Kicking goals off the field to prevent CTE


AFTER being diagnosed with probable Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), former Churchill footballer Leigh McDonald set out on a mission to improve concussion protocols at a regional level for all age groups.

McDonald suffered around 40 concussions throughout his 20-year career, spanning from the age of 15 to 35, which has left him a different man.

Looking back through the years, McDonald recognised the symptoms of CTE began to take a toll on him after about 10 years, highlighting the last five years was where he began to rapidly go downhill.

After months of seeing a significant decline in McDonald’s mental and physical wellbeing, his wife Michelle sought for help from renowned specialist neurologist in Sydney, Dr Rowena Mobbs, which was not only difficult because it was interstate, but the cost and time on top of the travel was another strain.

McDonald suffered his worst concussion playing for Coburg in the 2004 VFL season, cutting his season short.

Following the hit, he was put in an ambulance, where he suffered a brain bleed. He couldn’t even remember who his own dad was.

His last concussion was dealt in his second-last game in 2019. He was diagnosed with probable CTE roughly six months ago.

CTE is developed through repeated head trauma and is most common in combat and contact sports. The disease develops over time, generally after eight to 10 years.

Symptoms of CTE include behavioural problems, mood problems, and issues with thinking, which could lead to further complications including brain damage, dementia, depression or suicide.

McDonald has been a prominent figure in local football, coaching a senior premiership and pulling on the blue and yellow of the Churchill Cougars and coaching Wonthaggi in the Gippsland League.

In the early 2000s, McDonald trained with Richmond during their preseason under Danny Frawley – who himself died as a result of CTE in 2019.

McDonald went on to play in Richmond’s VFL affiliate, Coburg.

Following a three-to-four-month spell of trying to get his head around the probable CTE diagnosis, McDonald set out on a mission to improve concussion protocols in regional leagues.

“Although I feel better now, it’s still a daily challenge,” he said.

“I have to eat well, I have to not drink much at all, and I have to exercise pretty much every day.”

Since November last year, the McDonald’s have been inspired to get the ball rolling on this initiative, speaking to local clubs and leagues about a possible implementation, yet more work is still to be done.

The aim is to create clear pathways for family and friends of past and current players that may show CTE symptoms, and to know where to seek help.

His long-term goals are to meet with the AFL, and have them fund the concussion courses, in order to get the idea off the ground, so that all players will be treated the same for a head knock, minimalising the risk of the development of CTE later in their lives.

“My aim is to implement these things around Gippsland, and the leagues in Gippsland, to make sure that seniors right through to juniors are following protocols,” McDonald said.

“What I really want to push for is that there is someone at every game of football – juniors, girls, whatever it is – that has run a concussion course.

“I want to push for the AFL to fund for a little while, two-to-five years, to get these first aid officers to do a concussion course. Then after a while it will be part of what clubs need to upkeep and make sure that they’ve got in place.

“That will obviously take time, but I can’t see why we can’t start with making sure that there is protocols in place for leagues immediately. Leagues can make that decision straight away.”

Concussion protocols have taken a positive spin just recently, with the release of new concussion guidelines, which recommends a mandatory 21 day stand down period for players who suffer a concussion.

My aim is to implement these things around Gippsland, and the leagues in Gippsland, to make sure that seniors right through to juniors are following protocols.


However, this is only a guideline, and not a rule, meaning regional sporting clubs or leagues can still administer the players however they see fit.

More recently, McDonald revealed that he had teamed up with the Concussion Legacy Foundation, with plans to run a marathon to raise money for the project.

“The Concussion Legacy Foundation, the donations from the fundraising that we’re doing, that’s all pretty much what it’s all going towards – trying to implement (concussion) protocols for regional level and juniors to make sure things are getting implemented,” he said.

“I’ve jumped on board with the Concussion Legacy Foundation, and I’m on the board there. We’ve organised a fundraiser event – I’m going to run a marathon in Cairns, something I’ve never done before.

“It’s a big thing for me, six months ago I couldn’t run a kilometre with the condition, I was sort of stuck in bed, so to be getting up and pounding the pavement now is a real positive.

“I’ve met with some families across Victoria who have lost their kids to CTE through suicide, so that’s been a pretty impactful catch up. So I’ll be dedicating the marathon to some of those people.”

McDonald will dedicate his run to those who have lost their lives to CTE through suicide, and in particular he named late Traralgon footballer, Nick Lowden, who last played in the SANFL with Norwood, and former Richmond player Shane Tuck, who McDonald lined up alongside at Coburg, as two he will be running for.

Also coming up, McDonald will be a part of a panel, speaking at Morwell’s Italian Australian Club on Saturday, March 23, led by The Restoration Project, an initiative by local Mark MacManus.

MacManus is a Heyfield junior, who played in a senior premiership with Yinnar at just 17-years-old, and is the creator of The Restoration Project.

“Steven Baker from St Kilda is going to come down and do a chat, and also Matthew Ferguson (former Sale coach) – who played with St Kilda as well,” McDonald said.

“The event is really based around resilience, so it’s not just based around CTE.

“Steven Baker has been through a bit with depression and things like that, so he’s going to be speaking about how he’s changed his life and what he’s done to get on top of it. Matthew Ferguson’s journey has also been one of resilience, competing in Ironman events and living a uniquely driven lifestyle.

“Then I will talk about what’s happened to me and how I’m dealing with it, what I’ve gone through and how it’s changed my life and the highs and the lows of it, and what I’m doing to change my life.”

McDonald has had to adjust to speaking in front of crowds, which was something he felt very comfortable doing and had to do regularly, but now because of his condition, finds it difficult.

“Talking in front of large groups … is something that came easy to me – I enjoyed it, I was passionate about it, but now it’s a lot different, it’s a challenge because (my) memory is poor,” he said.

“I was thinking I wasn’t capable and contemplated not doing it, and we were going to make a video – which we are still making – but we thought that the vulnerability of the night, people seeing me that may have seen me coach and talk before can maybe see the difference now, hopefully that can raise some awareness around what CTE can do to someone.”

To support Leigh’s fundraiser, visit the website at

Tickets to The Restoration Project night at the Italian Australia Club can be found at

Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, call 13 11 14.

Gippsland Farmer

The Gippsland Farmer is a monthly agricultural newspaper reporting on rural news and distributed FREE and direct to an area covering from Cann River through to South Gippsland. For more than 40 years Gippsland Farmer has reported on a range of issues and industries including dairy, beef, vegetables, sheep, goats, poultry, organic farming, and viticulture.