KENT — Jim Corrigall loves the scent of smelling salts.
The Canadian Football League Hall of Fame defensive lineman from Kent State admits he has been tempted to purchase the pungent capsules of ammonia that most find repulsive. It might not be just the head-clearing rush of oxygen that he finds intoxicating, but perhaps the chance that one more snap-and-sniff would take him back to his 12 seasons with the Toronto Argonauts, back to when he hit with aggression and never feared the consequences.
“It literally was a joke as a child. When he played for the Argos, my brother and I would go in the locker room and there was smelling salts everywhere; he had them all over the house,” said Corrigall’s daughter, Amy Corrigall Jones. “He would tell the stories, he would get knocked out, smell it, away you go.
“His [still-bent] finger, he broke his jaw, his knees have been replaced. This is a man ... they were driven by ‘This is what you do.’ ”
The ampoules Corrigall relied on to return to action when he was dazed could have come to represent the dangers of the game to which he remains devoted. Even now, at age 73, when his hands have a story of their own to tell.
They are massive, not just in length, but in breadth; huge mitts that served him well when wrestling with offensive linemen or tackling running backs. His left pinky is bent at an awkward angle, broken on a day when he said he “got all his metacarpals busted.” The finger was never straightened because the orthopedic surgeon told him he might not be able to bend it anymore.
It is less of an issue now, because of the tremors.
They began 10 to 12 years ago, at first minor, adding to mental health issues he already battled. Starting in the mid- to late '90s, the former Kent State coach (1994-97) and longtime football assistant at the University of Akron, North Carolina State, Hiram College and Mount Union as well as St. Vincent-St. Mary and Archbishop Hoban high schools had been prescribed an antidepressant and tried a variety of medications. His daughter said her dad was once told he was bipolar.
For over 10 years, Corrigall underwent a litany of tests and listened to multiple misdiagnoses before seeking help at the Cleveland Clinic. In November 2017, unable to grasp a spoon or turn the pages of a newspaper, Corrigall had a pacemaker-like device inserted in his chest, regulated with a remote control. But even with the dramatic improvement it has made, the tremors have only been minimized.
Since then, Corrigall has learned he likely suffers from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), an incurable degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military members and others subjected to repeated head trauma.
Corrigall will never know if he has CTE; it can only be confirmed after his death.
With Amy by his side, Corrigall decided to reveal his condition during a June 3 interview at the Bistro on Main in Kent in hopes of helping others.
Corrigall Jones, an administrative judge for Summit County Common Pleas Court, said about two or three years ago her father was so heavily medicated that he was unable to function.
“He seemed like he was a sedated elephant,” she said.
“It was like I was stoned,” Corrigall added.
“We worried that he was going to commit suicide,” Corrigall Jones said. “He wasn’t eating. He lost probably 50 or 60 pounds. Didn’t get out of bed. The medications slow your body down. He was incredibly depressed from all the medication itself, not just what he was going through.”
His desperate family took Corrigall to the Cleveland Clinic, where he underwent brain scans to check for Parkinson’s disease.
“We started to look up the symptoms of CTE; if you see all of the symptoms in one, here he is,” Corrigall Jones said. “So many people who are drawn to play those types of sports are aggressive. He’s an alpha. He was an All-American. What drives them to be extraordinary is what drives them to be aggressive.
"I think he wondered over the years, ‘Is it just me aggressive, or is it because I’m not playing football anymore? Is it because I’m not coaching?’ ”
It wasn’t until Corrigall had the device implanted for deep brain stimulation (DBS) on his left side, which controls the right side of his body, that his family came to grips with the cause.
“He wasn’t just depressed, bipolar, too much drinking, aggressive, all these different things — it’s a result of him playing football all those years,” Corrigall Jones said. “They did tell us he’s one of the most severe cases they’ve ever seen. But he’s also probably built pretty different.”
Those who know Corrigall from his days as a Kent State linebacker say he was as ferocious as Golden Flashes star and Steelers Hall of Famer Jack Lambert.
During his CFL days, Corrigall said steroids were prevalent along with “bennies,” a drug that included amphetamines. The Argonauts had a man Corrigall described as “like the pharmacist” who would show up on Mondays or Tuesdays to help them cope with their postgame pain.
Corrigall said the Argonauts had an internal award system for big hits similar to “Bountygate,” which prompted 2012 NFL suspensions that included New Orleans Saints coach coach Sean Payton and then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
“We got big money for knocking a quarterback out,” Corrigall said. “It was a free-for-all.
“The footballers, it’s an excessive life. A lot of times we’d have to play three games in 10 days, so you’d have to prepare accordingly. I know I got knocked out a few times.”
Corrigall Jones recalled her father being asked at the Cleveland Clinic how many times he’d been knocked out during his time in college and the pros.
“He said, ‘I can’t tell you. Multiple times a year. You weren’t playing hard unless you got knocked out,’ ” she said.
In hopes of relieving the most severe symptoms, Corrigall agreed to undergo surgery to implant the DBS device.
“The wire comes out of my brain and there’s a pin in there. When they turn that sucker off ... It’s the best it can be right now,” he said.
“But you do get frustrated with the tremors,” Corrigall Jones said. “Of all the things you have, people treat you most different because of that.”
Corrigall admitted, “This is hard to take. They fixed it, but I still can’t pick a spoon up or eat a meal because you’re going to get buffet all over you. I wish I owned a restaurant where all the guys who have got the shakes would come in every night and pay me to clean the messes up. I’d be the busiest guy in the country.”
Corrigall Jones said her father is still mentally sharp, likes to work and remains very social. He’s currently helping with the St. Vincent-St. Mary freshman team.
Every time he reads of a former player dying of Parkinson’s, Corrigall wonders if CTE would be found. He is baffled that the NFL continues to downplay the effects of concussions, even though he knows it might mean “the end of the gravy train for the owners.”
Despite those feelings, Corrigall said, “I wouldn’t change a thing. There’s a lot of people, and I respect when they say, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to let my kids play football.’ I don’t have any animosity towards the game.”
Corrigall's grandson Zach, a member of two state championship teams at St. V-M, is a redshirt junior offensive lineman at Kent State.
To continue to use his gift for earning young men’s trust, showing he cares and making a difference in their lives, Corrigall must take a cocktail of medicines, including antidepressants and Aricept for his memory. The latter had to be switched to a morning dose because it caused aggressive dreams that prompted him to jump out of bed once last year.
“There was a guy chasing me, trying to kill me, and I woke up on the floor,” said Corrigall, who now lives in a condominium in Cuyahoga Falls with his wife, Marybeth.
Every few months, Corrigall must have the DBS device adjusted. But as his hands continue to shake and he ponders an implant on the other side that will likely impact his speech, Corrigall refuses to curse what his football career has wrought.
“When I go to the Cleveland Clinic and I see what’s going on up there, the people — I’m a lucky guy. I’m lucky to be sitting here. Cancers, guys can’t walk ...,” he said.
“And other than this, you’re healthy, right? For today?” Corrigall Jones asked.
“Today I am,” Corrigall said, knocking on the table.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Zips blog at www.ohio.com/zips. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.