55 Yard Line - CFL

A horribly sad story came out just before the NFL's Monday Night Football game kicked off last night, with Denver's KDVR Fox 31 reporting that Broncos' wide receiver Kenny McKinley was dead of an apparent suicide. As Doug Farrar wrote over at Shutdown Corner today, this was the third death of a current Broncos' player in the last four years, which has to make dealing with it more difficult for their organization and fans. According to the sheriff's report released today, McKinley, who had a long history of injuries, was depressed after his knee surgery and made statements that he should just kill himself, as he didn't know what to do without football. Broncos' coaches and players said they saw no signs he was depressed, however.

Why does this matter to the CFL? Well, professional football is a small enough world that most of the people in it are connected to each other through shared experiences at high schools, universities and professional teams. In this case, they're connected quite closely. McKinley starred for the University of South Carolina, and his teammates there included Toronto Argonauts' running back Cory Boyd as well as Minnesota Vikings' wide receiver Sidney Rice. Boyd and McKinley roomed together in university, and their families apparently remained close after their university careers ended. The Denver Post's Mike Klis reported today that Boyd's wife, Brittany, and another woman, Shantell Smith, picked McKinley and his son, Keon, up at Denver International Airport Sunday night and drove them to McKinley's house. Smith and Brittany Boyd then stayed at McKinley's house with Keon overnight while McKinley went to visit someone else.

The report goes on to mention that McKinley apparently returned home at 7 a.m. on Monday. Brittany Boyd and Smith left for lunch with another person around 12:15 p.m. When they returned, they saw him in his room with a sheet over his body and thought he was asleep. They left him alone, then returned around 3 p.m., lifted the sheet off and found him dead. According to the report, he had a pillow over his head with a gun inside and his fingers near the grip.

It's impossible to imagine what Cory Boyd must be going through right now, with his former roommate's apparent suicide and his wife being one of those who found the body. The report says he provided information to investigators, so it seems quite likely he's flown back to Denver to be with his wife during this. Denver was also Boyd's last NFL stop; they cut him last March just before they drafted McKinley, so it makes sense that he still has roots there.

On the field, it's unclear if Boyd would have been ready to play this coming week in the Argos' Touchdown Atlantic game in Moncton even if this hadn't happened. He suffered "a minor concussion" two weeks ago against B.C., and the Argos smartly held him out of this week's game, as no concussion is really minor. There's no new information I've seen on his status since then, but you'd have to imagine that the Argonauts would give Boyd time to deal with the death of a close friend under these circumstances even if he was physically healthy. That would seem to be the right thing to do, and hopefully the move they'll make.

On that front, though, you have to wonder if football teams are doing everything they can to care for their players mentally. The NFL and the CFL both spend tons of money trying to provide their players with the best physical care possible, but what about the mental side? Depression is an insidious disease, and one that can be almost impossible for casual observers to spot, as the comments from Denver's players and coaches show. We hear a lot about the state-of-the-art medical facilities and such in professional football, but are teams providing support for their players' minds? Players who suffer injuries or are reduced to the practice roster might be in a particularly vulnerable place; all of us who play sports at any level know how tough it can be to get cut or get hurt, so imagine how much more difficult that must be when you know it's your job and your financial security on the line. I don't know what support and counselling systems are currently in place for players in the NFL and CFL, but it's worth having a discussion about them and if they need expansion.

The other element of mental health is, curiously enough, the physical one. As I wrote in my concussions piece yesterday morning, study after study has shown that the physical contact involved in football can have direct impacts on the brain's health. One key concussion study of over 2,500 retired NFL players in 2007 found those who suffered three or more reported concussions during their career had triple the risk of depression. That's something that cannot be ignored.

Concussions have also been linked to dementia and irrational behaviour, and they've been prominently present in many of the tragic football deaths of the last decade. Earlier this week, it was reported that former Penn captain Owen Thomas, who was found dead of an apparent suicide in April, had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the key brain condition that has been linked to concussions, depression, impulse control and other problems. Mike Webster, who went from Super Bowl champion to living on the street with severe mental health issues, was found to have CTE after his death from a heart attack at age 50. Perhaps most tellingly, former Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry died at 26 last year after falling out of the back of a pickup track and the autopsy showed he had CTE. Henry had never had a reported concussion, only had a brief football career and played a position with less physical contact that most.

When you combine that with the scary news this week that studies are suggesting the high amounts of sub-concussive impacts common in football practice (many of which exert similar force on the human body to what would happen in a car crash) may be as damaging to players' long-term mental health as reported concussions received in games, it's pretty easy to draw links between football, brain trauma and athletes who die young. Those links may be enhanced when you also consider that in addition to his duties at wide receiver, McKinley played extensively on special teams, often where many of the biggest hits come, both in college and in the NFL. He also suffered at least one reported concussion during his time at South Carolina.

None of that is to declaratively state that football, head trauma or anything else caused McKinley's tragic death. We likely won't know what exactly what happened even if an autopsy reveals extensive CTE. For some of us at least, though, his death is yet another indication that we need to take a close look at the sport of football both in Canada and the U.S., and we need to examine the mental and physical impacts it has on those who play it. Together with Cory Boyd and his family, the Broncos' organization, the NFL and others, we should come together as football fans worldwide to mourn Kenny McKinley's heart-rending death. We should do more than just that, though; we should remember his name, and we should see if there's anything we can do to help other players down the road.

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