‘WE CAN’T BE SURE what causes these things,’ Bob Honan says. ‘But the evidence is mounting.’
Honan, a rugby league star for South Sydney and Australia in the late 1960s and early ’70s, is talking about the likelihood of a link between collision sports, concussions and subsequent, serious health problems, including dementia. It is an issue that has become almost perennial in most football codes, highlighted this week by the cases of Corey Oates, the Brisbane winger who was brutally knocked out in a game but was then cleared to play the following week, and Aaron Hernandez, the former NFL star who was convicted of murder in 2013. Hernandez suicided in jail; it is now being claimed that he was fighting a severe case of the brain disease CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).
The matter is analysed in some detail in The Great Grand Final Heist, Ian Heads’ story of the 1969 rugby league grand final. In the book, Carol Provan remembers her late husband Peter, Balmain’s winning captain in ’69. Peter Provan died in 2010 …
‘The game was tense until Syd Williams scored. Peter threw the second-last pass before Terry Parker put Syd over, and after he had passed it, John Sattler caught Peter with a stiff-arm tackle, high and late. Peter was left unconscious, but recovered; back in those days players just carried on.
‘It was serious, though. He dulled the pain with some after-match celebrating, and they told me to keep an eye on him. So I stayed up through the night watching over him, just to make sure he was all right.
‘After the long night, I had to take Peter to the doctor next day to get the fluid drained from his ear. He ended up with a “cauliflower” from that tackle. But he had won a premiership, and placed alongside Norm’s record I think it is the only time two brothers have been captain of premiership winning sides, and for different clubs.
‘Peter spent the last four years of his life in a nursing home, suffering from dementia, and died in 2010. The Balmain boys remained close through that time. Every reunion day, they would travel to the nursing home, just to be with him. Peter was a much-respected captain.
‘The football was very tough back then. Getting knocked out was not exactly rare, and concussion was not treated with the caution it is today. I don’t know how that all affected Peter … but you wonder.’
IN THIS EXTRACT FROM The Great Grand Final Heist, Heads focuses on the cases of two of the stars of ’69: Souths' Gary Stevens (pictured at the top of this story, being tackled by Balmain's Arthur Beetson during the 1969 major semi-final) and Balmain’s Keith Outten …
FOR THE SAKE OF this story, it would be a fairytale ending to report that all the remaining Boys of Winter 1969 are ‘goin’ strong’, as Jack Gibson might have put it. But that would not be the truth of it. At a time when the media, and the game itself, are intensely and rightly focused on head knocks and the damage done, the fact is a number of players from both sides are wearing the badge of having been involved at a high level in what has been fairly called ‘the toughest of all ball games’ … and having played it at a time when fists and elbows and stiff-arm tackles flew with weekly certainty. Some have paid a very high price.
A duty-of-care now sits squarely on the shoulders of the clubs that employ footballers; and it is a responsibility shared by those who run the game. Fortunately, the NRL and club medicos around rugby league are addressing this ongoing challenge with the utmost seriousness. At the elite level, all the major football codes in Australia have made significant changes to their protocols in line with the consensus reached at a major international conference on head injuries, held in Zurich in 2012. At the same time, the players of past eras wake almost daily to news of famous players from their time who are ‘doing it tough’ because of health problems that might be linked to their days in football.
Bob Honan, the quick-stepping, elusive Souths and Australian centre of the late ’60s and early ’70s, holds painful memories of 1969:
‘I believe the events of the semi-final against Balmain played a bigger part in our defeat [in the grand final] than a lot of people thought. I, for one, was still suffering the effects of a concussion from a head-hit that Artie Beetson gave me. For the rest of that game, I didn’t even know where I was and a week later I still wasn’t 100 per cent.
‘I shouldn’t have played that grand final. Artie flattened me with a high tackle just before halftime, and when I got to the dressing-room I was out of it. I remember asking Mike Cleary where I was. He said, “Mate, we were in Central Park having a jog, and you ran into a tree.”
‘I genuinely didn’t know what was happening. With two weeks to the grand final, I was pretty thoroughly checked out, scans and all. Almost unanimously, I was told I shouldn’t play. But it was my decision, and in those days you were considered a bit soft if you let something like concussion stop you. So I played, and while I felt I did all right, I probably wasn’t at my best.’
