Why I'm donating my brain for concussion research: Bob McKeown

Bob McKeown, co-host of CBC’s the fifth estate and a former all-star centre with the Ottawa Rough Riders in the CFL, has a very personal reason for wanting to offer his brain to science.

Co-host of the fifth estate – and Grey Cup winner – knows more about brain injury in CFL than he wants to

Before his career at the CBC, Bob McKeown was a Grey Cup champion offensive lineman with the Ottawa Rough Riders in the 1970s. (Scott Grant Photography)

I happen to know something about concussions in football because during my high school, college and CFL careers, I've had a lot of them.

I don't know exactly how many but I would guess somewhere between several and a dozen.

But we never called them concussions. They were "dingers" or "getting your bell rung."  No one ever used the contemporary term "minor traumatic brain injury."

By whatever name, three of them were more memorable than others.

I am fairly certain my first football concussion came in 1963, when I was 12, playing for Brookfield High School in Ottawa.

In 1973, the Ottawa Rough Riders won the 61st Grey Cup against the Edmonton Eskimos. McKeown, No. 42, was a centre for the team. (Scott Grant, Image Communications)

A few years later, playing U.S. college football for Yale against Harvard, I was kicked in the head on the first play of the game. I spent the rest of the afternoon with the sensation of floating above the Yale Bowl and its 60,000 spectators, watching myself in slow motion on the field below.

Eventually I was convinced I actually played better when concussed.

My most profound minor traumatic brain injury was in the CFL's Eastern final at Lansdowne Park between the Ottawa Rough Riders and Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1972.

Head-to-head combat

As the Rider centre, I spent the afternoon in head-to-head combat with Hamilton's middle linebacker, Mark Kosmos, a master at driving his forearm into my face, which was legal at the time.

I threw up all that night and had a blinding headache for the next week.

But as was the way of the CFL then, I kept it to myself. Unless you lost consciousness — in which case you were revived with smelling salts and asked what day it was — no trainer, doctor or teammate ever expressed interest in your brain. 

And we certainly never mentioned our own head problems, believing only bad things would happen to our football careers if we complained about invisible injuries.

McKeown played in the CFL for the Ottawa Rough Riders in the 1970s. (Scott Grant Photography)

But over the years, it has become abundantly clear — both to football players and medical science — that there is a link between repeated blows to the head and brain damage.

A study of former National Football League players found they were three times more likely to die from degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer's, ALS and Parkinson's than the general population. 

The debilitating brain condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy — or CTE — was found in 90 of the 94 deceased NFLers whose brains were studied by Boston University neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee, an astounding rate of 96 per cent.

According to Dr. Lili-Naz Hazrati of the Canadian Concussion Centre at Toronto Western Hospital, the autopsies of the brains of 30 deceased athletes established the presence of CTE in 10 of them.

That's a lower rate than in the U.S. perhaps, but if even one-third of CFL players were afflicted by degenerative brain disease, that would seem an extremely troubling statistic.

$1B settlement

And while it's true the NFL was in state of denial for years, in 2016 the league has finally acknowledged that link between football concussions and dementia in later life and reached a $1-billion settlement with thousands of its former players.

Which brings us to the Canadian Football League.

McKeown visits longtime friend and teammate Jerry (Soupy) Campbell, who is living with dementia. (CBC)

Last May, on the eve of the 2016 CFL season, sportswriter Dan Barnes of the Postmedia chain did a feature interview with CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge, beginning his second year on the job. 

I should say that I've met and chatted with Orridge a few times when he was head of the CBC's sports department.

Though I played college football at Yale and he graduated from law school at Harvard, our encounters were pleasant enough and Orridge seemed an intelligent, thoughtful guy. 

That is why I was stunned to read what he had to say to Barnes about the health of former CFL players, of whom I am one.

The commissioner proudly explained new CFL rules and medical procedures that the league says have reduced concussions.

Health and safety

Orridge said assuring player health and safety is the most important aspect of his job because the league's players are its most important asset.

No argument from me on that.

But then the commissioner was asked about the health of former CFL players — my generation in the league — who haven't had the benefit of recent rule changes and improved concussion protocols.

Orridge's response?   

"I can't really speak on the health of former players because I'm not that familiar with the health of former players."

Rod Woodward, left and Gerry Organ played with McKeown on the Ottawa Rough Riders in the '70s. Woodward died in September 2016 after a long battle with dementia. (McKeown family)

Well, if there's one thing the CFL commissioner should be familiar with, it's that the medical science is clear about the link between football and degenerative brain disease. Even the NFL now admits it and has agreed to that billion-dollar settlement.

But for former CFL players suffering from dementia, there is little support from the league: no disability, no long-term care, apparently no attempt to identify victims and define the problem, not even recognition by the league that there is a problem.

Big part of my life

To me this matters because the CFL has long been a big part of my life.

My father took me to my first Ottawa Rough Riders game when I was five. I can still name each and every player on the Ottawa roster that defeated Edmonton for the 1960 Grey Cup.

I was the Riders' centre for five years, including when we beat the Eskimos for the '73 Cup.

McKeown is a proud Ottawa Redblacks' season ticket holder in the most boisterous section at TD Place, UU on the upper south side. (CBC)

I was the team rep on the Players' Association. I'm now on the executive of the CFL Ottawa Alumni and I'm a proud Redblacks' season ticket holder in the most boisterous section at TD Place, UU on the upper south side. 

I admit I am far from an objective journalist on this subject because I know far more about brain injury in the CFL than I want to. It is why I'm donating my brain to the Canadian Concussion Centre: to help find answers.

In the meantime, I hope Orridge will also be asking questions about the health of his league's former players.

Mr. Commissioner, you could start by asking me.

For more on McKeown's story, watch "A Story From the Field" on the fifth estate Friday at 9 p.m. on CBC-TV.


Bob McKeown

Co-host, the fifth estate

Bob McKeown has a record few Canadian journalists can match -- two Emmys, three Geminis and a Grey Cup, won when he was an all-star centre with the Ottawa Rough Riders of the CFL.