In his first season as a head coach, former quarterback Dave Dickenson took the Calgary Stampeders to 15 wins and the best record in the Canadian Football League. A victory over the B.C. Lions in Sunday’s West Final would put the Stampeders in the 104th Grey Cup game. Mr. Dickenson spoke to Allan Maki about an early misstep, a devastating loss and how thankful he is to have stopped playing before he suffered more concussions.
You lost the season opener by two points in British Columbia against the Lions. Was that a result you shrugged off?
When we lost that game, we struggled and I thought, ‘We have to get off the schneid here and make sure we get some wins, otherwise it snowballs on you.’ … I was concerned because we lost a lot of personnel from the year before. We were wondering about leadership. I thought we had a big turnover at receiver losing Eric Rogers, Jeff Fuller and [Canadian running back] Jon Cornish. There was enough change where there was some stress. Then we lost in B.C. and I felt we gave one away. That bothered me.
Three months later, you lost defensive back Mylan Hicks, who was shot and killed outside a Calgary bar. How hard has that been to deal with?
I made the call to the parents [who live in Detroit, Mich]. I couldn’t believe how strong they were. This is something that shouldn’t be a part of the world we live in. His mom wanted him to come here so he could be safe. We gave the guys whatever they needed. A lot of them spent time with Rodd [Sawatzky, the team chaplain]. They still carry on for [Mr. Hicks]; they haven’t forgotten.
If you hadn’t made it as a pro quarterback, or a pro football coach, what would you be doing now?
When I was younger, I was very focused on getting a college education. We didn’t have a lot of money. My mom stayed home until we were in high school; my dad was a teacher. I got an academic scholarship [at the University of Montana] and a football scholarship. … I wanted to be a team sports doctor. Basically, I needed a degree to qualify for med school. I took environmental biology [and graduated with a 3.98 GPA]. Funny how I came up here with that. It would have fit in fine with the oil-and-gas industry.
You retired as a player because of concussions you got playing for the B.C. Lions and the Stampeders. How bad were they?
I had the big one in B.C. [in 2005]. I lost control of my legs, couldn’t walk. That wasn’t as frightening, though. Not many people know this, but I got another against Montreal [in 2006]. I was going to tough it out. I got on a flight to Regina; I struggled a lot on that flight. We got to the hotel and I didn’t eat. I went to bed at 4:30 p.m. and didn’t get up until the next morning. Now I look back and say I was stupid. I was really having vision problems. I had mostly trouble with lights, my vision, computers, TV. You feel you have a halo on your head from the pressure. It’s scary, but I also feel like I got really good care. The medical guys in B.C. and Pat Clayton here, I feel they had my best interests.
Were you prepared then to retire?
Not until they forced me into it. I took a hit that wasn’t so hard. I played another quarter and a half … my leg, I could tell I didn’t have control of it. I tried to lobby to play in the  Grey Cup with it. [He played a little behind Buck Pierce.] They never cleared me and I appreciate there were people looking out for me. My opinion is nobody knows how hurt a player is. So you’ve got to support them as if they’re one of your family. Take care of them. Tell them they shouldn’t worry about football.