A portion of this article first appeared in the October 2010 edition of Main Street and is reprinted here with permission of the editors. Drop by Main Street Week News to have a look at a great community newspaper.
Rugby is growing in popularity in the Laurentian area, which is great to see; unfortunately, with the high-impact nature of the sport, there is also the risk for head injuries and concussions. Former University football player and professional rugby player Francesco Lepanto spoke with The Voice of Sport recently to discuss his passion for sports and his experiences with concussions.
“For me rugby is everything, it changed my whole life,” said Lepanto. “It got me where I needed to go; it got me around the world. I owe everything to rugby in so many ways because of the brotherhood, the opportunities and the travel. It was a really great experience!”
“The first sport I ever played was soccer, my parents being European, the Italian background, but it was so boring I didn’t enjoy it at all. I was actually a huge hockey fan, I loved hockey, but it was so difficult being from a poor immigrant family; it was so expensive to play. My cousin got us into football, I played city ball for about five years, and I finished off in midget on the all-star team and got scouted by a bunch of big-time Universities in the States. I went to play at John Abbott College (in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, Quebec), to season my play.”
“At Abbott, I went out with some of my buddies to play rugby and I loved it! I loved the fact that I could run with the ball and not have to play defence all the time, but my fifth game someone fell on my leg and it snapped; that was pretty much the end of my football career.”
With his college football career behind him, Lepanto made the decision to attend Concordia University in Montreal. He began to shine on the rugby field with the Concordia Stingers and the Montreal Barbarians and enjoyed the free-flowing nature of the sport.
“Football was not as much fun anymore in comparison to rugby because of all the structure. It just seemed like so much time for such a little amount of fun. Rugby was just so much fun and after many years of playing football and not winning any championships, it was pretty good timing because the Barbarians were winning everything and Concordia was starting to get good too. I found rugby much more enjoyable - the challenges of getting out there and playing for the whole game and not subbing off and on.”
Lepanto would go on to play rugby in Western Canada with the James Bay Athletic Association, the oldest sports Canadian sports organization west of Montreal. He also spent a year playing in China before he wrapped up his rugby career and embarked on a new one - radio host.
Unfortunately, with his background in football and rugby, Lepanto is one of the many former professional athletes now dealing with the long-term effects of multiple concussions.
“I started having memory problems when I was seventeen,” Lepanto confided. “I grew up in LaSalle, which is a real hard part of town in Montreal. When we played football in LaSalle, it wasn’t about hitting the guy; it was about killing the guy. We were taught to put our helmets into the guy’s chest - it was about who had the most marks on their helmets after the game. We used to go out and hammer people because that was the style of football that we played.”
“I still have those memory problems now; it still happens where I have to regain what my thought is. I don’t know how many concussions I have had in football and rugby. My nickname out in James Bay was ‘Rocko’ because I used to go out and rock people. Everybody had a job, and my job, whether it was playing football or playing rugby, was to go out and hit a guy and try to change the game - if you want to beat us, you will have to pay a price.”
To assist Chris Nowinski and the Sports Legacy Institute to help raise awareness and further their research, Lepanto has agreed to donate his brain to research when he passes, much like many other athletes affected by multiple concussions. Was it difficult to reach that decision?
“No, not at all,” Lepanto said. “I’m a spiritual guy and I understand that there is something else as we move forward, but I don’t think the physical body is part of that journey, it’s left behind. If it is something that is left behind and it can help people, then hey, what better karma then to pass that on. At the same time, I think there is a lot that can be learned from it, I’ll be part of that generation who stopped playing at a certain age; they can learn from it.”
“The example I often use is smoking; back in the day, it was ‘smoking doesn’t kill you’, but then we saw people dying of cancer. You should at least be informed when you make the decision to go out and play. Would I have changed anything? I would have never changed my style of play that‘s just the way I was, but it would be better to know the guidelines that if I got hurt, it is this amount of time to rest the injury.”
“Just to be informed and then let a kid make their own decision. I would never say abolish hockey or abolish football, or get rid of these sports, I think a lot of them create who you are, I owe everything in my life to sports; now I talk about sports for a living. It’s good to know the drawbacks, how to prevent things from getting worse; the more you educate yourself, the more information you have to make these decisions.”
The key word to preventing and properly dealing with concussions is education. Knowing how to deal with a brain injury could prevent the second or third concussion and a lifetime of health issues. No one is saying stop playing or enjoying these high-impact sports like rugby, just take the advice of a pro, be aware of the risks involved.
As for his work as a radio host, Lepanto is preparing for his next venture, a weekly hockey show. While the final details are still being ironed out, he is excited and ready to get started.
“Nothing is confirmed right now but a hockey show is in the works, we are waiting to finalize that,” Lepanto revealed. “I will probably be getting into some writing as well, I like seeing things from different angles; I have done some writing before at rugbyrugby.com. I also started putting my NFL picks up at a new blog.”
Keep an eye out here at TVOS for an announcement regarding Lepanto’s new radio show and you can follow Cesco on Twitter at CescoRadio.