Dynasty to death: CBC's Fifth Estate examines head injuries in football

Three former Edmonton Eskimos linemen are the focus of a segment of The Fifth Estate at 9 p.m. on Wednesday that looks at the issue of head injuries in football and life expectancy among those who play the sport.

Bob McKeown remembers the 1972 CFL East final like it was yesterday, an intense and physical battle between his Rough Riders and Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Ottawa's Lansdowne Park.

In particular, the former all-star centre recalls the rough play of Hamilton middle linebacker Mark Kosmos.

"It was like a professional boxing match because back then, not only could you use your helmet as a weapon, you could basically punch somebody in the head over and over again. And Mark did that with his forearm," McKeown, now host of CBC's The Fifth Estate, told

"I was throwing up for 24 hours after the game because I had such a severe concussion. I didn't tell anybody. I didn't think it was worth mentioning."

He wasn't alone. But for some players, including former Eskimos linemen Bill Stevenson, York Hentschel and David Boone, it appears the undetected concussions they suffered in the late 1970s and early '80s, may have contributed to their premature deaths over the past three years.

They are the focus of "Head Games," a segment on Wednesday's Fifth Estate, which airs at 9 p.m. local time. The segment looks at the issue of head injuries in football and life expectancy among players in the sport.

Stevenson, Hentschel and Boone were members of an Eskimos team that won five consecutive Grey Cups from 1978 to 1982.

Stevenson, an offensive tackle, died last year at age 55 after falling down stairs while drunk. Hentschel, a member of the Eskimos' famed "Alberta Crude" defence, died two years ago at 52 of organ failure after years of alcohol and drug abuse and depression. In 2005, Boone shot himself at home in Point Roberts, Wash., after years of profound depression.

As the Calgary Stampeders and hometown Montreal Alouettes prepare for Sunday's 96th Grey Cup, McKeown delves into the stories and medical history of the former Eskimos in an attempt to find out if there was any reason to believe their deaths weren't the result of alcoholism or depression, but rather symptoms of something else.

He talked to former teammates of Stevenson, Hentschel and Boone along with one-time Eskimos medical personnel and was told explicitly that their deaths had nothing to do with head injuries.

Dr. Jim Adams, who was a trainer with the Eskimos during those dynasty years, told McKeown he wasn't aware of any particular head-injury problem at the time with the aforementioned players, but is now convinced their troubles after football related to head trauma.

"When you start looking into it," said McKeown, "the paths their lives took, the symptoms they were showing and the end and the age at which they came to an end, [it's] exactly the syndrome [retired National Football League players are] developing in the U.S."

Studies in the United States show that men who play five or more years in the NFL have a life expectancy of 55, 20 years less than the average in the general public. For linemen, perhaps due to their size, the life expectancy is 52.

Among those featured during Wednesday's show is former New England Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, who was forced to retire in 2005 after playing 10 years in the NFL and winning three Super Bowls.

"He says in 2002, his eighth year in the league, he got concussions every game and estimates he got between three and five a game, which doctors will tell you is lethal," McKeown said.

"The stories you hear, whether it's Ted Johnson or Mike Webster, the great centre for the Pittsburgh Steelers or the three guys with the Edmonton Eskimos, they all have similar components: concussion, depression, divorce, failure in business lives and personal lives, alcohol and drug abuse and then premature death."

Awareness is the big issue with concussions nowadays, said McKeown, who noted the NFL is developing league-wide protocol for the treatment of concussions, waiting periods and symptoms for anyone who gets a head injury.

Earlier this month, the league also announced new guidelines on concussions that enable players and doctors to report any coach's attempt to override the wishes of concussed players or medical personnel.

"What they're doing in the NFL and I think they will do, it seems inevitable, in the CFL, is an awareness campaign because there are still old-school coaches who don't buy this research for whatever reason," said McKeown, adding CFL commissioner Mark Cohon will be featured on Wednesday's show.