The list of CFL players who have retired young thanks to concussions continues to grow, and the latest addition is another Canadian star who found success at a primarily American position. That would be Saskatchewan Roughriders' middle linebacker Shea Emry, who announced his retirement Wednesday at age 29 and became the third Canadian player to leave over concussions this offseason alone. He follows Calgary's Canadian running back Jon Cornish, who walked away at 31 in December, and Ottawa's Canadian receiver Matt Carter, who left at 29 in November, both thanks to concussions, and his retirement comes on the same day that degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was found in yet another former football player, former NFL quarterback Ken Stabler.
Emry was one of the CFL's brightest Canadian stars during his time with Montreal and Toronto, but was traded to Saskatchewan last offseason and missed this whole year after suffering a concussion in the Riders' season opener. He told Dan Ralph of The Canadian Press that the "upwards of 10 concussions" he suffered in the CFL are a big part of why he's exiting. The rest of his body feels fine, but he's worried about damaging his brain:
With his second child due in May, Emry isn't taking any more chances.
"That (concussion concerns) is a big reason why I am stepping away," Emry told The Canadian Press. "My body feels like I'm a 20-year-old newly drafted Montreal Alouette.
"I don't feel like the football world took a toll on my skeletal body but on my mental state, for sure, and that's what I was most concerned about. Having a young family and really wanting to be able to be around and cognizant and engaged for the length of their lives, I made a decision for myself but mostly for my family."
Concussions' impacts on mental health are not just an abstract worry for Emry, as the 2011 concussion he suffered while with Montreal brought back the depression he'd battled with growing up in a big way. He told Herb Zurkowsky in 2012 that the 2011 concussion and the depression it brought on led to him abusing painkillers and alcohol in an attempt to cope. Later, in 2014, he told Ralph that his battles with depression led him to contemplate suicide at one point:
“Yes, (suicide) is definitely something that’s crossed my mind,” Emery said during a recent interview. “It was never something I considered doing but I thought about it.
“I thought about how it would affect my family. I knew I always had a greater purpose and life is amazing and luckily I’ve had a privileged life. I knew I wanted to have a family and share those types of moments with them. That’s why I never considered actually doing anything.”
Emry's decision to take his struggles with depression public in 2012 eventually turned into a great positive. He launched the Wellmen Project to encourage men to openly discuss depression and mental health issues, and told Ralph in 2014 that "Men must realize there’s no shame in feeling vulnerable or putting yourself out there because everyone’s going to be vulnerable at some point." Emry has also become a key ambassador for Bell Let's Talk, the Canadian Men's Health Foundation, and the Movember Canada's Men's Mental Health campaign, and he sits on the advisory board of UBC's new Watson Centre for Brain Health. On the Wellmen site, he says that his goal is to change the culture in a way to encourage men to talk about mental health issues:
“The prevailing perception of masculinity, as well as the social conditioning pertaining to it, are inherently restrictive to the evolution of men, and perpetuate the predominant stigmatization of mental illness. Wellmen is after systemic socio-cultural change.”
Here's a TEDx talk Emry gave on men's mental health issues at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles this past summer: Emry's making a difference well beyond the football world, but his retirement is still a large loss for the CFL, and a further sign that concussions are a key issue facing the league. Emry joins a long list of relatively-young CFL players who have cited concussions as a reason they left earlier than they would have preferred, including Cornish (31), Carter (29), Pat White (29), Buck Pierce (32), Dimitri Tsoumpas (28), and Andrew Woodruff (28). Older players like Dave Dickenson (36) and Anthony Calvillo (41) also weren't able to end their careers the way they wanted to thanks to concussions.
It's the even longer-term effects that are really worrying, though. PBS reported in September that 87 of the 91 (96 per cent) former NFL players' brains tested by the Boston University/Department of Veterans' Affairs study had CTE, and there have been further recent additions like Tyler Sash (who died at just 27) and Stabler, bringing that total to 90 of 94. CTE has also been found by other groups, taking the list of former NFLers with it over 100, and it's also been found in the brains of at least four former CFL players, which will provide further ammunition for the lawsuits against the league. There are plenty of CFL alumni out there struggling with the after-effects of concussions; hopefully Emry and the others who have retired young recently won't wind up with those kind of long-term effects.
Emry's departure at 29 is a significant loss for the CFL. He's one of the few Canadians who's recently had an opportunity to play the American-dominated position of middle linebacker, and he did so at a very high level, earning a league all-star nod as the best at the position with Montreal in 2012. His departure will also add to the already significant turnover in Saskatchewan. However, it's positive to hear that Emry plans to continue his work with the Wellmen Project and with a variety of other charitable causes. He's a great spokesman for the importance of mental health and how men need to discuss and address mental health issues. Concussions may be taking him out of the CFL, and that should be another wake-up call to the league to take head injuries extremely seriously and do more to prevent and treat them, but he'll still be making an impact for good in Canada.