February 24, 2011
This month saw the tragic deaths of two men. They grew up and lived in separate worlds, but both played professional football along the Great Lakes, and there are suspicions that their athletic careers may have contributed to their unfortunate ends. Former Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats star running back and linebacker/defensive back Bobby Kuntz (pictured at left above) passed away at the age of 79 on Feb. 7 after an 11-year battle with Parkinson's disease, while former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson (pictured at right above) took his own life with a shotgun Feb. 17. This is the story of their lives, of how they and their families suspected their football careers might have impacted their health, of the other research that supports that conclusion, and how their legacy may help others down the road.
Kuntz was a legendary figure in the early days of the CFL, even if he almost never made it to professional football. In the high-school ranks, a coach in Cleveland told him he'd never make it because of his size (he was reportedly five-foot-two at that point). Not to be discouraged, Kuntz and his family moved to Kitchener, Ontario, and he wound up learning under the tutelage of famed high school coach Clem Jerome. He went on to play CIS football and basketball at Hamilton's McMaster University and then played senior football for the Kitchener Dutchmen before the Toronto Argonauts picked him up in 1955. With them, he showed off his versatility, frequently playing entire games and shifting between running back, defensive back and linebacker. Kuntz's greatest success came after a brief flirtation with retirement after his brother David died at age 31, leading to him leaving football to take over the family electroplating business. That decision didn't last long, though, and he wound up signing with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats after a few months and play closer to home. Kuntz became an important part of the Tiger-Cats' dynasty that went to four straight Grey Cups (winning in 1963 and 1965), and he was named a league all-star in 1964. He was also involved in one of the most legendary Grey Cup games of all time, the two-day "Fog Bowl" in 1962 that Hamilton lost by one point.
Duerson was another legendary figure, and he had a starring role on one of the most famed NFL teams, the 1985 Chicago Bears. He played college football at Notre Dame, starting for four straight seasons and earning All-American nods in 1981 and 1982 before the Bears picked him in the third round of the 1983 draft. That proved to be a good decision, as Duerson quickly established himself as a safety to be reckoned with. He was a key part of the 1985 Bears' defence, which is generally cited as one of the best units ever, and he was named to four straight Pro Bowls from 1985 to 1988. After leaving the Bears following the 1989 campaign, he moved on to New York and helped the Giants win Super Bowl XXV before finishing his career with the Arizona Cardinals.
Life after football proved more difficult for both men, though. Kuntz went on to a successful business career with Kuntz Electroplating, serving as both CEO and chairman of the board, and he was also active in a wide number of community causes, but things became tough for him when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2000. It's an awful disease which both Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali suffer from, and it can affect everything from movement to thought and behaviour, with many patients experiencing dementia in the more advanced stages of the disease. Kuntz had to spend most of his final years in a nursing home.
For Duerson (pictued at right testifying before Congress in 2007), things went wrong even sooner. He ran into financial trouble soon after leaving football, and filed for bankruptcy this past September. Before that, he had been charged with domestic assault in 2005, and saw the collapse of both his marriage and his business. It's worth noting that we've heard those stories before about former football stars (including Kenny McKinley and Chris Henry) , and in many cases like Fred McNeill's, Andre Waters' and Mike Webster's, some of those behavioural issues have been linked to the long-term impact of repeated concussions. Duerson was also experiencing significant physical issues frequently associated with repeated concussions, including blurred vision and pain on the left side of his brain. You have to wonder how much of an effect that had on his decision to take his life.
We often view sports as an escapist avenue from many of life's problems, and to an extent, that's fair. As more and more research comes out about the potentially damaging long-term effects of concussions in everything from football to hockey to soccer, though, it's hard not to wonder if our sports are not only failing to draw us away from the world's problems, but are creating plenty of problems of their own. That's not to advocate banning contact sports or refusing to watch them, but rather to suggest that everyone involved with sports — players, coaches, medical staff, writers, broadcasters, fans and more — needs to seriously consider the consequences of the head injuries that happen in them.
The first step towards making things better is awareness that there's a problem, and fortunately, that appears on the upswing. On the NHL side, as Bruce Arthur wrote yesterday, it was much easier to shrug off concussions when they were happening to players like Marc Savard and Alyn McCauley. On the football side, stories like those on McKinley, those on Owen Thomas and those on Jay Roberts, Tony Proudfoot, Kuntz and Duerson are making concussion issues tough to ignore. People are realizing there's a real issue here, and they're starting to think of solutions, including more advanced helmets or potential rule amendments.
Will any of that work? It's tough to say, as there's still so much we simply don't know about the effects of concussions on the brain. Fortunately, though, steps are being made in that area as well, and perhaps the biggest way forward is through the generous donations of players like Roberts, Proudfoot, Kuntz and Duerson. All left their brains to researchers investigating concussions, and in death, they're still leading the way.