55 Yard Line - CFL


It's Thanksgiving Monday, and that means there's lots going on the CFL. There's tons of on-field action, with the Calgary Stampeders in Montreal to take on the Alouettes (1 p.m. Eastern) and the B.C. Lions heading to Winnipeg to battle the Blue Bombers (4:30 p.m. Eastern). We'll break down those and the two other games this weekend (Toronto's upset of Saskatchewan and Hamilton's win over Edmonton) tonight in an evening edition of Monday's Point After.

There have been a lot of inspiring off-field stories around the league recently as well, though, and they fit in perfectly with the holiday theme. From injured Argonauts' defensive tackle Adriano Belli donating his pay to help sick children to Tiger-Cats' centre Marwan Hage, an amazing guy both on and off the field, distributing 2,000 boxes with Thanksgiving meals to Hamilton families in need (video here), plenty of CFL players are doing their part to help others out. As I talked about in the Secondhand Eight post Friday, the league's partnership with the Pepsi Refresh Project is further evidence of that; there are eight players with outstanding charitable ideas competing for that funding, and I'm sure it was an extremely difficult task to cut the list down that far. Yet, the most stirring story of all of helping others comes from a CFL player who is no longer with us.

Earl McRae of The Ottawa Sun wrote an incredible column yesterday on legendary Ottawa Rough Riders tight end Jay Roberts, who passed away last week. Roberts had a tremendous college career with the Kansas Jayhawks before joining the Rough Riders in 1964. He played with them until 1970 and was a crucial part of their Grey Cup victories in 1968 (the game pictured above) and 1969. He was well-known for both his blocking ability and his "hands of glue," and is still fondly remembered by many CFL fans.

As McRae writes, though, life after football was tougher for Roberts. A First Nations man from the U.S., he became a Canadian citizen and got a job in Ottawa at the Department of Indian Affairs, but he never had a lot of money. He'd suffered numerous concussions during his playing career, and wound up with a lot of health problems later in life, including growing dementia, blood clots, circulatory issues and lung cancer. Despite all that, he still found the time to be an inspirational friend and family man. One story McRae relates from Roberts' son, Jed, is particularly touching:

"Jed Roberts was born with severe hearing impairment. He grew up having to wear obtrusive hearing aids. As a boy, in childhood's sensitive years, he was embarrassed, often bitter, prone to bouts of why me, and self pity.

One day, when Jed was 12, his father took him for a ride. ‘Dad wouldn't tell me where we were going.' The father deposited his son in front of a house. He told him to knock on the door, there was a surprise awaiting, and that he'd be back to get him in a few hours. Jay Roberts drove away.

‘I knocked on the door, it swung open, and a man was on the floor. He had no legs. He smiled and invited me in. I had no idea who he was.'

Jed and the man with no legs spent the afternoon together. They played board games. The man took Jed to a golf driving range. He took him fishing. He played catch with him.

‘Everything we did he did far better than I could,' says Jed. ‘He creamed me. He was amazing. And his attitude, it was always so upbeat and happy. When I left there I never ever felt sorry for myself again. My dad had set the whole thing up.'

The man with no legs was Karl Hilzinger. He'd been a Canadian running back for the Rough Riders in the late 1950s, his career ended when he lost both legs above the knees in a car accident. Skiing, swimming, golf, baseball - there was little double amputee Karl Hilzinger couldn't do, and do with such joie de vivre."

Even in death, Roberts is still inspiring and helping people. He decided to donate his brain and spinal cord for medical research into the effects of head trauma. According to McRae, Roberts is the first CFL player ever to do so, making him a key trailblazer. This is a much-needed donation; there's still a lot we don't know about the impact of head injuries in football, but what we do know is pretty terrifying. Most of the research on concussions in football has centred on NFL and NCAA players, but they're a huge issue in the CFL as well; just read what Vicki Hall wrote last year about Jerry Campbell, a teammate of Roberts in Ottawa, or consider the issues Cory Boyd has faced this year. Roberts' donation may draw much more attention to the issue of concussions in the CFL, and that can only be a good thing.

Roberts chose to donate his brain and spinal cord to the research team led by the University of Toronto neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Tator, and that's also a good thing for boosting the profile of concussion research in Canada. Tator has been hugely influential in concussions research, especially in hockey; he was a key figure in the 2009 London Hockey Concussions Summit, which I wrote about through the perspective of one speaker, former NHL player Alyn McCauley. That summit was a key step to raising awareness of the dangers of concussions, and it and subsequent lobbying by Tator and others were key factors in the NHL deciding to take a stronger stance on blindside hits to the head this year.

It's not clear yet exactly what can be done to reduce concussions in football (although reducing the amount of contact in practices might be an excellent start, as some practice hits can have the impact of crashing a car into a concrete wall at over 60 kilometres an hour), but more information on how exactly concussions affect players after their career will put us in a better position to decide how to deal with them. Roberts' donation (as well as those of other former professional athletes like Bob Probert, who donated his brain to the Sports Legacy Insitute) should provide us with further details on what head impacts do to the body. Hopefully, his donation will also inspire other former CFL players to follow suit and leave their brains to science. Jay Roberts was an incredible athlete and man who touched a lot of people in life, but his impact will still be felt in death thanks to this decision. His donation may help researchers find ways to make football safer, and that's something for all of us to be thankful for.

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