Bobby Kuntz was once told he was too small to play high school football. He never let that stop him. Instead, he made it to the Canadian Football League with the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, playing a fearless, physical game that ultimately may have damaged his brain.
Researchers with the Krembil Neuroscience Centre at Toronto Western Hospital have analyzed the brains of four former CFL players and announced Tuesday they had discovered two of them had suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease that can cause erratic behaviour, depression and lead to dementia. Kuntz, who died in February at 79 from Parkinson's disease, was found to have CTE. So, too, was former Ottawa Rough Rider Jay Roberts, who died last October at 67 from dementia and lung cancer.
The two players who did not have CTE were former Winnipeg Blue Bomber Peter Ribbins and former Montreal Alouette Tony Proudfoot.
Ribbins, 63, died last December of Parkinson's while Proudfoot, 61, died earlier this year of Lou Gehrig's disease.
All four players were exposed to repeated head trauma and, according to family members and ex-teammates, had suffered concussions. Their brains were donated to the Canadian Sports Concussion Project, where researchers admit they are still seeking data on concussions and neuro-degenerative brain disorder.
"We weren't sure what we were going to find," said Dr. Lili-Naz Hazrati, who conducted the autopsies and examined the four brains. "Two of the players had evidence of CTE but two did not. That was quite interesting … Right now we have more questions than answers about the relationship between repeated concussions and late brain degeneration. These were cases that came to us as a starting point."
The study of brain-related injuries and their long-term effect is new to football, a game of constant collisions, some of them repetitive, some of dangerously high impact. Kuntz's family is sure his concussions were at the root of his post-football health issues. Roberts' son Jed, who also played in the CFL, can remember his father telling him of the time he snapped out of a concussion only to find himself speaking at a dinner engagement. Jay Roberts had no memory of how he'd gotten there.
"This isn't just pie in the sky," said Leo Ezerins, a former Blue Bomber and now executive director of the CFL Alumni Association. "What's important is: we're creating awareness for football; an awareness for recruiting players (for research). It's necessary to take a broader look at other sports such as hockey and soccer, too. But football's leading the charge."
The CFLAA has been canvassing former players and asking them to donate their brain for future research. It's a cause that current players appreciate but try not to dwell on.
Toronto Argonauts' punter/kicker Noel Prefontaine has experienced concussion-like symptoms several times in his career. He acknowledged the importance of scientists "getting involved and finding out all there is to know about the human brain when it comes to contact sports." He added he's considering donating his brain.
But Prefontaine, like many of his contemporaries, isn't worrying about his health, at least not yet.
"You can't play this game and worry about things that could or may occur. I could start having major issues when I'm done playing or I could start having them now," Prefontaine explained. "I'm not going to quit playing the game of football or stop providing for my family because somebody does a test."
Argonauts' running back and CFL Players' Association representative Brian Crawford dubbed the brain findings a positive first step for helping players appreciate what requires further study.
"This project is about changing the culture around football so guys are honest with themselves and also look out for teammates and understand the risks that can be associated with this kind of injury," said Crawford.
For Rocco Romano, a 14-year offensive lineman inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, understanding the risks has become exceedingly important the older he gets.
"I watched a show a few years ago (The Fifth Estate's Head Games in 2008) and it really spooked me quite a bit," Romano said. "I'm happy this has come to the forefront because there are probably a lot of people who have undergone trauma to the brain and haven't been given any solid information."
With files from Rachel Brady in Toronto