After former Montreal Alouettes' star Tony Proudfoot (pictured above with his family receiving the CFL's Hugh Campbell Leadership Award from commissioner Mark Cohon earlier this year) died last week, much of the focus was on decision the courageous way he shared his battle with ALS with the public to raise awareness of the disease and research funds to find ways to fight it. In many cases, that would seem unusual, considering how many other spectacular things Proudfoot was known for throughout his life, including the legendary staples trick in the Ice Bowl, an all-star career as a CFL defensive back, heroism during the Dawson College shootings and a memorable radio career. In his case, though, it was perfectly apt. That's shown in the final piece he wrote for The Montreal Gazette shortly before his death, which was published today. Here's the key part:
If you're reading this missive, it's because ALS has sucked the final breath from my ravaged body and chewed up the last of my rapidly fading energy. There was nothing more I could do.
Don't feel sorry for me, my life was as great as I could have asked for with the most magnificent wife and kids on Earth. The rest of my tight-knit family and the myriad of super friends all proved their worth through a love and support that I may never have imagined and enjoyed if I had not contracted this terrible, terrible disease.
Even at the end, Proudfoot refused to be bitter. That's amazing considering the ravages of ALS. It's a disease that took all his energy, had him on a ventilator for up to 22 hours a day and forced him to talk through a computer. Despite all that, Proudfoot never withdrew from the world; he continued to share his struggle with the public and was deservingly honoured by the CFL in November. His courage and optimism recalls the public farewell another famous sports hero who also died from ALS and lent the disease his name in the process, but refused to be bowed by it:
Much like Proudfoot, Lou Gehrig had every right to be bitter. He had an amazing career and an ironman streak snapped by an awful disease. Many of us would see that as a betrayal by life and an opportunity to rage against the evils of the world, but not these two men. Gehrig considered himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth", while Proudfoot went out affirming just how enjoyable life can be even in the midst of crisis:
So you see, life is good, life is great. And it's the people around you that make it so. It's simple symbiosis. The greatest two words in the English language are love and empathy. Embrace them, use them, live them. I sucked it up, I didn't whine and I passed on with my head held high, knowing I fought a helluva fight I could never win, but pleased I battled with determination and valour and pride.
I was reading through Sports Illustrated's recent tribute to many of the athletes who died in 2010, and found it notable that in most of the profiles, the focus was on their life, with a sentence or two on their death. That's understandable, as we prefer to remember our athletes at the peak of their powers and most of them prefer to pass from this world quietly with friends and family, but it reinforces how unique and important Proudfoot's decision to share his struggle against ALS with the public was.
ALS is a horrible disease with no known cure and without a high profile in research funding, and it's one that's hit former CFL players at a rate of around 160 times the incidence in the general population. Links between ALS, similar diseases and concussions are only starting to be established, but the signs seen so far suggest we might be seeing many more football players with ALS or similar diseases in the future. That buttresses the importance of Proudfoot's decision to raise awareness and funding by taking his battle public. His other accomplishments need to be remembered as well, but the decision he made to share his battle at the end of his life was just as important as anything he ever did on the gridiron. That's why he'll remain immortal in Montreal, much in the same way Gehrig is still remembered in New York.
To donate to the Tony Proudfoot Fund for ALS research, go here.