Andy Warhol's quip about everyone's 15 minutes of fame never applied to Tony Proudfoot (pictured at right above drinking champagne from the Dixon Cup after claiming the East Division title with the Alouettes in 1979), a true Canadian hero who passed away yesterday at the age of 61 after a long battle with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease). Many of us struggle to do even one thing at a high level, but Proudfoot's life was a long story of persevering despite the odds and finding tremendous success in a wide variety of arenas.
Proudfoot was born in Winnipeg, but his family moved to Montreal before he started high school, beginning his long association with the city. He went away to the University of New Brunswick, where he was an outstanding linebacker and was nominated for the Hec Crighton Trophy as the top CIS player. That alone is highly unusual and a testament to Proudfoot's skill, as the award generally goes to a quarterback or running back; in fact, only one defensive player has ever won it. Despite that, he slipped all the way to the fourth round in the 1971 CFL draft, where the Alouettes selected him 36th overall. They then cut him before the season, but brought him back in 1973 as a defensive back. Proudfoot excelled in his new role and was also a demon on special teams. His shining moment on the CFL's biggest stage was yet to come, though.
The 1977 Grey Cup, or "The Ice Bowl", remains one of the most memorable trophy clashes in any sport, and Proudfoot was a large part of the reason why. In their first full season at Olympic Stadium, the Marv Levy-led Alouettes were averaging 59,595 fans per game (a league record that still stands), and they were also hosting the championship game. They made it through the playoffs to face the Edmonton Eskimos yet again, but this time, the conditions played a major factor. At this point, Olympic Stadium didn't yet have the roof that was originally planned, so it was open to the air when a massive dump of snow hit. Stadium workers tried to clear the field with salt, but that just turned the snow into ice. Proudfoot came up with the ingenious idea to borrow an electrician's staple gun and add staples to the bottoms of the Alouettes' shoes. That gave them extra traction on the slippery surface and helped them waltz to a 41-6 victory.
Proudfoot went on to win another Grey Cup with the Alouettes in 1979 and finished his playing career with the B.C. Lions from 1980-82. He was selected as a league all-star in 1977 and 1979. He went on to be a teacher, coach, broadcaster and author, teaching physical education at Montreal's Dawson College for 30 years. He risked his life during the 2006 shootings at the school to administer first aid to a student who had been shot in the head; the student survived. Proudfoot was also an assistant coach with the Concordia Stingers during the 1990s, including the 1998 team that went to the Vanier Cup. When the Alouettes came back to the CFL in 1996, Proudfoot soon came on board as a radio broadcaster and even filled dual roles as a broadcaster and assistant coach during the early part of this decade.
Despite all those incredible triumphs, Proudfoot's most significant accomplishment might come from what many would see as a low point. He was diagnosed with ALS in 2007, but much like the man whose name is commonly linked to the disease, Proudfoot didn't become bitter or resentful. Instead, he used his profile and his platform to raise awareness of ALS and raise funds for research to find a cure for the disease, sharing his struggles through columns in The Montreal Gazette (including an inspiring farewell piece just weeks ago) and media interviews (like the August one where the photo at right was taken). That must have required an unbelievable amount of courage.
It's tough to overstate the importance of Proudfoot's campaign to raise awareness of and funds for ALS. The disease may well become a crucial sports issue in the next few decades, and the body of evidence that repeated concussions may cause ALS and similar diseases is growing. Even a simple look at the numbers is terrifying; ALS hits one to two people per 100,000 in the general population (or 0.001 to 0.002 per cent of people), but eight former CFL players including Proudfoot either have ALS or have died from it, remarkable considering that only about 5,000 people have played in the CFL since the 1950s. That's 0.16 per cent of all former CFL players, or around 160 times as high as the rate in the general population. That rate's also likely to rise even higher, considering that most of the former CFL players who have been hit with ALS have been diagnosed in middle age and many of the more recent former players haven't reached that stage of life yet.
That's what makes Proudfoot's campaign so valuable and so important. He led a brilliant and fulfilling life with plenty of accomplishments that on their own would have been more than many of us can hope for, but his greatest success may have come when facing his toughest battle. ALS is a relatively rare disease, but it's a horrible and incurable one that slowly saps your strength. Its rarity means there's nowhere near the amount of funding for ALS research that there is for more common diseases, but Proudfoot made a great start in changing that. He raised over half a million dollars for ALS research through the Tony Proudfoot Fund, and that money's going to go a long way towards making a difference. If you'd like to donate online, you can click this link.
Perhaps equally important, Proudfoot made a huge difference in raising awareness of the disease, which may soon be an even more prevalent issue. The CFL honoured him with the distinguished Hugh Campbell Leadership Award earlier this year during the East Division final (the ceremony pictured at right), and the league has made a donation in his memory, both of which are great to see. Proudfoot leaves behind many legacies as a player, a teacher, a coach and a broadcaster, but his legacy as a hero in the fight against ALS may be the strongest. As we move into 2011, let's keep him in our hearts and minds and remember his name. Here's a farewell from the man himself:
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. I want to thank Gazette sports editor Stu Cowan for his encouragement and especially for giving me this forum. 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.
That, my friends, is the only hope for the thousands of Canadians struck with ALS and thousands more who will contract it. To make a contribution right now, please go to www.sla-quebec.ca.