Former Montreal Alouettes player and broadcaster Tony Proudfoot has been struggling with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis since 2007, and he's taken an amazing approach. Instead of complaining about his lot, Proudfoot has been facing it head-on and raising awareness and funds for ALS research. He's managed to pull in over half a million dollars for the Tony Proudfoot Fund, and he's seen significant progress made towards finding ways to fight the disease. Unfortunately, as Proudfoot wrote in a farewell piece in Wednesday's Montreal Gazette, the research advancements don't seem likely to be in time to help him.
People across the country saw part of just how tough things are for Proudfoot last month when the CFL made the laudable move to honour him with this year's Hugh Campbell Distinguished Leadership award. The award is usually presented during Grey Cup Week, but it was given to Proudfoot (pictured above with his family receiving his award from CFL commissioner Mark Cohon Nov. 21) before the East Final in Montreal because his condition made it impossible for him to travel to Edmonton. Canadians from coast to coast saw an ailing man largely confined to a wheelchair, but one as inspiring as any of the current gridiron stars, and one definitely deserving of all the recognition the CFL offered him. Even the images of him slumped in a wheelchair didn't fully encapsulate how difficult Proudfoot's struggle is, though; as he wrote Wednesday, every moment is a battle:
"Focusing on my next breath requires all of my energy. I am starved of air and oxygen and need to rely on a ventilator just to feel stable, just to live. I am now on my ventilator up to 22 hours per day, often going off one, to walk slowly to another room to attach myself to another."
It isn't easy to synthesize the images of a dominant football player fighting for yards and an older man fighting for life, but the connection isn't as rare as you might think. William Nack's 2001 piece for Sports Illustrated, "The Wrecking Yard", discussed how the majority of former football players wind up with significant health issues. The focus of that piece and many of the others along those lines was on the NFL, but quotes like this are just as applicable to veterans of the three-down game:
"If you go to a retired players' convention, there are older retirees who walk around like Maryland crabs," says Miki Yaras-Davis, director of benefits for the NFL Players Association. "It's an orthopedic surgeon's dream. I'm surprised the doctors aren't standing outside the door handing out their cards. Hardly one [former player] you see doesn't need a hip replacement. Everybody comes out of pro football with some injury. It's only the degree that separates them."
A lot of those injuries are awful, and they've led to massive battles over player safety issues and compensation for retirees in both the NFL and the CFL. Few can approach what Proudfoot's facing, but that doesn't necessarily disconnect his story from the larger picture of football injuries. Eight former CFL players have ALS or have died from it, which is remarkable when you consider that there have been only about 5,000 CFL players since 1950 and that the typical incidence of ALS in the general population is one to two cases per 100,000 people. There may not be a definite link between ALS and football yet, but evidence is starting to pile up that similar brain diseases may be strongly tied to a history of concussions, which are frightening enough on their own. Proudfoot (pictured at right at his home this August) may not be the last football player to battle this kind of disease, and that reinforces the importance of the research efforts he and other trailblazers like Jay Roberts have supported.
The larger context and implications are noteworthy, but they shouldn't overshadow an incredible story of an incredible man. Proudfoot has valiantly battled a horrible disease for years, and by sharing his struggles with the public, he's illustrated just how important supporting ALS research is. He's raised so much awareness for the disease, and the Alouettes' organization and the CFL as a whole deserve tremendous credit for the ways they've supported him. Many football teams and leagues have largely ignored their grievously wounded alumni, perhaps to keep the frequently horrible consequences of football out of the public eye. The Alouettes and the CFL haven't done that; they've stood with Proudfoot time and time again over the past few years, and they've helped to bring more attention to his cause. Former Alouette and current B.C. Lion Davis Sanchez has been one of Proudfoot's biggest supporters, donating his game cheque to Proudfoot's ALS research fund earlier this year, and both Montreal head coach Marc Trestman and slotback Ben Cahoon stopped by independently to visit Proudfoot after their Grey Cup victory this year, which they said was for him.
Proudfoot's other accomplishments shouldn't be forgotten either. After a strong CIS career at the University of New Brunswick, he was drafted 36th overall by the Alouettes in 1971. He played 109 games at defensive back for the Alouettes over the next decade, was twice named an All-Star and famously came up with the staple plan that helped Montreal thump Edmonton 41-6 in the 1977 Grey Cup, also known as "The Ice Bowl". It's perhaps appropriate that Proudfoot was given an award named after Hugh Campbell this year, as he was instrumental in that defeat of Campbell's Eskimos. He also spent 41 games with the B.C. Lions, taught physical education at Montreal's Dawson College (where he helped give first aid to shooting victims during the 2006 tragedy) and served as the Alouettes' radio colour commentator for a decade.
Despite Proudfoot's tremendous CFL career as both a player and broadcaster and his accomplishments as a man, what he's done these last few years to raise funds for ALS research and draw attention to the disease stands on its own. That alone would be more than enough for most mortals; when you combine it with his other legendary deeds, you get a sense of how special Proudfoot really is. The man is an inspiration to Canadians from coast to coast, and he'll live on forever in our memories. The overarching message of Proudfoot's story is how important it is to not take life and health for granted, and as he writes, that's something we should all keep in mind:
I write and speak about this disease and my adventure in positive, forward- looking phrases and people see it as courageous and even heroic. But living the reality has been awful and downright frightening for me and my family. I have chosen to write about it as a method of informing and educating as many people as I can. Greater awareness and financial contributions for ALS research may someday be enough that the thousands who become afflicted with this malicious, sinister fate might have some hope. I would also like my attitude and approach to be an aid and beacon to everyone that you should live your life as fully as you can, every day.