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Brain disease took my dad, David Canary, in 2015. That was 56 years after his last blow to the head as a University of Cincinnati Bearcat — and 62 years since his first concussion as a Massillon Tiger. Had he not turned down a professional bid from the Denver Broncos to head to New York City and become an actor, the years may have been fewer.
Consider that blessing counted.
Fifty-six years is a long time, during which Dad led an exceptional life. He earned five Emmy awards (and 16 nominations) for his work on “All My Children,” but he was much more than a soap star; to describe him as such would diminish his decades of musical and theatrical work, poetry, playwriting, philanthropy, carpentry and tireless devotion to my mom, my brother and me.
Prior to any of that, he was an athlete. In his hometown of Massillon, Ohio, Dad found equal acclaim as a lineman and a leading man — but only one of the two could elevate him to a God-like status among his peers. It was the highest form of football worship, a religion that continues to possess not just rural America, but the population at large.
Still, he got out. In the years following Dad’s retirement from the game, football became little more than a Sunday-afternoon diversion from his busy schedule. The wounds healed, and — though some psychological distress lingered on — the scars faded. Time passed.
Then he got sick. It started imperceptibly — a minor lapse in judgment, a misplaced word. His personality, not his memory, was the first point of genuine concern. Dad was changing, undeniably and irreversibly, as a stealth attacker rewired his mind from within. That’s the cruelty of dementia: It makes strangers of its victims long before they’re gone.
It would be nearly impossible to draw the correlation between football and the onset of brain disease five decades later had doctors and scientists not already done so for me. There is, mercifully, no ignoring the evidence connecting the concussive blows inherent in football to various forms of dementia — including the type with which Dad was diagnosed, and the type that, I suspect, he actually had.
I’ll start with the latter: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative brain disease whose connection to sports-induced head trauma dates back to 1928. According to the National Institute of Health, that’s when pathologist and medical examiner Harrison Martland formally diagnosed in boxers the symptoms that sportscasters fondly referred to as “punch drunk,” among other terms.
It wasn’t until 2002, nearly 80 years later, that Dr. Bennet Omalu became the first person to diagnose a football-related occurrence of CTE. It was in the brain of Mike Webster, an NFL Hall-of-Famer who descended into mental illness, homelessness and degeneracy before his untimely death at age 50.
A traditional autopsy revealed nothing, but a befuddled Omalu persisted until he finally discovered tangled up tau proteins on a microscopic slice of Webster’s brain.
Then came Justin Strzelczyk. Then Terry Long. Then Andre Waters. Then Tom McHale. And on and on.
But you’ve heard this story. After decades of resistance to Omalu’s discoveries, the tide has turned; the connection between football and CTE is finally being corroborated by mounting research, reporting and firsthand accounts. For its ramifications — most recently, the suicide of Jason Hairston — there is no end in sight.
I’m not here to convince anyone that CTE exists in former NFL players. But Dad turned down the NFL, remember?
In July of 2017, The New York Times published the results of a study conducted by Dr. Ann McKee for the American Medical Association. Of the 111 brains of NFL players examined by McKee, 110 had CTE. A staggering statistic, for sure — but it was the following passage that knocked the wind out of me, no pun intended:
“In addition to the 111 brains from those who played in the NFL, researchers also examined brains from the Canadian Football League, semi-professional players, college players and high school players. Of the 202 brains studied, 87% were found to have CTE. The study found that the high school players had mild cases, while college and professional players showed more severe effects. But even those with mild cases exhibited cognitive, mood and behavioral symptoms.”
Eighty-seven percent. Finally, in black and white: proof that CTE does not just affect footballers at the professional level, and that the severity of symptoms increases with every year played.
Which brings me back to Dad. His formal diagnosis, Alzheimer’s disease, was one we thought we could handle when it was confirmed via PET scan just 18 months before his death at age 77.
Dad had a buildup of amyloid plaque on his brain, plain and simple. Alzheimer’s is widely studied — though not widely enough — and research appeared on the verge of a breakthrough. We would treat, we would cope, and with any luck, we could stabilize him for his remaining years.
But this diagnosis came after years of suffering with Dad’s cognitive decline, and arguably decades of signs. Without exposing the most excruciating details of a disease that could extinguish the most vibrant of men, I can confess that his case was anything but typical.
We lost him in fits and starts, over and over, for roughly seven years leading up to his final breath. Begrudgingly, we learned to lie to him — “entering his world,” as my brother Chris so delicately deemed it — to skirt the contradictory truths that would trigger his outbursts, which left physical scars on objects, on himself, and on others. We knew many families who had faced Alzheimer’s, yet we were the only ones uttering the comparison “Jekyll and Hyde.”
Those closest to Dad witnessed firsthand the erratic, delusional and at times explosive episodes that characterized his particular case, which we tried attributing to an overactive imagination in a broken brain. But as more information emerges about CTE and the nature of its symptoms — the violent mood swings, the lapses in judgment, the hours-long hallucinations, the paranoid delusions — we are left with more questions than answers, more regret than relief.
Here’s what we know: Dad suffered at least four major concussions as a lineman between the ages of 16 and 22 — and, to quote my mother, “those are the ones he remembered.”
Of those concussions, many were treated with smelling salts and a slap on the back before a swift return to the field.
We know that one NFL player endured 62 sub-concussive blows in the course of a single game, each one the rough equivalent of crashing his car into a wall at 30 miles per hour.
We know that Dad experienced cognitive difficulties years, even decades, before his diagnosis — though there is no documented Alzheimer’s in his genetic lineage. We know that Dad’s so-called Alzheimer’s was uncharacteristic in its volatility.
And we know that shortly before he died on Nov. 16, 2015 — in relative peace, enveloped by the love of our family — he went into an emotional tailspin of sorts, then abruptly lost his ability to swallow and therefore eat, speak or sing. As were his wishes, we set him free.
The September before he died — when we believed he had a few years left, at least — I began to explore options for donating Dad’s brain to research. (A lifelong organ donor, he was thrilled by science — and all the more so by the notion of contributing to the greater good. That he would want this was beyond doubt.) I was already too late; we lost him eight weeks later.
In the end, I was relieved to have not followed through. As it turns out, an autopsy becomes an even more gruesome proposition with death certificate in hand.
“Did football kill my father?” This question doesn’t just linger with time; it grows exponentially louder. What we have in anecdotal evidence, we lack in diagnostic proof. Instead, we join the chorus of voices convinced that America’s small-town savior is a devil in disguise.
Dad needed no such savior. Show business would be his ticket out of Ohio, and to a life rich with happiness, until it eluded him. In contemplating the utter futility of his football career, I can’t help but wonder what might have been different if the arts had been exalted like football in 1950s rural America.
Perhaps he would have developed the disease later. Perhaps not at all. Perhaps he would have walked me down the aisle on my wedding day. Instead, we eulogized him exactly six months before the day I pinned his photo to my bouquet.
Leaving the things I can’t control to science, I shift my focus on the things I can. It is clear now that part of honoring Dad’s legacy is sharing this part of his story. No child of mine will play football; not pee-wee, not high school, not college — no matter how enticing the scholarship.
Speaking out against a deeply ingrained cultural pastime may not be the convenient choice, but what is the alternative? For whatever bliss we derive from our own ignorance, our descendants will pay the price.
Canary is a writer specializing in marketing content. She lives in Connecticut and works in Manhattan.
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