'I would have had one ev­ery game'

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - STO­RIES BY STEVE BUIST

GAME IN, GAME OUT, MIKE MORREALE al­ways knew what was ex­pected of him when he stepped on the foot­ball field.

His job as a re­ceiver was to grab the tough yards, get the first downs and take the big hits in the mid­dle of the field.

Morreale played 12 years in the CFL — that’s 216 reg­u­lar-sea­son games — and he never missed one of them.

Over his ca­reer, the Hamil­ton na­tive says he was never di­ag­nosed with a sin­gle con­cus­sion, which seems as­ton­ish­ing.

Now that he can look back on his ca­reer, how many con­cus­sions does he think he suf­fered?

“I would have had one ev­ery game,” said Morreale, now 46. “Ev­ery game.

“Ev­ery game I would have seen stars. Ev­ery game I would have had light-head­ed­ness. Ev­ery game I would have had an is­sue for a few plays in the hud­dle af­ter a big hit.

“I just thought it’s part of the game, that’s what hap­pens,” Morreale added. “I never missed a game my whole ca­reer, so add ’em up.”

He doesn’t blame the team’s med­i­cal staff be­cause he says he never told them about the dam­age he was ab­sorb­ing.

“There were many times — prob­a­bly 30 or 40 games in my ca­reer — where I prob­a­bly shouldn’t have played,” said Morreale. “But I did. You felt you had to be in­vin­ci­ble.

“And I was al­ways scared of some­one tak­ing my job,” he added. “That’s the cul­ture that ex­isted in sports.”

EV­ERY FOR­MER PLAYER has at least one story of be­ing knocked sense­less on the field at some point and then pick­ing up — or try­ing to — as if noth­ing had hap­pened.

“It was ‘Gla­di­a­tors,’” said Ti­cat hall of fame line­backer Ben Zam­bi­asi, known through­out his 11-year ca­reer as a fe­ro­cious hit­ter.

“You wanted to elim­i­nate as many of the other play­ers as pos­si­ble,” said Zam­bi­asi. “The more guys you got out, the bet­ter.”

Kerry Smith, a re­ceiver who played six CFL sea­sons, in­clud­ing four with the Ti­cats in the late ’70s and early ’80s, said the tac­tic in those days was for a de­fender to wrap up the ball car­rier and hold him up­right, rather than try­ing to tackle him to the ground.

That way, other de­fend­ers could take a run at the player, in­flict­ing as much dam­age as pos­si­ble.

He remembers be­ing held up one time by an­other player, com­pletely de­fence­less, and hav­ing the left side of his head smashed at full speed by a tack­ler.

“One of my fill­ings popped out,” he said.

Af­ter a few plays, he was sent back in.

He couldn’t see out of his left eye, he said, and the vi­sion in his right eye was gar­bled “like when the ver­ti­cal hold used to go in those old TVs.”

Lee Knight spent 11 sea­sons in the CFL with the Ti­cats as a re­ceiver and run­ning back.

He re­calls a time play­ing in Win­nipeg when he jumped to catch a pass and then a de­fen­sive back came from un­der­neath and took his legs out. Knight landed on his head.

One of the Win­nipeg play­ers guided Knight back to the bench and told the Ti­cats’ trainer that he “wasn’t right.”

The next thing Knight remembers is be­ing on the bench. He started gig­gling be­cause a rush of child­hood mem­o­ries were flash­ing through his mind, like a video of his life.

He tried to go back onto the field, but some­one had hid­den his hel­met as a pre­cau­tion.

HERE ARE THE STO­RIES from some of the play­ers who took part in The Spec­ta­tor’s con­cus­sion project:

Dan Fer­rone, 59 Of­fen­sive line­man

WHEN FER­RONE watches foot­ball now and sees a vi­cious hit, he shud­ders.

“Be­cause I go ‘I did that?’ I can’t be­lieve it,” he said. “I don’t nor­mally watch high­lights of my­self but when I do, I go ‘Holy sh-t, what the hell was I think­ing?’

“When your ag­gres­sive­ness is there, you don’t even rec­og­nize how you use your head,” Fer­rone said. “Other than your hands, it’s prob­a­bly your No. 1 weapon in the game of foot­ball.”

As an of­fen­sive line­man, Fer­rone said his head was tak­ing pun­ish­ment on vir­tu­ally ev­ery play.

