April 15, 2011
Former CFL quarterback and current CFL on TSN analyst Matt Dunigan talked to The Toronto Star's Chris Zelkovich Wednesday about how he convinced his son Dolan to quit football at the age of 14 after his third concussion in 2007, and that story's one that carries significant implications for football as a whole. One of the most interesting elements of Doug Brown's column on the dangers of concussions (and football in general) was his closing comment on how he might not choose a football career again if he had the chance to start over, and he might not encourage his kids to take up the game. As no one's developed a time-traveling DeLorean yet and Brown doesn't currently have kids, his comments were somewhat abstract, but the Dunigan case proves Brown is far from the only veteran footballer thinking that way. Here's part of what the senior Dunigan told Zelkovich about how that conversation with Dolan went:
"It was the most difficult thing I've had to do, to tell my son what he couldn't do as opposed to encouraging him to do the things he wanted to do," says Matt. "That's what parenting is all about, fanning your kids' dreams and supporting him. He loved the game and I loved watching him play.
"But based on what I'd been through, it was pretty much a clear-cut decision."
What exactly has the senior Dunigan (#16, pictured above right hoisting the 1991 Grey Cup with Argonauts' teammate Don Moen) been through? Well, most will remember him for his impressive 13-year, six-team CFL career, which saw him record 43,859 passing yards, be selected as a league all-star three times and earn an induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2006. His post-playing life hasn't been easy, though, despite the chance to serve as a coach and GM with Calgary in 2004 and a steady gig as a TSN analyst. In his book, Dunigan talks about the day-to-day issues he still faces thanks to his concussion history, which include everything from memory loss to balance issues, mood swings and difficulty talking. From his experience dealing with that constantly, it's quite understandable that he wouldn't want his son to have to go through the same things.
For athletes, it's not quite that easy, though. I recently talked about the macho culture pervasive in sports, which can be a deterrent to change. It's that culture that convinces athletes to keep going out there and keep trying to battle their way back from injuries, even when it might threaten their long-term health. That's why plenty of people will undoubtedly view Dolan's decision to quit football and his father's efforts to persuade him to do so as giving up, or an admission of weakness, particularly in light of his potential; as a 6'5'', 217-pound quarterback with plenty of skill, Dolan certainly had the potential to go a long way. After abandoning his football career now, he'll likely have some thoughts about what could perhaps have been.
That's part of our sports atmosphere, though. We glorify and write about the heroes, the legends and the Hall of Famers for obvious reasons, but the vast majority of professional athletes never get close to those standards. For many, their careers are nasty, brutish and short, but they have long-lasting effects (William Nack's famous piece, The Wrecking Yard, is a great description of how awful many of those effects can be). Is it worth giving up after a few concussions in hopes of preserving, or pushing on and on, hoping to persevere against the odds and somehow walk away with both health and fortune? That's a question that each athlete has to answer for themselves, and I'm not sure there's a right answer.
It's notable that the senior Dunigan isn't out there railing against football as a whole. His main job is still as an analyst for TSN, something he does a solid job of, and he says he'd still encourage kids in general to play football. He is advocating for further research into concussions' effects and the best ways to prevent them, though, and that's certainly something that makes plenty of sense given the disturbing data we've seen. He also plans to donate his own brain to research after his death, and that's definitely a powerful statement about his belief in the cause. From this perspective, Dunigan's adopting the best possible approach of warning about the dangers and advocating for change without calling for a complete demolition of football.
It's also worth noting that Dolan Dunigan still has plenty of prospects for an athletic career even after giving up on football, though. He's moved on to baseball, has become a pitcher with the Oakville Royals and may yet have the chance to get a college scholarship and perhaps even a shot at the pros. He may still have to deal with issues from the concussions he's suffered so far, but even if baseball doesn't work out for him, there are still plenty of non-sports careers he can pursue. Was quitting football the right decision for him? No one will ever know if he would have become a football star if he'd stayed in the game, but we also don't know if he would have suffered further awful injuries.
Dolan's father's experience certainly was a valuable source of information for him to draw on, and that's probably why he says now that football "wasn't worth it" That should serve as a clarion call to executives, coaches and researchers everywhere; football is a great game, but plenty has to be done to improve it and make it safer. Maybe someday there won't be as many kids like Dolan suffering multiple concussions by 14, and maybe we'll fully understand just what concussions do (and how much each concussion impacts the next). For now, it's all a guessing game; Dolan's made his guess, and it may prove to be a valuable one for him.