By: Karen Gasbarino
Cameron Pierce was a promising young lock for Canada. He was active on the international rugby scene as a junior from 2011 to 2013, playing in the Junior World Cup in 2011 (and scoring two tries). He was everything on the pitch, making a nuisance of himself as required, supporting when needed. So much so, that he landed a two-year academy deal with Clermont-Auvergne before he went on to Top 14 club in France, Section Paloise (Pau). He continued to impress, and it appeared he would continue make an impact for Canada and his club team.
Then, in 2016, Pierce was forced to retire from rugby due to repeated knocks on the pitch, having only appeared in only seven matches for Pau’s 2015-16 season before reluctantly pulling back.
It was Pierce himself who advocated for his own health, eventually removing himself from the game when it became all too clear he was headed for a potentially unrecoverable injury – or worse.
It was a difficult time in which Pierce fought his frightening health issues while the growing debate around head injuries in rugby raged around him, most particularly in France where he had spent the previous two years.
I asked Cameron to talk about his retirement, his struggle to come back from his despair, and how he worked to look forward to the future instead of dread it. Pierce has taken his experiences and made something of them, and of late has made the news speaking out about head injuries and his own experiences. He has a lot to offer, using his ‘inside information’ not only in his coaching role but also with Jamie Cudmore’s Concussion Foundation, the Rugby Safety Network.
Read on for a great – and honest and inspiring – Q and A:
When was your last game?
My last game for Canada was in June 2016 vs Russia.
My last [club] rugby game was October 1st, 2016 playing for my French club, Section Paloise. I went to tackle a 130kg #8. His elbow stunned me, and my head whiplashed off the ground. I was clearly concussed, yet I stayed on the field for another ten minutes. Eventually I walked off the field on my own because I was very confused.
I know that at the time, you were continuing to train and play even though you were plagued by concussion symptoms. What made you decide you had to step back?
I was so focused on returning to play and signing a new contract that I lost sight of what was really important, my long term health. My club was very amateur regarding their knowledge of concussions, and didn’t even have a protocol for me – or any idea what to do once I was out for longer than a month. I had to look everything up online, print the world rugby RTP [Return to Play] protocol sheet and follow it myself, often getting into arguments when the trainer or physio would try to make me do too much.
Rugby Canada – specifically Mallory White and Mark Anscombe – were very supportive and patient through my recovery. I had been selected for two tours that season but still wasn’t 100%. They fully understood.
At a certain point, I finally just had enough and knew that I needed to distance myself from contract pressures, returning to play ASAP, or making other people happy. I knew I had to just return to living a normal life with zero symptoms. I’m still trying to figure that one out after two years…
When you stepped back did you ever want to return to the game, or did you know you were done?
In the first few months I knew it was pretty serious; I wasn’t able to read, so that was a big red flag. I think part of me knew I was done within a few months with the severe symptoms, but it took a good year-and-a-half to fully accept it.
How did Jamie (Cudmore) help you? Can you tell me about your work with his foundation, Rugby Safety Network (RSN)?
Jamie and I have known each other since I moved to Clermont in 2011. As I was 19 years old [and a fellow lock], Jamie had naturally become somewhat of a mentor for me.
Jamie introduced me to his Rugby Safety Network. I quickly started up their Instagram and Facebook accounts, and have been annoying people ever since. This has been a good outlet for me, trying to spread the word on the dangers of concussions and promoting player welfare.
Do you have ongoing issues? What do you do for your symptoms?
Migraines, irritability, anxiety, balance problems, and insomnia are the main ones that still exist. These all vary, and I’ve had to explore different techniques or medications to find out what works best for me. Daily, I take pure CBD Oil, Magnesium, and then Amitriptilyne at night.
I started to get mildly depressed due to the poor treatment from my club, then my mother got diagnosed with stage 3 aednocarcenoma. Consequently, I moved home to Vernon from France for a few months. Her diagnosis helped steer me away from being ‘down in the dumps’ and helped me have a more positive outlook on life, just as she always has.
You were active on social media recently [when Canada formally legalized cannabis] to discuss how taking CBD oil is helping you. Can you elaborate?
I’ve been taking CBD oil for 6 months now and its worked great for stress and anxiety, and in helping to decrease the pain from previous rugby injuries.
