Concussions remain one of the most significant issues facing the CFL despite their lack of priority at this year's Grey Cup, and the story of one receiver who could have been participating in that Grey Cup but for concussions is a case in point. That would be Matt Carter, a six-year CFL veteran with B.C., Hamilton, Edmonton and Ottawa, who left the Redblacks Nov. 1 and drove home to Alberta. As he told Tim Baines of The Ottawa Sun this week, he's officially retiring now, and that decision was all about the concussions he'd suffered:
"I want it to be clear, in my mind I didn't quit," said Carter, who fought back tears in an emotional phone interview on Tuesday. "Although it might seem selfish, it wasn't done with selfish intent. When it becomes a reality that this career's no longer for you, to sit there every day and know that there's an unknown ahead and you keep ignoring it -- the level of stress was outrageous. There were probably three days in a row where I got zero sleep. I sat up all night and wondered what I was going to do. That's when I went in to talk to (GM) Marcel (Desjardins).
"A concussion is one of those injuries where you have to consider your life and what it's going to look like. You want to try and suck out a couple of years of football, but the payoff doesn't really make sense long term. Could I have stepped back on the field and played? I believed I could, I believe I could have contributed in some capacity. But when you've gone through this many concussions, when you've gone through the recovery process, if you're not fully committed to helping your teammates, it's not fair to the team.
Carter had five diagnosed concussions over the course of his career, with the most recent coming June 8 in Ottawa's preseason game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Here's what he told Baines about how things went for him after that:
Carter returned to Ottawa's training camp at Carleton University and knew he wasn't right. He felt dizzy, he had a sense of feeling off -- dehydrated, woozy -- and he had a sensitivity to light and noise.
Said Carter: "Everybody asks, 'What did it feel like?' For every person, the symptoms are different. Being at training camp, that was pretty messed up for a while. Walking to and from the fieldhouse, there was dizziness. At the same time, sitting around in the room wasn't the healthiest thing so I'd try and get outside to get fresh air, trying to ease myself back into light."
...As the year went along and Carter moved from one six-game injured list to the next, he started to get healthier. He began to do some on-field training, catch some passes with no contact and with no pads. It felt good, but ...
"What I was really hoping for was to come back on the field and forget how to play, which would have made the decision easier," said Carter. "It's a lot different playing football without your pads on, knowing there's no risk of getting hit or hurt. That was an enjoyable process because it proved I was healthy and I could run around. The team made the decision easy because there was no room on the roster, there was no need for me to be out there.
Carter's decision is interesting because it wasn't about a specific concussion preventing him from playing further, but rather about mounting concussions convincing him that "the payoff doesn't really make sense long term." That's one of the fronts the CFL needs to be most concerned about, as do all levels of football. We've seen plenty of players retire relatively young over concussions in the last few years, including Andrew Woodruff, Dimitri Tsoumpas, Pat White, and Jon Cornish, and we're going to see more. It's always a player's decision to make, and Carter's decision makes a lot of sense. It's more evidence that the CFL needs to take concussion prevention and treatment extremely seriously, though; more and more players are likely to decide in the coming years that risking further concussions and their potential short- and long-term effects simply isn't worth it. There are plenty of quality replacements out there for now, but who knows how long that will be the case for?