“A run­ning back might not get the ball or a re­ceiver might catch six or seven balls and get tack­led and that’s the ex­tent of a great game,” said Fer­rone. “Whereas, 60 or 70 of­fen­sive plays or how­ever many of­fen­sive plays there were in a game, on 98 per cent of those plays as an of­fen­sive line­man you were hit­ting some­thing.

“And if you weren’t, you weren’t go­ing to be on the team much longer.”

Fer­rone says he was di­ag­nosed with one or two con­cus­sions, but sus­pects now he may have had as many as 10.

“Do I re­mem­ber hav­ing nau­sea? Yes,” he said. “Do I re­mem­ber hav­ing the spins or not be­ing able to stand or prac­tise the next day? Yes.

“Back then, the rem­edy was to stay in a dark room,” he said. “But then when prac­tice started, you had to come out and watch prac­tice.

“I can re­mem­ber twice, once in col­lege, once in the pros, that I had trou­ble stand­ing and watch­ing prac­tice.

“The con­cus­sions were some­thing that could ac­tu­ally give you a break dur­ing the week,” he added. “You wouldn’t prac­tice so you didn’t have to hit the rest of the week, so that was al­ways a bless­ing.”

Fer­rone said he hasn’t ex­pe­ri­enced symp­toms of de­pres­sion or ir­ri­tabil­ity and calls him­self “a happy per­son.”

“I don’t think I worry more than any other per­son,” said Fer­rone.

“The sce­nario of walk­ing into a room and for­get­ting why you walked into a room is shared by many of my friends that never played any sport,” he said. “The is­sue that I fear is walk­ing into a room and not know­ing where that room is.”

“To­day, I’m con­fi­dent that I’m not worse for wear but that could change very quickly.”

Bob Mac­Don­ald, 49 Of­fen­sive line­man

IT WAS JUST the sec­ond game of Mac­Don­ald’s univer­sity foot­ball ca­reer when he suf­fered his only di­ag­nosed con­cus­sion.

He was an 18-year-old of­fen­sive line­man for McMaster dur­ing the 1986 sea­son and lined up op­po­site him was a Univer­sity of Guelph de­fender he de­scribes as “gi­ganto” — six-foot-seven and 285 pounds.

“I went out to cut him and I took his knee right to the side of my head,” said Mac­Don­ald. “I dropped and as I started to get up on my hands and knees and raised my head, ev­ery-

thing was blue and green. It was just bizarre.

“I started walk­ing to­ward the bench and the guy who was play­ing guard be­side me said ‘Bobby, where are you go­ing?’ I said ‘I’m go­ing to the bench.’ He said ‘We’re the other way.’”

Mac­Don­ald played the sec­ond half of the game, but he doesn’t re­mem­ber any­thing about it.

Af­ter the game, he went back to his par­ents’ house in Burlington and spent most of the next day, a Sun­day, vom­it­ing.

“But then Mon­day, I strapped them back on and was back at prac­tice,” said Mac­Don­ald.

Back then, Mac­Don­ald said, he was taught to em­ploy three points of con­tact — punch out with two hands, and then he taps the mid­dle of his fore­head, “right here, where your cage and your hel­met meet.”

“I would try to knock snot out of my nose ev­ery sin­gle con­tact,” he said. “If I saw snot on my face mask, I thought ‘That’s fan­tas­tic.’ “It’s crazi­ness.” Mac­Don­ald, now a teacher at Salt­fleet Sec­ondary School, is also one of the coaches of the foot­ball team.

He ad­mits he’s re­ally strug­gling with that role, par­tic­u­larly now that he has par­tic­i­pated in this project.

“It’s a real moral co­nun­drum,” he said. “This might be the fi­nal straw.

“When there are big hits, I’m al­most trig­gered off, like a PTSD re­sponse,” Mac­Don­ald said. “Like, ‘Oh my God, what just hap­pened to that kid’s brain?’”

Re­tired Toronto Arg­onaut In his 50s, re­ceiver

(AS PART OF THE RE­SEARCH project pro­to­col, par­tic­i­pants were guar­an­teed anonymity if de­sired.)

The player spent 16 years play­ing foot­ball, start­ing at age 11, and he ad­mits he now has con­cerns about the fu­ture.

“Some of it may be nat­u­ral ag­ing of the brain, but a lot of it I’m won­der­ing ‘Would I be for­get­ting this? Would I be act­ing this way if it wasn’t for foot­ball?’” he said.

He was never di­ag­nosed with a con­cus­sion, but he does re­call a cou­ple of times when he suf­fered short­term black­outs from hits.

“Back in those days, you weren’t re­ally seen by med­i­cal staff or kept out of play for long,” he said. “The old ‘How many fingers am I hold­ing up?’ and then you’re back in within a few min­utes.

