It was the last act of a compassionate man. Before he died last month, Tony Proudfoot considered his three-year fight against Lou Gehrig's disease and knew what he had to do. He had to help find a cure, the reason behind his affliction. So he did one last thing.
He donated his brain and spinal cord to researchers.
On the second last day of 2010, Proudfoot passed away from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, leaving behind a wife and three children and too many former Montreal Alouettes teammates and admirers to number. What he also left behind was a tangible means of examining ALS and the possibility he believed in: that the disease bore a connection with repeated head trauma. The kind he endured as a hard-hitting defensive back in the Canadian Football League.
Proudfoot and his family's decision to donate his brain and spinal cord is another constructive step in trying to diagnose the brain and what affects it. Tissue samples of Proudfoot's 61-year-old brain have been taken to Montreal's Neurological Institute and Hospital and passed along to pathologists in Toronto.
Those who will assess and discuss the findings include Toronto neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Tator and Dr. Angela Genge, ALS director at the Montreal Neurological Institute. Genge had worked with Proudfoot after he was diagnosed in 2007.
"It really does [speak to his character]" Genge said of Proudfoot's decision to fight ALS in every way he could, even in death. "He turned even this into something good. Not everyone will do that."
Genge said the study of head trauma and concussions needs not just damaged brains to research but those from former athletes who have passed away through natural causes. The plan is to compare subjects and their experiences. It may be a mix of factors that leads to ALS and it's something the medical community is eager to explore.
"On the science side, there are different things happening," Genge said. "One is looking at the long-term potential risk facing football players who were exposed to recurrent head trauma. Another is, were there any toxic issues? Like pesticides used on fields. That's not been proven at all. But is there a combination of factors?"
Former Winnipeg Blue Bomber Leo Ezerins is doing his part for research too. As head of the CFL Alumni Association, Ezerins has been soliciting brains for Tator and others at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre at Toronto Western Hospital.
Ezerins secured Jay Roberts's brain before the 67-year-old former Ottawa Rough Rider died of lung cancer last October. Roberts suffered several concussions in his career, including one where he had no memory of what he'd done over a period of 72 hours.
"I was told the biggest challenge was to find brains," Ezerins explained. "I said, 'I'm sure our guys would be interested.' Any guy I've talked to has said, 'Not a problem.' It's part of a legacy. … The doors just opened up with Jay Roberts."
Ezerins is a member of a group that includes neurosurgeons, pathologists and psychologists looking into postconcussion syndrome in professional athletes. Genge said it's critical that athletes and their leagues get behind the science of the brain and what can be done to protect those who take the greatest risks.
"Some [leagues]are just plain afraid," Genge said. "That's a normal response. They're afraid of the consequences, and in the business of professional sports, some organizations are afraid to be sued. … The quest to understand recurrent head injury trauma should be most important."
Proudfoot played 12 seasons in the CFL and was also renowned for his life-saving efforts during the 2006 shootings at Dawson College, where he was a teacher. He helped raise more than $500,000 for ALS research before his death.