Andrew MacIver (right) and Doug MacIver Jr., show off a photograph of their dad, former Blue Bombers nose tackle Doug MacIver, whose brain was donated for the study of post-concussion chronic traumatic encephalopathy in athletes. The results are recently in, and their dad was found to have had CTE from playing football. (JASON HALSTEAD/QMI Agency)
WINNIPEG - As a former hockey tough guy, Doug MacIver, Jr., like his dad, never backed away from a challenge, even if it meant fighting massive enforcers like the late Derek Boogaard.
And, yes, he’s had concussions.
“I’ve had three for sure, knocked-out ones,” the 31-year-old Winnipegger was saying, Tuesday. “I was taken off on a stretcher once, and in two I was helped off the ice with wobbly knees.
“As a student of my father, pain was only something that you allowed yourself to feel. Especially if you’re fighting a lot, you take a lot of damage.”
Given the inarguable link between that damage and problems later in life, and having seen what his father went through, Doug, Jr., can’t help but wonder about his own future.
MacIver’s dad was a Blue Bomber nose tackle, the Doug Brown of his day — without the 6-foot-8 stature and all the media attention.
He earned a Grey Cup ring, though, helping the Bombers end their previous decades-long drought in 1984.
When the bright lights went out and the shine from that career high began to fade, so did the elder MacIver’s health, although the changes were subtle.
As medical science began to make the connection between repeated brain trauma and a condition called CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the MacIver family began to suspect he was afflicted with it.
The issue was slammed home with the alcohol-and-drug-related death last summer of Boogard, whom Doug, Jr., had traded punches with at an NHL rookie tournament.
Last January, MacIver, Sr., died suddenly, of heart failure. He was 58.
The family saw some hope through the tragedy, a chance for their dad to make one more play.
So they donated his brain to the groundbreaking study at Boston University, where an analysis of the brains of pro athletes who’ve died too soon are connecting the dots between the way they played and the way they passed.
Last Friday, the MacIvers got the news they’d been waiting months for, during a conference call with researchers at BU: their dad had moderate-to-severe CTE.
“They have a scale of 1-4, and they had determined him a 3,” 28-year-old Andrew, the other son, said. “It was going to get worse. By age 70, if he’d lived that long, he would have probably seen some problems doing day-to-day functions.”
Now the family knew why dad’s behaviour was getting erratic. Now they knew why he always seemed to be either too hot or too cold — because the part of his brain that controls body temperature was particularly damaged.
“It was extremely emotional,” Andrew said. “It put a finality on it. Because it was the end of his story.”
Or was it?
So far there’s no way to diagnose the disease, let alone treat it.
But researchers will examine MacIver’s eyes, also donated by the family, to see if they contain any markers, one more possible clue to, hopefully, an eventual solution.
Meanwhile, the games continue, with better awareness and protocol, perhaps, but with concussions still commonplace.
“I’ve started looking at football differently,” Andrew said. “Every big hit — do they know the true cost?”
Which brings us back to Doug, Jr., who led the East Coast League in penalty minutes during the 2004-05 season.
“It’s something I talk about with my wife,” the older brother said. “Obviously I wouldn’t want to go through some of the stuff my dad was dealing with. Is there anything I can do about it? Hopefully with some of the research they’re doing, maybe one day in the future there will be.
“I just have to live life and see what happens. I’m not in control of it, now.”
No, but he might be able to help.
Working alongside his brother in the family’s auto financing business, Doug, Jr., also wants to continue the most recent work of their father.
So he’s offered to be part of BU’s study of living athletes, to be regularly monitored for any signs of the disease.
“My dad didn’t really explain too much of what he was going through, other than he knew something was up,” Doug, Jr., said. “A few times I got to see him break down. If they can save anybody else from going through that, all the better.”
And what better legacy for an unselfish old nose tackle to leave?
“I’ve heard endless stories of what my dad has done for people that we never knew about,” Doug said. “He never told anyone.
“The same goes for me. Anything I can do to try to help someone else out.”