“I can’t even count the num­ber of times where I had im­pacts where I didn’t nec­es­sar­ily black out, but you’re dazed and just kind of shake it off and get back in the hud­dle.

“It was part of the cul­ture,” he said. “The whole peer thing, the whole ma­cho thing.”

The player said he re­fused to al­low his chil­dren to play foot­ball, and if he could turn back the clock, he prob­a­bly wouldn’t have played ei­ther.

“Had we known this in­for­ma­tion back when we were play­ing or think­ing of play­ing, that would have changed a lot of our minds and cer­tainly our par­ents’ minds,” he said.

“What par­ent would want to have their kid par­tic­i­pat­ing in a sport where there’s a near cer­tainty of hav­ing a brain in­jury if they played for a num­ber of years?”

Don Bow­man, 65 De­fen­sive back/punt re­turner

IT WAS 1975 and Heis­man Tro­phy win­ner Johnny Rodgers, the “or­di­nary su­per­star” as he de­scribed him­self, was elec­tri­fy­ing the CFL with his long punt re­turns.

“So what op­po­si­tion de­fences would do is say ‘To hell with the penalty on no yards, we’ll just take him out,’” Bow­man said.

That was bad news for Bow­man, who was play­ing his rookie sea­son in Win­nipeg and ended up re­turn­ing punts him­self.

He was play­ing in B.C. and back wait­ing for a punt, with his head up. A B.C. line­backer came rac­ing at him.

“He’s run 50 yards, he has a towel taped on his arm, so it’s kind of like a cast, and as I’m look­ing up for the ball, he hits me in the face with a clothes­line,” Bow­man re­called. “I haven’t even touched the ball yet and I’m down.

“My face mask is bro­ken, my nose is bro­ken,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I was out for a bit.”

The trainer ran out and snapped Bow­man’s nose back in place with a click. He went to the side­line, cot­ton swabs were jammed in his nos­trils and he thinks he missed one se­ries of plays.

Then he played the rest of the game, “spit­ting and swal­low­ing blood.”

Bow­man was never di­ag­nosed with a con­cus­sion, but he now thinks in hind­sight he may have suf­fered be­tween six and 10 of them at all lev­els of foot­ball.

As the in­ter­view con­cludes, Bow­man asks a small favour.

De­spite the star­tling results from The Spec­ta­tor’s con­cus­sion project, de­spite the dam­age he may have sus­tained from the vi­o­lence of the game, he doesn’t want to be por­trayed as be­ing anti-foot­ball.

He’s happy with the choices he’s made and he’s happy with his life.

“The re­al­ity is, you make your de­ci­sions and they come with con­se­quences — some good, some bad,” he said. “How you han­dle them is up to you.

“You had a chance to ex­cel at some­thing you dreamed about do­ing and you made it. That’s pretty cool.

“Out of that whole thing, you de­vel­oped a per­son­al­ity and a drive or a dis­ci­pline that helped you do other things in your life,” he added. “So why would you change all that?”

Rocky DiPi­etro, 61 Re­ceiver

JOK­INGLY — maybe half jok­ing — DiPi­etro says he’s go­ing to post the find­ings of the Spec­ta­tor’s con­cus­sion project on the fridge so then he can just point to it the next time he for­gets some­thing.

The results, though, are no laugh­ing mat­ter, he ad­mits.

“Even though you hear about it on the ra­dio and read it in the pa­per, it’s still sur­pris­ing to see the facts in front of you,” he said. “I didn’t know it was that bad. If you knew the results, would you do it all over again? I don’t know,” he said. “But it’s cer­tainly sober­ing to see all the facts in front of you and know that there’s some­thing to it.”

DiPi­etro played 14 sea­sons, all with Hamil­ton, and be­came one of the CFL’s best-ever re­ceivers. De­spite ab­sorb­ing hun­dreds of pun­ish­ing hits, DiPi­etro thinks he man­aged to es­cape the sport rel­a­tively un­scathed.

“I’d like to look at the pos­i­tive and think that maybe I’m one of the peo­ple who wasn’t af­fected too much, but I guess I don’t re­ally know,” said DiPi­etro.

“I think about it more and more,” he said. “You’re al­ways ques­tion­ing.

“If I for­get some­thing, is there more to it? But I also re­al­ize that I’m ag­ing, too.”

Like Morreale, DiPi­etro says he was never di­ag­nosed with a con­cus­sion. Look­ing back, he now thinks he may have suf­fered as many as a dozen.

