CFLPA prez hopes there will never be another case like Hefney's
Jonathan Hefney is writing his life story. With his left hand. In a South Carolina state prison.
The Canadian Football League plays a prominent role, though not one that should elicit feelings of pride among its leadership. Hefney, who turned 35 behind bars on Feb. 27, is more than four years removed from his final CFL play, the one that sent him into a devastating physical, mental and financial spiral and led him at least indirectly to a cell inside Evans Correctional Facility, a medium-security institution in Bennettsville, S.C.
“I always been the smallest and had to fight my way up,” Hefney said in a phone interview in mid-February. “So I’m going to write about what happened to me and put people on notice. I’m thankful the CFL gave me an opportunity to have a career, but the way they did me is still not right and I want people to know about it.”
Surrounded by razor wire, populated with 1,400 male offenders and dominated by gangs, Evans is a dangerous place, particularly for a one-armed man. Playing defensive back for the Montreal Alouettes on Oct. 1, 2015, Hefney broke three vertebrae, sustained serious nerve damage on the right side of his body and lost several teeth after a helmet-to-helmet collision with Ottawa fullback Patrick Lavoie. Despite two wildly expensive and invasive surgeries, extensive physical therapy and the passage of time, Hefney still isn’t whole, and will likely never be. He can finally grab a cup with his right hand again, but he could not throw or block a punch.
“When I first got here, shoot, I was nervous. Super nervous. Even now, I mean there is still stuff to watch out for. If something happened to me, I can’t defend myself. That’s what I told (prison staff) when I got here.
“It’s rough man, you gotta be on your toes. My first three days here, I seen about six fights go down. It’s dangerous. It’s legit.”
Last September, he pleaded guilty to two counts of trafficking cocaine in 2017, two years after he left the CFL a broken man. He said selling cocaine was his last resort, a way to take care of himself financially when nobody else would.
He was sentenced to nine years in prison and could be eligible for parole as early as September 2022. But what then? He said his unpaid medical bills amount to $150,000 US and he owes another $100,000 in child support payments to the mother of his teen daughter Tylee. He is still physically impaired. He doesn’t own a vehicle or a house. He said he wants to seek a legal remedy but clearly cannot afford a lawyer.
“His father has congenital heart failure and I’m the only one working,” said Hefney’s 69-year-old mother Cornetta Wilmore. “With bills and a mortgage, I just can’t afford for him to pursue that, if that’s what he’s trying to do. I don’t know what’s going to happen to him when he gets out.”
In 2017, Hefney’s sister Shan Barber communicated with Calgary lawyer Joe Oppenheim, hoping to explore the idea of legal action against the CFL.
“Bottom line is I walked away having looked at the case then, believing you don’t have a remedy under the terms of the CBA,” said Oppenheim. “You couldn’t look to the CFL for anything in general. There may be special circumstances where the CFL itself has caused a problem but if you’re injured in the course of playing the game or at practice, I think unfortunately the terms apply legally.
“I get that there are limited resources. But I just think a league with its history, and it’s a Canadian league, you could talk about the values it should espouse from a moral perspective and I think they could have done a lot more.”
Under terms of the collective bargaining agreement between the CFL and the CFL Players Association in effect then, Hefney’s insurance coverage ran out on Oct. 1, 2016. He was in debt, facing another major surgery, and his physical injuries meant he couldn’t find a job.
“I couldn’t use my arm at all for a whole year. I was in a sling and I knew I was going to need some help. I couldn’t try to go back to school to teach because I couldn’t even write with my left hand yet. There was a lot of stuff I couldn’t do. I couldn’t even fill out a job application.”
He said then Alouettes’ GM Kavis Reed contacted him in late 2016 and offered him a job as a regional scout, but never followed through.
“I felt it was a genuine offer,” said Hefney. “He had coached me in Winnipeg, he wanted me to come to Edmonton and play there for him. I thought he was a pretty good guy but some people just say stuff and they don’t follow through. I thought it was a pretty raw deal that he didn’t call me back or give me an opportunity to do it.”
Reed could not be reached for comment on Hefney’s claim.
The Canadian Football League Alumni Association helped out with about $7,000 to fund Hefney’s rehab, and a GoFundMe campaign started by Barber generated $15,000, with donations coming from several CFL players, including Calgary QB Bo Levi Mitchell and new CFLPA president Solomon Elimimian.
On Wednesday, Elimimian said the association pushed for extended medical benefits with Hefney in mind during collective bargaining in 2019. When asked if the CFL or CFLPA should so something specifically to provide aid for Hefney now, Elimimian was non-committal.
“I believe that something should be done where a case like Jonathan Hefney’s doesn’t happen again, and that’s one thing that we have to work towards. … It was really an unfair situation. That’s why we worked so hard to try to close the gap in terms of coverage. Our hope is there won’t be a situation like Mr. Hefney’s again, where he’s not covered and he has to resort to making bad choices.”
Hefney is aware that the CFLPA referenced his situation during collective bargaining negotiations with the CFL.
“I just laugh at it because it doesn’t do nothing for me. I’m in the situation I’m in now but everybody can now receive their help. Even three years is not enough. With an injury like mine, I feel they should take care of it until I’m back to being able to do what I need to do, you know?
“I grew up playing sports, so this pretty much just killed one part of my life. And for the CFL not to take it as serious as they should have, they pretty much put me on a different path, a different life. I don’t even know what I can do when I get home. I can’t do nothing physical. Just running. When I get home, I’m probably going to try to run a few marathons. It will be my challenge when I get home.”
Last November in Calgary, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie was asked about Hefney during his state of the league address.
“You know, Jonathan Hefney’s situation was essentially a flashpoint for a different kind of discussion. Credit to our team and credit to the players for recognizing that and coming together and finding a solution so the American players are now covered for three years. And that’s a big step in the right direction.
“I don’t think there’s a person in this room that wouldn’t say they’d feel bad that Jonathan’s found trouble in his life. I shared a locker room with a lot of players, many of whom are friends of mine today, and many that I’ve lost contact with. And, of course, what you’d want for all of them is a good life. … It clearly didn’t happen for Jonathan. And for that, I think we can all just say that’s a tragedy.”
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