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Family devastated by head trauma urges athletes to take concussions seriously

CALGARY- As a defenseman, Rick “Tiger” Williams may have been small, but he played tough.

“Rick had a very hard hockey style,” remembers his wife, Susanne Williams. “He fought a lot, and it wasn’t unusual for Rick to get into a fight every game.”

The Calgary father began his hockey career in the WHL with the Saskatoon Blades, and he went on to play for the U of C Dinos before eventually playing professionally for European teams in Germany and Denmark.

Over his playing career, he suffered several concussions.  He often returned to play soon after the injury occurred.

“He’d be calling his dad after a hockey game and say, ‘Dad, I took a hit to the head very badly tonight and after I sat out for a few minutes, I’d be back out there.  I didn’t know which team was mine, the left or the right team. I simply had to guess,’” remembers Susanne.

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Rick retired from playing professional hockey in his early 30’s, but by then the damage was done. In his early 50’s he began experiencing unexplained mood swings and memory problems.

“Chronic repetitive head trauma leads to a disorder of the brain that is progressive and degenerative,” Dr. Marni Wesner, a physician with Edmonton’s Glen Sather Sport Medicine Clinic explains.

It’s called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and although the diagnosis can only be confirmed post mortem, Rick had all the symptoms.

“Although they may have problems that might mimic dementia, usually with CTE patients have more problems with judgment, reasoning, arousal and anger control,” explains Dr. Wesner.

Rick’s illness progressed quickly, and within a few short years he was forced to leave his job as a Calgary phys-ed teacher. Last year, at the age of 59, Rick was forced to move into long term care.

“I remember him being very outspoken, really loud and a lot of fun,” Rick’s 23-year-old son Luke recalls. “He’s not my dad anymore. I feel almost like he’s passed away, we’re just waiting for closure.”

Concussion treatment has changed dramatically in recent years, and doctors now recommend total physical and mental rest.

“It’s a lot of nothing, no mental activity, no mental stimulation, no computers, no TV,” explains Dr. Wesner. “But with complete physical and mental rest the vast majority of concussions are going to get better in about two to seven days.”

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Rick’s family hopes other young athletes will take that advice seriously, because for them, the alternative has been devastating.

“If you get hurt in any way, sit out!” urges Susanne. “I want people to understand that I have a 60-year-old husband that has no life.”

Friends of Rick Williams have a organized a fundraiser on May 3, 2014 in support of both Rick’s long term care costs and CTE research. Click here for more information.