The Men of League Foundation was founded in 2002 to support members of the rugby league community who have fallen on hard times. Today, it boasts more than 26,000 members and provides tangible support to players, coaches, referees, officials and administrators from all levels of the game and from the broader rugby league community. As Bob Honan acknowledges, the work of Men of League has played a part in highlighting the problems of many former players:
‘The issue of playing in such circumstances is more relevant among my peers today than it was back then. Working these days with Men of League, we are running into many old players who have dementia. It is the same in the United States, where traumatic concussion syndrome has been blamed for a lot of problems and some deaths among former American footballers. There is a lot of litigation going on there as a result.’
Honan laments the days when less was known about head injuries and concussion, and consequently players were not protected as they should have been. He urges more action from League headquarters on the issue, telling of a prominent footballer who played more than 150 first-grade games and is now suffering traumatic concussion syndrome. He is 46. ‘We can’t be sure what causes these things,’ Honan says. ‘But the evidence is mounting.’ Sometimes he despairs, and wonders if litigation is the only way to get some attention.
Some of the tales told publicly of players from the past who are now struggling to varying degrees involve famous and popular footballers — names such as Graeme Langlands, Ian Roberts and Mario Fenech. There are plenty of others. In a television interview in 2017, former Test prop Roberts revealed he was suffering from brain damage and estimated that on average during his playing career he copped a heavy knock every two weeks. Roberts declared he had been knocked out six times during his career and talked of the ‘wet sponge treatment’ and a ‘dab on the face’ for head injuries suffered during the games of his era.
Apart from the prominent players who have spoken out about their post-football problems, those close to the game know today of a shadowy accompanying list that includes a significant number of men, and some of them near famous, too, who are suffering health issues that are most likely, though not always certainly, linked to rugby league careers dating back years. In some cases, no doubt, other age-related factors are at play. But too often, when discussing the frailties of old footballers, past concussions are mentioned. The lessons of the American football experience are relevant here, too, illuminated as they have been in some superbly researched stories, documentaries and the 2015 film Concussion.
‘We were like boxers in those days,’ says Syd Williams, the man who scored the only try of the ’69 grand final. ‘You would cop a very heavy head knock and you’d just go straight back on. There were none of the precautions of today about things like concussion, and there were plenty of high tackles. I am sure a lot of people are suffering today because of all that.’
THERE IS NO INTENTION in this chapter marking fulltime in the story of The Great Grand Final Heist to provide a clinical profile of those players from the Balmain and Souths ‘Class of ’69’ who are waging health battles. Suffice to say that some are struggling, and that at times in the making of this book, Norm Tasker and I were politely advised that it was ‘probably not worthwhile’ troubling this player or that because of their poor health or memory problems. We found the terms ‘early dementia’ and ‘memory loss’ cropping up too often, and heard sad stories of once outstanding athletes leading diminished lives, living in small rooms at the backs of houses, their lives and physical health a shadow of what once had been.
The examples of two admirable players from 1969 — Souths’ Gary Stevens and Balmain’s Keith Outten — capture the problems of a few more. Gary sat on the Souths bench on grand final day, while Chicka kept an extremely close eye on Denis Pittard.
Their specialty was bruising defence.
The Stevens story, while sad, inspires because of his stoicism, his attitude that ‘this thing’ will not beat him. On a dedicated and rigorous daily fitness program of long walks allied with workouts in his home gym, Gary, with strong family support, makes his life as good as it can be. At age 73, he looks good, weighing in today at 74kg, the same mark as when he was playing. ‘I’m all right,’ he says with a smile. ‘I’m still getting up every morning! And I’m not in any pain. It’s just my short-term memory. Ask me what I did five minutes ago and I couldn’t tell you.’
Gary has football memories that have stayed the course, and in his genial way he shares them. His sense of humour remains and he chuckles as he recounts of ’69, ‘We beat Balmain twice that year and I was in the team both times. The big one I missed was the grand final — and we got beaten!’
Stevens was a man who played a hard game very hard, notably through his high-impact power-tackling delivered via a brilliantly effective technique. He was a devastating fronton tackler for Souths, Canterbury, New South Wales and Australia, but today he is paying a price that is too high. At the epicentre of his story is a terrible blow he took from the giant Welsh forward Jim Mills during the second Ashes Test of 1974 at the SCG, a blow which poleaxed him. His older brother Wayne paints a graphic image: ‘It was a bad one. When they picked him up that day, he had swallowed his tongue, and it was black.’ Gary Stevens, of course, continued playing in the match. It was the way with football then.