“I had my head dinged quite a few times,” he said. “I never re­ally lost con­scious­ness but there were a few times I saw stars and saw black, or get­ting up wob­bly be­cause your head was kind of spin­ning.”

For him, the ex­pres­sion “get­ting your bell rung” was ac­cu­rate.

“Hear­ing the bells, oh yeah,” he said. “Hear­ing that pitch and then just try­ing to shake it off as fast as you could and get back to the hud­dle.”

DiPi­etro coached high school foot­ball for many years and he still en­joys watch­ing the game, but it both­ers him when he sees a vi­o­lent col­li­sion on the field.

“You get that feel­ing back when some­one gets hit re­ally bad,” he said. “When two guys col­lide, it kind of brings back some of those mem­o­ries.

“You kind of know al­most what they’re feel­ing and it’s not a good thing. Es­pe­cially now with slow mo­tion — you can see the im­pact.

“And I think TV likes that,” he added. “They like the view­ers to see that.”

Marv Alle­mang, 64 Of­fen­sive line­man

A YEAR AND A HALF AGO, Alle­mang was watch­ing Su­per Bowl 50 when they marched out all of the pre­vi­ous MVPs from Su­per Bowls past.

“I re­mem­ber say­ing ‘Hey, I’ve got some­thing in com­mon with all those Su­per Bowl MVPs — we all walk the same,’” Alle­mang said. “Ev­ery­body hob­bled out there al­most, or tried not to show it.”

Alle­mang spent 14 sea­sons in the CFL, half of them with the TigerCats. He then went on to have a sec­ond ca­reer as a firefighter, a pro­fes­sion that car­ries a dif­fer­ent set of risks than foot­ball.

“I feel blessed to have been able to be a pro­fes­sional foot­ball player and a pro­fes­sional firefighter,” he said, “but you also have to be aware that those are oc­cu­pa­tions that have side­ef­fects and dan­gers.”

Alle­mang said he was never di­ag­nosed with a con­cus­sion, but be­lieves he may have suf­fered a cou­ple from foot­ball. He says he was for­tu­nate to have never lost con­scious­ness on the field, but he does re­mem­ber hav­ing headaches.

“Some­times I would think it was from wear­ing my hel­met too tight but who knows?” he said. “I’d have headaches and some­times a bruise on the out­side of my skull from the hel­met.”

Alle­mang ad­mits he wor­ries about what the fu­ture holds for him but he tries not to dwell on it.

“It’s not some­thing I’m de­pressed about and it doesn’t re­ally af­fect my men­tal state,” he said.

“You ask your­self hon­estly ‘Would you still do it?’ and if the an­swer is yes, then you’ve just got to ac­cept it.

“That’s the de­ci­sion you made and you go with it,” he added.

Bob Ma­coritti, 66 Kicker/punter

MA­CORITTI remembers he had just booted a kick­off and was run­ning down the field.

It was the mid-’70s and he was play­ing for the Saskatchewan Roughrid­ers against Win­nipeg, his for­mer team. One of his friends was on the field for the Bombers.

“He comes by me and goes ‘Boo’ and he just keeps run­ning by,” Ma­coritti said. “I’m think­ing ‘OK, he didn’t hit me, that’s good.’”

Then the play changed di­rec­tion and Ma­coritti turned to get in po­si­tion to make a tackle.

“Well, he’s come from be­hind me and he’s wait­ing for me and as I turn, he just lays me right out,” said Ma­coritti. “Blind­sided me.

“The guys had a good laugh at me go­ing ass over tea ket­tle on the film.

“He hit me so hard that my in­sides felt like they were mov­ing around, like they weren’t part of me, for about three or four days,” he said. “I’ve never felt that be­fore or since.”

Ma­coritti thinks he’s had three other con­cus­sions — two as a kid and one when he was on the field lacrosse team at univer­sity.

“It was a three-hour bus ride back to the univer­sity throw­ing up the whole way,” he said.

“They dropped me off in the hospi­tal and I was in the hospi­tal for five days.”

Like other play­ers, he says he now has some con­cerns about his short­term mem­ory.

“I’ll get up and go to do some­thing and in the mid­dle of it ‘What was I go­ing to do?’” he said.

“Don’t even give me your phone num­ber be­cause I won’t re­mem­ber it. Names are tough.

“But I think I’m still func­tional,” Ma­coritti said. “Some­times it’s dif­fi­cult to as­cer­tain if your in­juries are caus­ing this or if it’s just the nor­mal process of ag­ing.”

