Remembering Al Brenner, a CFL hero with a strange disappearance: did football play a role?

55 Yard Line

Former Hamilton Tiger-Cats' star defensive back Al Brenner passed away this week at age 64, and he was known for two very different sides of his life. On one hand, he was a legendary player at Michigan State, where he was involved in the 1966 "Game of the Century" against Notre Dame, and he then went on to a fantastic CFL career with Hamilton, Winnipeg and Ottawa, playing a crucial role in two Grey Cup victories and setting an incredible record of 15 interceptions in just 14 regular-season games in 1972 (a record that still hasn't been surpassed, despite the CFL's shift to 18-game seasons). On the other hand, he mysteriously left his family and disappeared in 1983 and wasn't found until eight years later, and when later tracked down by CBC's the fifth estate, he couldn't explain why he'd left. Any look at the man has to include both sides, but it's difficult to try and reconcile the two. However, in light of other stories of football players' unusual post-career behaviour that was later linked to brain trauma suffered during their playing days, you have to wonder if that was a potential factor in Brenner's life.

The disappearance is notable not just because of the strangeness of the story, but because it didn't seem to fit with anything else in Brenner's life. By all accounts, he was adjusting well to post-football life; he'd retired reasonably early (in 1977, at the age of 30) to pursue advertising interests, he'd settled down near Hamilton and he had what seemed like a solid job with Prudential Insurance. He had a wife, Phyllis, and four children, Rob, Al Jr, Kelly and Ben, and he even indulged his football interests, serving as the head coach of the junior football Burlington Braves for a season. Then, on April 23, 1983, he left it all behind.

Scroll to continue with content

The 36-year-old Brenner reportedly drove to the Burlington GO Transit commuter rail station late that night, by himself. Ge went to a pay phone booth, placed a phone call to his wife, and told her "You can pick up the car at the GO station, the keys are in it". Following that, he vanished, leaving behind his money, clothes and passport. The strange circumstances and behaviour, which was reportedly very unlike Brenner, even led to an international police investigation amidst suspicions of potential foul play. No one found Brenner until eight years later, though, when he called members of his family, and none of them saw him until his son Rob tracked him down in Michigan four years later. His family later reconnected with him to a degree, and brother Terry said the disappearance was just "something we try not to dwell on."

Even given Brenner's previous life as a well-respected seemingly-content family man, his experience wouldn't be completely unique if he'd come forward with a story about how stress or family issues had pushed him to run out. Sadly, those stories do happen, and probably more often than many realize. What was so remarkable about Brenner's case, though, was that when he spoke to CBC, he still couldn't really explain why he did it. Check out that portion of the CBC report, which starts at 24:20. It suggests that Brenner was at that time dealing with several chronic health and addiction problems and living on government assistance, but, from just watching the way he delivered his responses, there may be something else at play too. Here are some of Brenner's quotes:

- "They would be better off if I did this."
- "I wouldn't blame it on depression or anything else. It was...we all live our lives and we must make decisions. It was just a decision that I had to make, so I did."
- "I talked to my wife, my ex-wife, yesterday or the day before, and she didn't seem overly concerned." (Reporter Gillian Findley: "Well, it's 28 years later.")
- "Oh, it was tough for her? I'm sorry about that."
- Findley: "We met your children, and the one thing they said to us was "You know, after all these years, we still don't know the answer to the question 'Why?' Why did you do this?'" Brenner: "My daughter asked me that this morning, and like I told her, I will tell you, I do not know either. I'd like to know the answer to the question. I'd like it to be one thing or the other."
- Findley: "After all this time, don't you think they deserve an answer?" Brenner: "But how can you give an answer to a question you don't know? I don't know. I loved my kids, I loved my wife, I didn't like leaving, but I liked being alone. If you can understand that..."

I'm no doctor, but that video certainly seems to show a man whose mind isn't quite clicking on all cylinders. Maybe it's the booze, maybe it's something else, but it's worth mentioning that we've seen similar developments in many other former football players. Degenerative neurological diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) have found in the brains of former CFL players like Bobby Kuntz, Jay Roberts and Cookie Gilchrist, and in the cases of Kuntz and Gilchrist, CTE caused serious mental problems for them late in life (and perhaps earlier).

CTE and other similar neurological diseases that have been connected to football don't always wait until late in life to strike, either; consider the case of former Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chris Henry, who died at 26 after some bizarre behaviour led to him falling off a truck and was found to have CTE, or the case of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, who was so convinced that football had damaged his brain that he committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest and left a note asking for his brain to be examined. (Sadly, Duerson proved to be right, as CTE was found in his brain.)

Many other former football players with neurological problems have gone on to ignominious post-career existences, including Andre Waters and Mike Webster. Waters committed suicide at 44 in 2007, and an autopsy by Dr. Bennett Omalu revealed that he had brain tissues similar to those of an 85-year-old man with Alzheimer's disease. Similar damage was found in the brains of Webster, Terry Long and 36-year-old Justin Strzelczyk, and Webster's case is particularly notable; by his Hall of Fame induction in 1997, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Webster was "homeless, unemployed, deep in debt, beset with medical ailments, lacking health insurance, in the midst of divorce, in the care of a psychiatrist and on medication, and involved in a complex lawsuit over real estate investments." Brenner's situation obviously was nowhere near as bad, but his behaviour and his inability to explain why he left makes one wonder if football injuries played a role in his disappearance.

Regardless of why he disappeared, Brenner's gridiron career will remain legendary. He was an impressive college player at Michigan State, was briefly in the NFL with the New York Giants and had an outstanding CFL career; he'll be remembered as one of the best ballhawks to play the three-down game, and his single-season interception record may stand for a while yet despite the lengthened season. Brenner had many incredible moments, including picking off Toronto quarterback Joe Theismann (himself a CFL legend) four times in a single game in 1972, and he was a vital part of both Hamilton's Grey Cup-winning team that year and the Ottawa Rough Riders team that won in 1976 on Tony Gabriel's legendary catch. Brenner's football career brought joy to many, and those who played with and against him (including fifth estate reporter Bob McKeown) had plenty of respect for him. It's a shame to think that his great career might also have played a role in his later-life struggles, but given what we've seen from so many other football players, it can't be ruled out.

What to Read Next