This “Guest Series” is being authored by Terry Ott and will delve into the Canadian Football League and the issues revolving around it and brain injury. His process began nearly a year ago, but Mr. Ott picked up some steam with the release of “League of Denial”. He has since found himself running into dead-ends and basically being ostracized for taking a journalistic angle on this as it pertains to the CFL. We are thankful that we can provide a space for his writings and only hope that someone who is reading this can further his cause.
THIRD DOWN, “ABSENCE OF CTE” TO GO
The Canadian Football League claims to be the oldest professional football circuit in existence, dating back to the late 1800s.
Last year, the 100th Grey Cup league championship was played in Toronto before 50,000 fans and millions more on TV.
The league, which used to advertise that their “balls were bigger,” has recently signed a new, lucrative-for Canada-television deal, and a 18 game regular season is currently seen in the United States on three cable sports networks
In 2014, the CFL returns to one of their previous core markets in the nation’s capital, and there is talk and hope of further expansion to eventually reach at least 10 teams, bad, nation-wide, is a real possibility.
Three new stadiums have recently been built and another is on the way.
The level of play has never been better and the brand and ownership-albeit with one individual owning two teams-unlike some prior years, is strong.
The future for the CFL would seem to be bright, but…
Former CFL player Phil Colwell doesn’t watch the Canadian Football League.
He doesn’t live in Canada anymore, and has pretty much lost touch with all of the players he knew and played with between 1980 and 1983.
When he left the game early due to a series of injuries and questionable coaching decisions, he intended to leave it completely behind. But while he may have left the game, the game as the old saying goes, has never left him.
“Philthy” Colwell, the strapping, bearded, homegrown and swift running back then in his mid 20s, was knocked out in a game in 1981 while playing for the Toronto Argonauts, suffering a devastating concussion that to this day he says he has very little recollection of and that was most likely the participator of his premature departure from football.
Colwell had played high school football, starred for three years for his Canadian college team, and played a form of semi-pro “junior” football and even drew some interest from the New England Patriots after playing in the short lived Can Am Bowl series, before making it to the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger Cats in 1980 and appearing in the Grey Cup as a rookie.
He later shared a field with former Houston Oilers star Billy “White Shoes” Johnston and former LA Ram quarterback Vince Feragamo when they briefly came north with the Montreal Alouettes. Colwell’s quarterback when he was in Toronto was former University of Tennessee super star Conredge Holloway.
Notwithstanding the galaxy of football talent he kept company with, Colwell says that at every level of football he participated in, he knows took many concussive hits in what then was considered to be “just part of the game.”
You got “dinged,” you got “your bell rung,” and then you went right back to same game including a particularly nasty incident while playing junior football in Sarnia, Ontario, when he needed to be revived with a noxious smelling salt, impregnated in a wet towel smothered on his face.
But lying unconscious on the field in Winnipeg that sunny mid summer day in 1981, the result of a blind-side keelhauling helmet to ear hole helmet blow during a punt coverage, was something different.
Colwell says that he only found out about circumstances of his knock-out when viewing the game films several days after the incident. Here is a short video clip of the game, but not the Colwell injury:
Helped from the field that day, and still out on his feet, Colwell took a seat on the bench and remembers only that after the flight back to Toronto, the team doctor advised him not to go to sleep, yet questionably, allowed him to drive a considerable distance home in his car, just hours after the incident.
Colwell says he paced the floor that night with an aching head, still disoriented, then ultimately exhausted.
After previous hard hits to the head, Colwell says that he would get this “weird sense of deja vu” wherein the blow would induce a feeling of “been here before,” as well as a heightened sense of smell, especially when playing on a natural grass field.
A neurologist I consulted said that the symptoms described by Colwell were a manifestation of a concussion, or more likely, multiple concussions.
Now, 30 years on, Colwell is very concerned that he did real, serious, mental damage to himself playing football, with the knock out in Winnipeg being the major blow upon a lingering brain bruise.
In a series of phone calls and e-mails over several months, Colwell, now 57,who originally contacted me through the Concussion Blog, has shared his football experience, and what he thinks it has left him with.
Gainfully employed for 20 years, Colwell is far from a stereotypical, dumb-ass jock down on his luck and in fact holds a psychology major degree from a prestigious Canadian university.
But he is worried. Worried, as his short-term memory has begun to fade and this “deterioration” may affect his ability to continue his employment.
“If I deteriorate too quickly, I may not reach my retirement age of 67, and my full pension,” Colwell said, adding that his short-term memory loss is already negatively impacting his abilities at work.
He has been through bouts of rage and depression and self-medicating and impulsive behavior-a few chairs met their splintered end on walls- that adversely impacted his personal life and is terrified that he will become incapacitated like other former players with brain injury from football concussions.
To Colwell, the League of Denial documentary was akin to a horror movie. As was a prior Canadian produced CBC TV Fifth Estate report that dealt partly with concussion issues affecting several former star players with the Edmonton Eskimos, including one player who ended up homeless and committed suicide.
And he has taken to utilizing friends, and even CFL videos on You Tube to fill in the details of his football career as he sometimes can not recall the details of where, when, why and how his pro career unfolded.
Colwell continually says, “Try finding (a particular player he played with). He might remember, because I can’t.
Now, I cannot separate memory from dreams, the latter of which are better.”
And in an e-mail to a family member, Colwell cautiously said, “Don’t think of me as unwell, but my memory is fading so fast is it scary.”
Prior to the recent unfolding of the impact of concussions in professional football in the media and courtroom, Colwell sometimes wondered what was really wrong with him.
Now, he’s pretty sure he knows, and thinks it started with the business of football.
“The owners (of the teams) were the farmers. The players were the cattle. We just got sent to market.” said Colwell, who also believes the lack of competent medical treatment at the time of injury is a major factor in what the now walking wounded warriors are living with.
“Can you imagine, letting a guy who was just knocked out cold get off a plane and into his car,” asks Colwell, who also believes that the injury he suffered in Winnipeg began a spiral of aggressive behavior that resulted in bar fight a week later that may have concussed him further.
And there’s this from a Colwell e-mail: “Before the Argos KO, I don’t have a MEMORY (sic) of it now as I have very few of that year. I don’t even know for sure if I was there after training camp (Hamilton, 1981) and then went to the Argos. Only a research of the rosters of that year will tell me for who and when I played.”
He continues: “Sometimes I am trying to convey an idea in a conversation with someone that would have flowed easily once but I get stuck looking for the right words.I just feel that it is more than just getting old. How can a person forget an entire year for time, place and living arrangements as well as who I played for in the CFL and how I went to those teams?”
Clearly, Colwell is scared, and given the mounting evidence of football related brain trauma and injury and aftermath, who the hell can blame him?
Finally, Colwell had this to say: “If I had a son I would not let him play football, because he might not come back.”