July 08, 2011
Matt Dunigan's more than just a talking head on TSN's CFL panel. He had a legendary career as a quarterback first at Louisiana Tech and then in the CFL with six different teams, including the Toronto Argonauts (where he, #16, helped them to the 1991 Grey Cup celebration pictured above). He worked as a CFL coach and general manager afterwards as well, but didn't have as much success there (thanks partly to the turbulence in Calgary's ownership during his tenure). Since that time, he's gone back to TSN and also hosts The Food Network's Road Grill barbecue series. Throughout all that, though, Dunigan's been struggling with the long-term effects of the concussions he suffered as a CFL player. He explored that side of his life and how it's affected his family in a stunning feature on TSN's pre-game show Friday night, which you can watch here (you may have to click the "Solitary Confinement" icon near the bottom of the player).
"Over the course of his CFL career, Matt sustained at least 12 diagnosed concussions and possibly many more that went undiagnosed," TSN's Brian Williams said during the show's opening. "Seldom do we deal with how concussions affect the family."
Those effects certainly can be prominent, though. Dunigan said he knew something was wrong partway through his playing career after the concussions started to add up.
"I felt like I was in solitary confinement," he said. "I knew that something was different and I…I hid."
His wife, Kathy, said the changes in Dunigan's personality were dramatic and noticeable.
Kathy Dunigan said Matt seemed like a different person, and his emotions changed rapidly.
"He was angry, he was very short-fused, and his personality as far as temperament was very up and down," she said.
Dunigan said he purposefully withdrew from the world as much as possible after his career ended to avoid showing the issues he was facing.
"I removed myself from a lot of social events," he said. "Those scenarios where I had to be with people, I knew I didn't have anything nice to say."
He said Kathy's support was incredible, considering how she was there through all the worst moments.
"She's the only one that can really see it, because she's been with me from day one," he said. "I don't think anyone would have stayed with me except her."
Dunigan said he still feels the effects of concussions today.
"I notice the difference all the time, and it's frustrating to me," he said. "I don't laugh as much, my sense of humour is not the same. The mood swings, the loss of equilibrium, the headaches, the depression…"
That's part of what motivated Dunigan to get involved in the nationwide effort to promote concussion research, and he plans to keep promoting the cause for the rest of his life and more. He's already agreed to donate his brain to renowned Canadian concussion study group ThinkFirst
"When I'm done, my brain's going to Dr. Charles Tator and company, and they'll continue hopefully to advance the science," Dunigan said.
He's not leaving his advocacy until then, though.
"I'll fight the fight," Dunigan said.
Dunigan had to face the concussions debate from a new angle recently, as he pulled his son Dolan, a promising quarterback, out of football at the age of 14 in 2007 after Dolan suffered his third concussion.
"It was the last game of the season, and I saw him, and his eyes were basically rolling in the back of his head," Dunigan said. "It was the hardest decision I ever had to make."
Dolan Dunigan said it was tough for him to give up football, as he'd always wanted to follow in his father's footsteps.
"Growing up, I heard the stories of how good he was in the CFL," he said. "I wanted to be just like him. It was almost impossible to give [football] up but it was probably the best decision he made for me."
In the end, though, Dolan has accepted the decision and has gone on to become a successful pitcher with the Oakville Royals.
Dunigan said he'd make the decision to play football over again if he had to. Despite the highs and lows and the damaging effects that haunt him to this day, Dunigan's still happy with his decisions, and he's happy his family's survived despite the challenges.
"I look at our three kids, I look at the health that we do have, and I do feel pretty blessed."