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Former CFL lineman Rick Klassen’s brain showed extensive CTE

Dr. Lili-Naz Hazrati, a researcher for the Canadian Concussion Centre, displays a crosssection of a preserved human brain in her Toronto lab.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Former BC Lions' defensive lineman Rick Klassen may have died of lymphoma last December, but an autopsy of his brain has shown extensive chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurological disease that has led to such suspected symptoms as erratic behaviour and dementia.

Dr. Lili-Naz Hazrati, a pathologist with the Canadian Concussion Centre at Krembil Neuroscience Centre in Toronto, conducted the examination of Mr. Klassen's 57-year-old brain, and the results were released Thursday. According to Dr. Hazrati, the brain "looked like it came from somebody in his 70s, 80s for that deposit of tau [the bad protein that kills brain cells]. You don't expect those at his age."

Dr. Hazrati also found argyrophilic grain disease (which leads to a type of dementia). It was the first time she had seen it in combination with CTE.

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Read more: Canadian study sees long-term changes to the brain after a concussion, even in younger athletes

Mr. Klassen played 10 years in the CFL, including one season with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and had acknowledged experiencing multiple concussions and thousands of what he called "mini-concussions," blows to the head that left him seeing stars. Before his death, he travelled to Toronto from his home in Nanaimo, B.C., to undergo tests as part of the CFL Alumni Association's partnership with the Canadian Concussion Centre. The CCC is a research project at the University Health Network's Krembil Neuroscience Centre.

The CCC is examining former CFL players in both life and death to determine the full repercussions of repetitive blows to the head. Mr. Klassen was the first to be tested and then have his brain autopsied. His family was surprised by the extent of CTE but not by the news he had suffered significant damage.

"We all knew – and my dad even knew before he passed away – that he had CTE. There was no question in his mind," said Chad Klassen, Rick's youngest son, a sports reporter with CFJC-TV in Kamloops.

Chad Klassen outlined a seldom-told story of CTE – how it affects not just the individual with it, but his family, too. They were the ones who bore the sting of his frustrations and hostile reactions, some of which may have been linked to his personality and some to brain damage.

"I certainly feel for him. I can't imagine what he went through," Mr. Klassen recalled. "But at the same time, I still look at the fact that his behaviour and his anger issues had an impact on our family and really, to this day, it has affected my brother and sister and I."

Asked to describe his father's conduct, Mr. Klassen explained, "Certainly, yelling, screaming, emotional abuse. Kind of that feeling that you're not quite good enough. I'm a hard worker, yet in the back of my mind – it's not something that I'm conscious about all the time – I think subconsciously I still have that mentality that I have to do everything possible to get everything right, otherwise there are consequences."

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Chad Klassen interviewed his dad in 2015 and asked him about concussions and the way his brain felt. Rick Klassen replied that, "Anyone who plays a violent position like defensive lineman, where you're hitting other really big men, it's a risk you take."

At last year's Grey Cup, then-CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge said there was no conclusive evidence linking hits to the head and brain disorders, such as CTE. That comment generated much scorn, since it was made months after the NFL admitted in a hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Energy and Commerce that there was a connection between head shots and CTE.

"I can't speculate or comment on what the NFL's findings have been and what led them to that conclusion," Mr. Orridge said last November. "Last I heard, it's still a subject of debate in the medical and scientific community … The league's position is there's no conclusive evidence at this point."

Chad Klassen doesn't buy that belief and insists his father was concerned other players were having their brains rattled beyond repair, too.

"To be honest, I hope – and my dad would hope – the CFL and the NFL would finally bear down and take this stuff seriously and protect the players," Mr. Klassen said. "I know the CFL and NFL have done that as far as protecting quarterbacks. But I still think there are player-safety issues out there, especially in those defensive line and linebacker positions where you're pretty much hitting on every play ... To the athletes in general who are thinking about playing contact sports – either think twice about playing the sport or really be cognitive of the risks and make sure they're being an advocate for better equipment and safer playing conditions."

The CCC has now examined 14 brains of former football players. Dr. Hazrati is about to begin analyzing the data from all 14.

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