Star quarterbacks and that terrible path


The most feared word in sports medicine.

Once regarded as a “mild traumatic brain injury” and now more terrorizing than torn ligaments, separated shoulders and broken backs.


Studies analyze it. Books are written about it. Brains are donated dying from it, for the worthy cause of posthumously understanding it.


Both the name of a movie and the sentence to golden years of forgetting more than seniors who never had one, and sometimes of forgetting everything.

I may have had a concussion from kid sports. I don’t remember. Our son had at least one when he fractured his skull, and I’ve known many concussed athletes. One of them died this month.

His name was Joe Kapp. Long after he’d been a star quarterback, we met during his unsuccessful part-season as the B.C. Lions’ president and general manager. I was doing freelance work for him. He was driven, fiery and demanding, just as I imagine he’d been throwing touchdown passes in college, the Canadian and National Football Leagues.

If I ever met a more enthusiastic football executive, I’ve forgotten that, too. Kapp just wanted to be the best, as all executives do, but what set him apart was insisting nobody leave a stone unturned. As I found out, he’d listen to anybody who could know something he didn’t know — not because of an ego trip, just because his only motivation was to win.

Not everybody liked Joe Kapp. I did. Several years ago, I read he was getting confused, or forgetful and then suffering from dementia. Nobody wants to talk about that, and not many people did. The years slipped by and “The Toughest Chicano” (as he called himself) obviously slipped further from reality. The thought that Kapp may not have known where he was, or who he was, was inconceivable.

Sadly, many people experience that sentiment about loved ones who didn’t play football. But football’s a flashpoint, because of violent head-to-head contact that’s sometimes unavoidable. That’s why the movie “Concussion” prompted Junior Ah You, who used to head-hunt CFL quarterbacks, to tell me he’d never have let his sons play had the movie come out 30 years earlier. That’s why the NFL settled a head-injury lawsuit for $765 million.

About the time of Kapp’s semi-public diagnosis, I heard that another that great CFL quarterback, Kenny Ploen, was having memory issues…he could probably remember who caught his only touchdown pass in six Grey Cups (Ernie Pitts) but perhaps not the person he’d recently met for lunch. He and Kapp were CFL stars. One or the other was a starting quarterback in eight of nine Grey Cup games from 1957 to 1965. Ploen played in the Rose Bowl and the Grey Cup in the same year. Kapp also played in both, plus one Super Bowl, the only player with that trifecta. Only Ploen and Warren Moon were MVPs in both the Rose Bowl and the Grey Cup.

Kapp, whose brain has been donated for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) research, and Ploen, whose 88th birthday is next month, dueled as much as quarterbacks can, 60 years ago. The duel to follow, one neither could win, likely began the same way.