1st & Done

The Joys and Dangers of Playing Football Through the Eyes of Former Players

  • Graphic Sam Jones

Liam Mahoney was once the face of Concordia Stingers football. The former star quarterback, league all-star and All-Canadian loved dodging players with his speed and fought for every yard on the field. He took a number of hits and suffered numerous concussions, but he still managed to reach the Canadian Football League, fulfilling his lifetime aspiration of playing professional football.

Today, football doesn’t play as large a part in Mahoney’s life, and he seems content with this reality. The former team MVP is also unsure of whether he’d endure the grueling punishment that a football career brings all over again.

“I was so immersed in football and so immersed in myself that it [became] the only thing that mattered,” said Mahoney. “But now that I’m outside of it and I feel like I have so many things that I can do, I feel like I don’t need football as much.”

However, when asked if he would put his future kids through football, Mahoney’s answer was less hesitant: he wouldn’t.

“My sister has a one-and-a-half-year-old and I’m his godfather,” said Mahoney. “I wouldn’t want him to play football either.”

Since being cut by the Ottawa Redblacks of the CFL in 2014, Mahoney has become a communications assistant and football broadcaster for the Stingers. When the former player considers the amount of violence in the game today, he finds it hard to believe that his body was able to sustain such a
grueling amount of contact.

“The physical side of it wasn’t really worth it in terms of [wondering], ‘how many years did it shave off of my life?’” he said. “You’re seeing so much of it in the news; you don’t know what the toll is on your body.”

These unknowns have even caused concerns among players from the National Football League, the pinnacle of professional football. It’s a league that’s operating with a giant elephant in the room: the problem of concussions and head trauma.

Retired players are taking out concussion lawsuits against the league, suffering from nagging injuries and even depression, something that Mahoney himself has experienced and has gone to therapy to deal with.

“My transition from being an athlete to being a civilian wasn’t very smooth at all,” he said. “There were a few years where I worked some really shitty jobs and just felt really terrible and super depressed and really down, and it seems like something most of us go through once we stop playing football.”

Some former players are even suffering from chronic trauma encephalopathy, a degenerative disease that is often found in patients with a history of suffering concussions. It’s possible that the disease has played a part in the deaths of a few NFL players, including NFL linebacker Junior Seau and a 21-year old college lineman Owen Thomas, from the University of Pennsylvania, who both committed suicide.

“The state of football at this point, it’s a bit embarrassing to me,” said Mahoney. “They need to be better at protecting their guys.”

The NFL has seen five notable players aged 31 or younger retire during this offseason—including San Francisco 49er rookie linebacker Chris Borland, who retired at the age of 24—thanks in part to the game’s violent nature, the unknown repercussions from hits to the head, and ultimately to save themselves from further injury.

Despite the known consequences of playing football, Borland believes that not even the world’s top neurologists know all of the “risks and the connections” between football and head trauma. Sports pundits believe that his retirement could lead to a trickle-down effect, where other players may consider ending their careers early.

While losing out on millions of dollars isn’t the reality of the Canadian Football League, Mahoney said he also expressed doubts about a lengthy professional career years ago.

“When I was in Hamilton [with the Tiger-Cats], I remember telling my girlfriend at the time, ‘I don’t know how long I want to do this,” he said.

“When I was in Hamilton [with the Tiger-Cats], I remember telling my girlfriend at the time, ‘I don’t know how long I want to do this,” -Liam Mahoney

The irony in these doubts is that once upon a time, Mahoney had driven himself to play professional football from a young age. Despite taking Film Studies at Concordia, it was clear that he was all-in for a life on the gridiron.

“Football or nothing” is a common mentality among aspiring pro players, and Mahoney isn’t the first Concordia athlete to think that way.

“As a player, you don’t think there’s anything that’s more important than playing football,” said current Stingers football head coach and former linebacker Mickey Donovan. “At the time I would’ve done anything to make sure that I could still play no matter what injuries came my way. This is the mindset when you play this game.”

The Donovan brothers, Mickey and Patrick (the latter is the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator of the Stingers), are another example of gridiron giants who jumped into football headfirst—literally, in Patrick’s case. The linebacker often led with his head when delivering tackles, yet he never suffered a concussion. Mickey has suffered concussions, but it never stopped him from getting on with his career.

“It’s not an easy sport, it’s very physical, it’s hard on the body, it’s very demanding, and it does wear you down,” Mickey said.

Before coming to Montreal the brothers grew up in Laconia, New Hampshire, where football was, according to Mickey, “the thing to do.”

“If you grew up in Laconia, you were playing football,” he said.

Mickey played three seasons with the Maroon and Gold before attempting a career in the CFL with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, where an ACL injury suffered during a pre-season game halted his playing career.

“I was down in New Hampshire working,” said Patrick. “I get a phone call from my mom; she was crying and saying ‘your brother, he just tore his ACL.’”

Mickey was given a chance the following season to continue his career, but tore ligaments in his foot at practice, ending his career.

“It [was] a heartbreaker,” said Mickey.

Patrick’s football career was also stopped in its tracks after he tore his pectoral muscle during his Pro Day, a day where attempted to show off his skills in front of 13 NFL scouts.

The coaches acknowledge there is a concussion problem with the game of football, but they both believe that the usage of supplements and drugs that players take to enhance their performance may take a toll on the health of players after their careers have ended.

“A couple of those [players] were putting things in their bodies that probably wasn’t best for them either,” said Mickey. “No one ever talks about that and that stuff can mess with the mind as well.”

“People don’t realize what you put into your body and what it can do to your brain,” Patrick added.

“That’s where the NFL, I feel, turns a blind eye,” Patrick continued. “Without the players having the physical ability that they have, would the NFL be the same?

“To me, that’s the topic research should be focusing on.”

The brothers delivered hits and took their fair share of pain throughout their careers but, unlike Mahoney, the brothers wouldn’t hesitate to play again if given the opportunity.

“It’s the sport that I love, and I still love,” Patrick said. “If I wasn’t so old now would I still be playing? 100 per cent.”

Fortunately for Mahoney and the Donovans, and unlike other retired and inactive players from professional football, they’re able to remain close to the game and enjoy a second life after football.

However, with concerns for the game rising and issues of player safety still waiting to be addressed, it’s clear the sport of football is in need of the winds of change.

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