Shea Emry’s body feels as good now as it did eight years ago when he was rookie with the Montreal Alouettes. It’s his mind he worries about.
The 29-year-old veteran linebacker is so concerned about the toll “upwards of 10 concussions” have taken that he has decided to retire in the prime of his career.
The Richmond, B.C., native announced his decision Wednesday after he missed most of last season with the Saskatchewan Roughriders due to a head injury. With his second child due in May, Emry isn’t taking any more chances.
“That (concussion concerns) is a big reason why I am stepping away,” Emry told The Canadian Press. “My body feels like I’m a 20-year-old newly drafted Montreal Alouette.
“I don’t feel like the football world took a toll on my skeletal body but on my mental state, for sure, and that’s what I was most concerned about. Having a young family and really wanting to be able to be around and cognizant and engaged for the length of their lives, I made a decision for myself but mostly for my family.”
Emry is the latest player to leave football amid health concerns. Earlier this month Western Mustangs quarterback Will Finch retired after missing time in 2014 and ’15 with head injuries.
San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland retired prior to the 2015 campaign after one NFL season because of concerns about repetitive head trauma.
The six-foot, 228-pound Emry was Montreal’s first-round pick in the 2008 CFL draft and quickly became its starting middle linebacker. He spent six seasons with the Als – winning two Grey Cups and collecting 261 tackles, 13 sacks and four interceptions – before signing as a free agent with the Toronto Argonauts in 2014.
Emry played in all 18 regular-season games with Toronto, registering 72 tackles before being dealt to Saskatchewan for defensive end Ricky Foley. But he suffered his season-ending concussion in the Riders’ season opener.
“For me to continue going out there and putting myself through that, I just didn’t think was a good idea,” Emry said.
Emry achieved football success despite a long, secret battle with depression. In a 2014 interview with The Canadian Press, Emry admitted he had contemplated suicide.
After enjoying Grey Cup success with Montreal in 2009 and ’10, Emry missed half of the next season with a concussion and again struggled with depression.
“In 2011 . . . I didn’t think I was going to be able to go back and play football,” he said. “That was a very scary time for me and I knew I had to dive into some personal development and figure out who I was and I realized I was a little bit lost and needed to do some work.”
In 2012, Emry began sharing his story publicly to emphasize the importance of men talking about depression. He also launched the Wellmen Project, a program aimed at empowering males to take initiative in their own mental wellness.
He’s also served as a spokseman for Movember Canada’s Men’s Mental Health campaign, Bell’s Let’s Talk Day, the David Suzuki Foundation and the Canadian Men’s Health Foundation. Emry sits on the advisory board for the Watson Centre for Brain Health – a new facility at the University of British Columbia.
In retirement, Emry will continue public speaking as well as working with the Wellmen Project.
“Right now (with Wellmen) we’re focusing on Canada but I would love to have international operations within five years,” he said. “There’s no reason why it can’t take place.
“It was paramount for me having something to step into off the football field but being more explicit, providing me with a separate identity from the one I cultivated on the football field.”
Emry can’t wait to become a father for the second time after he and partner Devon Brooks delivered their son, Rozen Oak Emry, 16 months ago.
“The thing that matters to me is what’s going to impact my son’s and daughter’s world and what kind of man can I be and what kind of men can I bring along with me,” he said.
He says he will stay involved in football as a coach.
“Football has given me so much and I’ve learned so much about it that for me not to engage with the sport would be a missed opportunity for me personally because I feel like I can provide value,” he said. “I want to give back to the game.”