Football's hidden injury

Former CFLer Tony Proudfoot can no longer speak, but that doesn't mean his voice can't be heard.

Growing body of evidence correlates neurological disorders and contact sports

Former CFL player Tony Proudfoot (left) talks to Montreal Alouettes receiver Ben Cahoon after the first day of training camp on June 1, 2008. Proudfoot is battling the deadly, incurable neurological disorder Lou Gehrig's disease. (Andy Blatchford/Canadian Press))

Tony Proudfoot can no longer speak, but that doesn't mean his voice can't be heard. 

Proudfoot has ALS — Lou Gehrig's disease — an incurable neurological disorder that his own research shows has taken more Canadian Football League players over the last 50 years than stats say it should have.

Eight CFLers either have it or have died from it, including Larry Uteck, O.J. Brigance, Jim Coode, Billy Swan, Ed Buchanan and a recently retired 10-year veteran who doesn't want to be identified. That's eight out of roughly 5,000 players since 1950, whereas the national average for 100,000 people is between one and two.  

Twice an all-star, Proudfoot played 178 games for the Montreal Alouettes and B.C. Lions. He's heading for 60 and wonders whether all those head hits he took might have had something to do with his affliction. 

Or it could be genetics. Or it could be environmental. Or caused by heavy stress. Or all of those things. 

"I don't think football is a direct factor, but I do think repeated head trauma, with the resultant damage, perhaps [provides] an environment that might make it more likely to initiate the death of motor neurons," he says, by email, because he can no longer communicate orally.

This shouldn't be taken to mean all those concussions ("I must have seen stars once every two weeks from 10 years old until I was 34 and retired, averaging a four-month schedule yearly") didn't cause the ALS. The thing is, Proudfoot says, researchers don't really know yet.

And that annoys him because he believes medical researchers should be given the money and facilities to find out what causes the disease and how to prevent it, instead of merely being able to tackle a "thin pie slice" of the problem with the funds they have.

Dangerous results

Getting hit in the head a lot, especially for those who came through the "suspension helmet" years where your head was held in place by a series of straps inside the hard shell, begs to be studied because so much empirical evidence is coming to light that highlights possibly dangerous results.

Football players have been bombarded with information in the last year about the risks for their brains, including:  

  • CBC's The Fifth Estate program first detailed in 2008 the unusually high number of former CFLers' deaths that seem to trace back to years of concussions. It also showed how brain research had determined that some had advanced dementia that should have been showing up in people 20 to 30 years older.  
  • A study commissioned by the National Football League shows Alzheimer's disease, dementia and other memory-related disorders are running 19 times higher among players than the normal rate for men 30-49. Concussions and head trauma are the suggested cause. The NFL has called for more research.  
  • The CBS news program 60 Minutes, updating the CBC report, shows how studies on the brains of deceased football players are turning up more evidence that long-term damage can occur from regular hits to the head. And it links the hits to ALS.

But does this growing body of evidence (including similar work in Italy on soccer players who suffered multiple concussions) leave ex-players with the feeling they might have a time bomb ticking in their heads that could go off as it may have for Tony Proudfoot?

The reactions might surprise you, but these are, after all, football players.

"On the one level, it does concern me and horrify me to think there's a fairly high percentage of our CFL population [having neurological problems] in comparison with the regular population," says Michael Eben, 63, a former all-star receiver with Toronto and Edmonton and now a PhD in German studies. "With regards to me, frankly, it hasn't concerned me."

Eben says he really didn't get "bashed around the head a lot," though he did see stars a few times, "but nothing of any dramatic effect.… I don't worry about that, vis-a-vis my neck up."

He has, however, seen the effects of a long football life — friends who died prematurely of heart failure, those who have struggled with neurological impairments, breakdowns of the nervous system and more. And just having the conversation with a reporter has, he admits, made him think.

Equipment change needed?

Modern football still sees tacklers regularly leading with their helmets, but they have much better equipment, better medical care, more rules preventing hits to the head with a hard hat, etc.

Tony Proudfoot suggests a more radical step — that it may be time to go back to softer, lighter helmets, or even consider a return to football's old leather helmet days back in the 1930s, because that might force players to stop using the head covering as a weapon. 

Can that be taught? Can you take eight-year-olds and return them to the days of hitting low and wrapping up your man as you bring him down, rather than just running through him, helmet first? Norm Fieldgate believes it. 

"Now, they have so much organization in minor sports, so that's where you start them," says the CFL Hall of Famer, who adds it may take a generation to work the new training through the systems and up to the pros. But it's worth it.

Bob McKeown believes it.

He's coached all three of his sons, two now in college and one in high school, and he's made a point, since realizing how bad the problem has become, to ensure his players are not "practising a technique that will endanger them or someone else."

Michael Eben coached high school for 20 years at Toronto's Upper Canada College, and he didn't allow hits to the head or leading with the helmet. And while he believes trying to retrain current pro football players to not use their helmets just isn't realistic, that leather idea might not be so out of bounds.

"Maybe it isn't so foolish," he says. "And it might be a deterrent." 

Bob McKeown, 59, has thought a lot about it. A six-year offensive lineman from 1971-1976, he's now a distinguished journalist who headed up that Fifth Estate program on concussions and head injuries. 

Time bomb in the head?

"I wouldn't put it that dramatically, but I certainly think there's an issue that was kept buried by our generation," McKeown says, adding a few minutes later: "Metaphorically, there is a time bomb in pro football."

As for himself, well, that's different.  

"Worrying about it at this stage isn't going to do me any good," says McKeown, who adds that two of the 20 or so men from his Ottawa Rough Riders days who meet for reunions are suffering from dementia. 

He went out with a long-time football friend a few months ago for a couple beers. Afterward, the friend couldn't remember his address, leaving the pair trying to find the place "by dead reckoning."

Out in Kelowna, B.C., Paul Pearson is the 52-year-old owner of Pearson's European Deli, a local hot spot. He played 10 years for Toronto and B.C. as a receiver, suffering a few concussions along the way. All the publicity lately has made him think of how football players may be hurting. Other football players, that is, such as a close buddy who played defensive back and once took on a charging rhino of a fullback named Neil Lumsden, helmet to helmet, and lived to tell the tale.

Worried, Paul? No. 

"I'm not into doing anything that's going to do any more damage," he says over the phone. "I don't think about it because I'm not doing damage [now]. I'm not doing contact sports."

Most of a good chat later, Pearson does allow that "all of this ALS [talk], it's pretty scary stuff.… Hope we don't all get that stuff."

Hall of Famer Norm Fieldgate is 77 now and still in the Vancouver area where he starred all those years ago as a linebacker. He says it might worry him were he younger, but it looks like the odds have fallen on his side.

Still, he knows of someone who is suffering, and wonders whether "there's a lot of guys out there from football we haven't really found yet, either."

'The more you believe it was not worth it'

Basically, old football players seem to believe they've done their damage, and if it's going to catch up to them, well, there isn't anything they can do. And there's always someone else going through something harder. 

"Lots of my current friends are worse off than I am with respect to joint injuries and reduced ability to be active today," Proudfoot writes. And he's sincere. 

Is he sorry he played the game?

"The older you get, coupled with the longer you played and the more injuries you accumulated, the more you believe it was not worth it," he says. "But males have genetically evolved to be competitive and egocentric in a macho kind of way, so I doubt you will get many players to admit it was not worth it."

On the other hand, there were five Grey Cup teams "and my teammates and I share this special bond that means a lot. If it wasn't football, it would have been some other dumb, aggressive competitive endeavour."

Maybe, after all, it is genetic.