Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Family fears bad news after donating former CFLer's brain to research

Doug MacIver Jr. hasn't been told anything definitive since his father died on Jan. 26 but he suspects what researchers at Boston University will find: that Doug MacIver Sr., a nine-year Canadian Football League veteran, was suffering from the degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

MacIver Sr., who last played for his hometown Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 1984, the year they won the Grey Cup, died of heart failure at 58 but had also been experiencing some mental difficulties. Aware of the concussions he'd suffered as a defensive lineman, the family decided to donate MacIver Sr.'s brain to BU and the Center for the Study of CTE.

The examination of MacIver Sr.'s brain and how it was affected by repeated blows to the head will take another two to three months. The son already has a sense of what's to come.

Story continues below advertisement

"I spoke with Chris Nowinski [from BU]and he said they've yet to find anyone who played as long as my dad did who doesn't have CTE," MacIver Jr. said Monday. "I felt my dad's memory wasn't what it was. He was a very smart guy and it was getting a little harder for him to find the right words. We want to know for sure. I've had concussions and I know I was never the same afterwards."

The BU Center has examined the brains of U.S. football players and discovered CTE in many subjects, including former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson, who took his life last year by shooting himself in the chest to preserve his brain for science. BU is still hoping to secure the brain of former San Diego Charger Junior Seau, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest earlier this month.

At the Krembil Neuroscience Centre at Toronto Western Hospital, the brains of six former CFL players have now been tested. Two players, Jay Roberts and Bobby Kuntz, died of dementia/lung cancer and Parkinson's, respectively, and had CTE. Tony Proudfoot and Peter Ribbins died of ALS and Parkinson's but did not have CTE. Two others have yet to be named but, according to neuropathologist Dr. Lili-Naz Hazrati, "one had CTE, the other severe Alzheimer's."

"There are differences between the two games [the CFL vs. the NFL]and how they're played, and it's positional as well," said Leo Ezerins, the executive director of the CFL Alumni Association, which has formed a working relationship with the Krembil Centre. "Doug was a nose guard. His claim to fame, if you will, was he wasn't afraid to stick his head in. He played with a lot of pain. … We need to do more testing."

MacIver Jr. and his father shared a love for sports and knew the after-effects of concussions. The son was a 6-foot-5 defenceman who played in the Ontario Hockey League and once had his head rattled so badly during a game in Ottawa he wasn't sure where he was. He also attended an NHL rookie tournament with the St. Louis Blues and fought Derek Boogaard of the Minnesota Wild.

When Boogaard died of an accidental drug overdose last May, his brain was analyzed and showed CTE. That proved to be a talking point for the MacIvers.

"When Derek passed away, my dad, we'd sit down and chat about how Derek's family had donated his brain," MacIver Jr. said. "My dad suspected several times he could have CTE. He talked about sending his brain off."

Story continues below advertisement

MacIver Jr. recalled how his father once had a concussion playing for the University of Manitoba that was so bad he was hospitalized. By his count, MacIver Sr. figured he had three concussions, meaning he was out cold three times. The other instances he described as "seeing stars."

"I knew dad would have wanted it," the son said of the decision to donate his father's brain. "I didn't know the CFL was conducting similar tests in Toronto. My dad and I had talked about the one in BU. … After we found him [dead in his bed] I called [BU]and had the papers faxed to me before the ambulance even got there."

The MacIvers also donated Doug Sr.'s eyes and spinal fluid for research.

"The Wednesday night [before his death]we had a meeting at the office [of the Ride Time auto dealership MacIver Sr. founded] He then headed off to the movies," recalled the son. "He said, 'Love you. See you in the morning.' Many of us found peace knowing that by donating his brain something good was going to come of this."

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Sports writer

Allan Maki is a national news reporter and sports writer based in Calgary. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.