Would he do it again? There’s a pause.

“Ummm … ahhh … it of­fered me a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties,” he hes­i­tates, then tears be­gin to flow.

“I don’t know,” Ma­coritti said, wip­ing his eyes. “It’s one of the is­sues I have — I’ve be­come very emo­tional. Overly emo­tional.

“And I know that can be one of the ef­fects of con­cus­sions, an im­bal­ance of your emo­tions.”

Mike Morreale, 46 Re­ceiver

AF­TER A HOR­RID 2-16 sea­son the year be­fore, the 1998 edi­tion of the Tiger-Cats sud­denly found them­selves among the CFL’s elite.

It was the first year in Hamil­ton for quar­ter­back Danny McManus and re­ceiver Dar­ren Flu­tie and with three games to go in the reg­u­lar sea­son, the Ti­cats were try­ing to clinch first place in the East Divi­sion.

They were play­ing in Saskatchewan and it was sec­ond down and 22 yards to go. As luck would have it, Morreale was about 20 yards shy of hav­ing 1,000 yards in re­cep­tions for the sea­son.

“Danny threw kind of a line drive over the mid­dle and I went up to get it, left my feet and be­fore my feet could touch the ground, I took a shot in the face,” said Morreale.

He hung onto the ball, jumped up and stretched out his arm to sig­nal first down.

“Holy, I didn’t know where I was,” he said. “I could have pointed the other di­rec­tion — I just hap­pened to land in the proper di­rec­tion.

“It’s one of the most hel­la­cious hits I ever took in the head.”

But there were also lots of ran­dom hits, he said, that hurt just as much — a fore­arm to the face mask, a knee to the tem­ple dur­ing a pileup, or his hel­met bounc­ing off the turf dur­ing a tackle.

“The back of the head was al­ways the most painful for me be­cause in­stantly you’d see stars,” said Morreale. “Ev­ery­thing goes dark and you just kind of shake it off.

“Can you imag­ine? Shak­ing off a brain in­jury? That’s what you’d do.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “How do you shake off some­thing that’s al­ready shook in the first place?”

Now, Morreale says he can’t go on roller-coast­ers, he can’t spin his daugh­ter around and he doesn’t like any­thing that in­volves a lot of mo­tion.

“There’s a lot of things I can’t do be­cause they make me feel nau­seous, so I just avoid them,” he said. “What does the fu­ture hold? I don’t know.”

And yet de­spite all the “hel­la­cious” hits, de­spite his es­ti­mate he suf­fered a con­cus­sion per game, if some­one gave him a chance to strap on the pads again for one more se­ries of plays on the field, Morreale says he’d be tempted to say yes.

“Phys­i­cally, I think I could man­age one se­ries,” he said. “But that one hit I take could ruin my life.

“That’s scary,” he said. “Be­cause I think I have a lot of life ahead of me.”

HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR FILE PHOTO

Hamil­ton Tiger-Cat Mike Morreale pauses af­ter a hard hit put him on the turf dur­ing the CFL East­ern Divi­sion Semi-Fi­nal against the Win­nipeg Blue Bombers at Ivor Wynne Sta­dium in 2000. Now 46 and re­tired from the game, Morreale be­lieves he suf­fered a con­cus­sion each time he played.

Don Bow­man, 65, is a for­mer de­fen­sive back and punt re­turner who played his rookie year for Win­nipeg.

Bob Mac­Don­ald, 49, is a for­mer univer­sity foot­ball of­fen­sive line­man who played for McMaster and then in the CFL.

Dan Fer­rone in train­ing with the Toronto Arg­onauts the day be­fore play­ing the CFL East­ern Divi­sion ti­tle game in 1983.

Rocky DiPi­etro, 61, is a for­mer Tiger-Cat who played his en­tire 14-year ca­reer for Hamil­ton. He is re­garded as one of the CFL’s best-ever re­ceivers.

Rocky DiPi­etro is seen in a 1989 game photo. He played his 14-sea­son CFL ca­reer as a re­ceiver for Hamil­ton.

Marv Alle­mang, 64, is a for­mer Ti­cats of­fen­sive line­man. He played 14 sea­sons in CFL, half of them for Hamil­ton.

Mike Morreale, 46, is a for­mer Tiger-Cat re­ceiver

Hamil­ton Tiger-Cat Mike Morreale is tack­led by an uniden­ti­fied Cal­gary Stam­ped­ers player dur­ing first quar­ter of the 1998 Grey Cup in Win­nipeg.

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