The Rick Klassen CTE Story

My dad’s life ended far too early.

He died of lymphoma at the age of 57 following a three-year battle with cancer. However, as a former professional football player, it’s not the only battle he faced in his life.

As it turns out, my dad also suffered from the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. It doesn’t come as a surprise to our family, and it certainly wouldn’t have come to a surprise for him. He knew he had CTE before he passed away in December 2016; he just didn’t know the extent to which he had it.

The CTE was officially discovered by doctors who analyzed his brain months after it was flown to the Canadian Concussion Centre in Toronto, Canada where the brains of dozens of former athletes, both hockey and football players, have been autopsied. For his part, my dad wanted to donate his brain to know more about the effects of the thousands of sub-concussive hits and concussions suffered by his brain that was bashed around during a 10-year career as a defensive lineman in the Canadian Football League.

That doesn’t even include his four-year collegiate football career as an offensive lineman and several years of playing football and hockey as a youngster growing up in Chilliwack, B.C.

Diagnosed with Stage 2 CTE and what they call “argyrophilic grain disease,” a type of dementia, my dad’s brain was the equivalent of someone in their 70s or 80s. That is mind-boggling when you think about.

If you were having a conversation with him, you wouldn’t have ever known. He was a very intelligent man with a business degree and someone who seemingly had the answer to everything you asked him, from the economy to world politics to how things work. My dad knew what was going on.

However, on his bad days, you would get a clearer picture of what was going on in his brain, although some of his erratic behaviour wasn’t exclusively due to CTE. There was depression, irritability, mood swings, and if you ruffled his feathers, watch out. My dad was like the hulk. It was scary to watch and experience first-hand.

I am the youngest of the three, with an older brother and older sister who got the brunt of my dad’s tirades, along with my mom. My dad was emotionally abusive, especially to my brother, knocking him down a peg at seemingly every turn. I got some of that, too, the feeling of not being good enough. In our household, perfection was expected, and if it didn’t happen, there were consequences in form of yelling and screaming and words I cannot repeat.

My parents separated when I was 10 years old. My mom could not go on any longer dealing with the anger, disrespect and his downright inability to hold down a 9-5 job. My dad didn’t always like working with other people, and his irritability got the best of him, or perhaps the worst of him, at times. It cost him his marriage and relationships with two of his children.

However, there was another side of my dad that I had a privilege to experience. A loving side, a caring side. Every other weekend, I looked forward to visiting him and watching football, the game he loved so much. But it was more than just sports. Just being in his presence and feeling that love from him filled me up every time, and kept me coming back for more.

His parents and sister remember times before he played football at a high level, and they remember a kind, loving, protective son and older brother. Also someone who was incredibly intense and driven to succeed at whatever he did, but especially sports. He was an accomplished hockey, basketball and soccer player among other sports before settling on football.

During times like these, reflecting back on what could have been had my dad not played football or any contact sport, I don’t know what the answer is. It may have been better, it may not have been. Then again, I cannot image my dad without sports in his life. I cannot image having a dad that wasn’t a local sports celebrity and Grey Cup champion.

It spawned a passion for sports within me and that has served me well, playing sports like hockey and learning the valuable lessons about teamwork. But it has also landed me a career as a journalist. After years of having the dream of being a sportscaster, probably from the time I was 3 years old, I have had the pleasure of living it out. I am now 30 years old and have been a sports reporter at a television station in Kamloops, B.C. for six years. I partly owe some of that to my dad and who he was as an athlete and avid sports fan. I looked up to him and wanted to experience some of the attention and glory he received from teammates and fans.

So did CTE derail my dad’s life? Maybe. Would I want things to be different and have grown up with a happy, functioning nuclear family that was together? Sure. Would I want a different dad? Absolutely not. I loved him with all my heart, CTE or not.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me at chadklassen87@gmail.com

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