Hooker and champion goalkicker John Gray, playing for Britain that afternoon, remembers the moment: ‘Jim Mills gave Stevens a helluva clout. He was gaga … absolutely shot.’ Referee Keith Page allowed the tackle to go without caution. In the Sun-Herald the next day, former Test referee Col Pearce wrote, ‘Australian second-rower Gary Stevens was knocked cold early in the match and never quite seemed to be his normal self.’
The Mills tackle lit the fuse for a monumental blow-up between the packs. Gray remembers, ‘The scrum formed, we were five metres apart and then we came together in a tremendous collision.’ It was, Gray reflects, ‘a massively tough game’. Stevens would play for Souths the following day and in the deciding Test a fortnight after his clash with Mills. Years later, he was diagnosed with a shadow on his frontal lobe.
Wayne Stevens’ view is that the source of his brother’s health problems is not one hit, but the cumulative effect of the way Gary played rugby league and the fact that he was playing a game that is, by its nature, explosive. He adds the thought, ‘It seems to be the forwards who have the problems now, the blokes who were around the “hard stuff”.’ On his brother, and his fight to stay on top of things, Wayne says, ‘I think he’d still play for them [Souths] today!’
Balmain’s livewire fullback of 1969, Bob Smithies, retains some hard memories of the way football was ‘back then’:
‘I remember Mick Alchin trying to knock my head off in the first trial that season, and Bill Noonan doing the same to Artie Beetson. I spent a week in hospital around that time after getting knocked out. They thought I had fractured my skull. I can’t remember the game or the tackle. The thing I do remember is Kevin Humphreys bringing me a lobster mornay lunch in hospital.
‘One of the worst I recall was a match at the Sports Ground against North Sydney, when Davey Bolton was badly knocked out. His nose was broken, and he needed about 15 stitches in his mouth as well. It happened too much to Davey and he is struggling today. It was par for the course then. It happened all the time.’
It happened to Chicka Outten. In a newspaper interview in 2012, Chicka reflected on the fierceness of his battles with Souths’ Denis Pittard, saying, ‘Pittard and I would go at each other. He’d try to rip my head off, then I’d try to do the same to him.’ Chicka won that battle on grand final day, and became a Tigers hero. Sadly for a man who was once adept at sharing stories, he is now struggling with encroaching dementia and memory loss, but the care he receives from good men such as his one-time clubmate Peter Duffy smooths the path for him. Duffy, a Balmain halfback from 1973 to 1980, is such a Tigers loyalist and tireless worker for the club that the great Balmain second-rower Paul Sironen says of him, ‘Duff loves the Tigers so much he bleeds black and gold when he nicks himself shaving.’ Duffy unveils a tale his good mate once told him about an onfield exchange that occurred just before kickoff in the ’69 grand final, when Chicka threw out a challenge to Souths’ feared iron men, John Sattler and John O’Neill.
‘Don’t run away from me,’ Chicka said. ‘Run at me. You won’t get through!’
It’s a story that says a lot about the spirit and toughness of Keith Outten, and it magnifies the sadness around the state of his health today. For his birthday in 2016, Duffy organised for a group of old football mates to take him out. ‘In five hours, Chicka didn’t speak more than a couple of words,’ he says. ‘But he seemed happy.’
At a gathering in 2009 during the NRL’s Heritage Week, 40 years on from the Balmain premiership win, Chicka was in good enough form to handle a few media questions, and recall his army experience in the 1960s, saying, ‘I never got to fire a gun the whole time I was in nashos, nor did I see any action in Vietnam.’ Instead, he was a driver stationed at the School of Artillery at Sydney’s North Head, and kept fit by playing rugby union. He ended up playing eight years of first grade in the Sydney premiership — five for Balmain (1968–1971, 1975) and three for Norths (1972–1974) — before heading to the bush, coaching at Dubbo CYMS and Yanco-Wamoon in the Riverina. He finally hung up his boots after captaining Yanco-Wamoon to the Group 20 premiership in 1979. Another member of that side, a young front-row tearaway named Kerry Hemsley, moved to Balmain in 1980 on Chicka’s recommendation and stayed at Leichhardt for nearly a decade, appearing in the 1988 grand final.