Other than your work with RSN and being vocal on social media (and media in general), how else are you advocating for player safety?
I recently took part in a short French documentary that will air in December on National TV (Stade2 on France2). We discussed my concussion symptoms, and I shared my personal views on the Concussion Protocol that exists in French rugby and elsewhere. I have a very hard time watching rugby these days with this rule since I’m a firm believer on NEVER returning to the pitch if you’ve been taken off for a suspected head knock. There are a lot of flaws in French rugby that I’ve either witnessed or experienced first-hand, I’m trying to go about it the right way, so we’ll see what happens.
I have a few more interviews for newspapers, podcasts and such, but I’m really just trying to encourage players not to ignore their own symptoms. If there was a job similar to NHL player safety with George Parros in North American rugby…
Also, I’ve started coaching since I stopped playing and have a strict no-risk rule when it comes to head injuries. Being in control makes it easier to watch because I know my players are in good hands.
How are you generally feeling these days?
Symptom-wise, I’ve got a good handle on things. I embrace headaches now as a simple reminder as to why I’m not playing rugby any more. My wife and I spent a lot of time in Canada this past year with my Mom having cancer, so it’s been nice surrounding ourselves with family and friends who truly have my best interests in mind.
Do you feel that the issues around player safety are getting better?
When I was in Canada coaching the Kelowna Crows Division 2 Men’s team, I realized people are generally more aware of concussion risks than in France. Unfortunately, it’s become such a business in France – and maybe other places – that player welfare isn’t the priority. The priority is to win and to not show ‘weakness’.
I remember in a Canada Men’s camp in June 2013 ahead of the World Cup, we were required to fill out a questionnaire. One question was “HOW MANY CONCUSSIONS HAVE YOU SUSTAINED?” I remember being in a panic and asked one of the older players what to put down since I’d had at least 4. He said, “put 0, they won’t pick you if you have too many”.
I didn’t think twice, because as players, there’s so much pressure coming from within that you’d risk anything to make the squad. This is nothing against Rugby Canada – quite the opposite as they have been clear to players that they shouldn’t mess around with concussions.
Now that I’m properly aware of what a concussion is, my guess of 4 in 2013 should have been 10; and now I can confidently say I’ve easily had 15+ between rugby, hockey, lacrosse, football, wakeboarding, fighting, cliff jumping, etc…
Would you say you’re still a rugby supporter?
Yes, absolutely, but player welfare is much more important to me. At the end of the day, rugby is still just a game – possibly the best game in the world – so we need to find ways to protect our players! Without the players, there is no game.
Now onto what gets you out of bed in the morning! Can you tell me about the Canadian Coos?
The Coos is an elite Okanagan-based 7s team that I’ve created (with the intention of adding a 15s team to the mix when we get some more funding). Recently it was announced it would be a dream of ours to become as big as the Toronto Arrows. In order for that to happen we would need a lot of help. But you never know, I like to dream big! At this point in time the whole goal is to give local players the opportunity to play at a higher level in tournaments such as Langford and Calgary 7’s.
In our inaugural year, we participated in four tournaments and had players like Kainoa Lloyd, James Pitblado, and Reid Davis join our core group of local guys. I also brought in two past teammates of mine as guest coaches for the last two tournaments; Adam Zaruba and Nanyak Dala. We’re a team for players, by players, with a ‘no dickheads allowed’ policy. I’ve been fortunate to play with and coach some amazing players out of the Okanagan valley. Unfortunately, most get overlooked since our Men’s team is only 2nd division. So, I’m hoping this team can open some doors for guys.
Please feel free to visit the website and social media here: www.canadiancoosrugby.com or @canadiancoosrugby
Can you describe the other project close to your heart?
80 MINUTES TO RUCK CANCER is a fundraiser that I co-founded with Doug Manning (who works for BC Rugby). Doug and I really wanted to create something that brings the rugby community together for a good cause. This was inspired by my Mom’s positive and successful cancer treatment in Kelowna, BC at the Sindi Hawkins Cancer Centre.
Local rugby players from Minis to Old boys raised money from family and friends for a few months. On September 23rd, they all gathered at the Apple Bowl in Kelowna to walk, run, or jog around the track for 80 minutes – the length of an adult 15s rugby game. We had a goal of $10,000.00 and ended up raising over $14,000.00, making it a huge success in its inaugural year.