago, which he viewed a strange because the disease is estimated to affect only two people in every 100,000.
"What he's pointing to is exactly right," Genge told CBC Radio. "It may not be football. It may be something in particular with what these guys took as supplements during their training. It may have been other factors that we can't see yet."
Proudfoot also discovered a handful of other CFL players dealing with ALS.
"I don't think there's ever been more than 15,000 CFL football players in the history of the game and so you have eight [with the disease] in 15,000," said Proudfoot.
"It's much different than one or two in 100,000, so that's a very high percentage. There could be something in the contact area [to] the head, or it could be something environmental, perhaps pesticides on the fields you play and practice on."
It's not the first time doctors have noticed what appears to be a high occurrence of ALS in certain groups.
Genge said ALS has affected veterans returning from the first Gulf War in Iraq.
There have also been some cases in the National Football League. And in Italy, researchers found the frequency among professional soccer players to be six times higher than the general population.
Sue Uteck, the widow of the former CFL star who played with Proudfoot in the 1970s, will be watching how the study unfolds with great interest.
"People always say to me 'Gee Sue you survived ALS, you cared for your husband, you went on to become deputy mayor of Halifax,'" she said. "What's my biggest failure? I could save a thousand constituents a day but I could not save my husband."
Uteck said when she asked if something from her husband's football career could have caused the disease, doctors quickly dismissed it.
"I truly believe it [the link] has got validity," said Uteck. "You look at Tony and Larry, both defensive backs. How interesting. That's two defensive backs that were former teammates and roommates [that] came down with ALS and both known for their hard-hitting style. Larry had to retire from the CFL because of crushed vertebrae in his neck."
Proudfoot played nine CFL seasons while enduring a handful of concussions.
He now has occasional problems swallowing, and isn't sure how quickly the disease will spread to other parts of his body.
While Genge's investigation is expected to take at least a year, if not longer, Proudfoot is hopeful he'll see some results.
"I really am quite excited about pushing on this button that might lead closer to a cure or at least understand the causes of the disease," he said. "I have a vested interest."