The ‘A’ side of Dorian Boose — the rich gospel voice and piano fingers, the charisma and handsome profile — that’s what most Edmonton Eskimos teammates remember first.
They shared a moment in 2003, less about football than friendship, when Steve Charbonneau and Boose played piano in a darkened Toronto hotel lobby during the great blackout of 2003. The two massive defensive linemen improvised a little and played as much as they knew of Hallelujah, killing time after the massive eastern seaboard power outage forced a postponement of the Eskimos’ game against the Argonauts.
The impromptu piano duet in front of adoring teammates remains a highlight of that extraordinary road trip and enriches the memories of a Canadian Football League season capped by the 12th Grey Cup win in Eskimos history.
That was most definitely the ‘A’ side of Dorian Boose.
Raised with three brothers in a spiritual household in Tacoma, Wash., the gentle 6-foot-6, 300-pound giant learned to play piano and sing gospel long before he hunted quarterbacks. In college, he studied sociology and psychology and was a dedicated athlete who didn’t smoke or drink, not even coffee.
In 1995, while still at Washington State, he married his sweetheart Brenda Voelker and by 2000 they had two sons together, Taylor and Brady. Boose finished his college career in grand style with the 10-1 Cougars at the 1998 Rose Bowl, though they lost a close game to Michigan.
So awesome were his physical tools that the New York Jets spent a second-round pick on him, 56th overall, in the 1998 National Football League draft . Soon after, he signed a four-year deal , complete with US$718,000 signing bonus, that could have paid him $2 million as a starter.
He was the full NFL package, but he rarely seized the opportunity to impress Jets head coach Bill Parcells. Boose played 44 games over the length of the contract — 34 for the Jets and then 10 with the Washington Redskins — without registering a single quarterback sack.
He was an NFL castoff by the end of the 2001 season .
Boose’s tenure in the CFL was even shorter and more contradictory. He played 16 games and was a star of the week three times for the Eskimos in 2003 as they rolled toward that Grey Cup win . Just one off-season later, he was expendable, cut in October 2004 by then-head coach Tom Higgins after showing up out of shape in training camp and playing in just three games all season.
Boose didn’t play again in the CFL. He didn’t go home to Washington state, where his brothers Eric, Zachary and Joseph and his parents Joseph and Evelyn still live. He didn’t return to his boys in Centreville, Va. And he divorced Brenda (who kept her married name).
The best guess is that Boose never left Edmonton. He was known to be working construction at times, living on the street and in the North Saskatchewan River valley at others, or in social housing or with friends.
Eskimos teammates said he showed no obvious signs of drug or alcohol abuse while he was on the team, quite the opposite in fact, but at some point after his football career ended, he began using intravenous drugs.
On Nov. 22, 2016, 12 years after his last football game, a year after refusing to enter a treatment program for drug addiction, Boose hanged himself in a south-side Edmonton home, where sources said he was discovered by his then-girlfriend.
He was 42.
Grey Cup week was just underway in Toronto. His eldest son Taylor’s college football team, the University of Cincinnati Bearcats, had two days earlier lost a home game. His youngest son Brady, who was diagnosed with autism at age two, was thriving in Virginia as a junior at Centreville High School.
A tissue sample was taken from Boose’s brain, to be tested for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurological condition associated with repeated head trauma. Symptoms include problems with cognition, personality and behavioural changes including aggression and depression.
“I know he suffered from CTE,” Brenda Boose wrote in a recent Facebook message, though she declined to be interviewed at length for this story, citing potential litigation with the NFL.
The NFL has a concussion settlement program, which provides up to $4 million to the descendants of any qualified player who died with CTE under age 45.
That would explain a lot of different behaviours, one former Eskimos teammate said.
It is otherwise hard to explain how such a dedicated and talented athlete, gentle soul and loving husband and father abandoned his family, washed out of pro football in two countries and spiralled into addiction .
“The funny thing is, he never even drank or went out and partied or anything like that,” said former Eskimos teammate and occasional roommate Randy Spencer. “That’s what made it such a shock, because of the type of gentleman he was. He was the kind of guy playing the piano, singing and going to church while we were all out going to parties.
“We used to have training camp at Concordia College and there was a piano in the lobby. Any time we were on our way to meetings or on the way back, he would be on it. He loved playing there.”
Boose seemed happy playing for the Eskimos, too, and they were impressed immediately by his size and demeanour, though not always by his play.
“He was not only a huge man but a huge man in a room of huge men,” said former Eskimos public relations director Dave Jamieson. “Dorian was quiet, very pleasant. He would sing a lot.
“I always saw him as a gentle soul and you don’t hear that used a lot in football locker rooms. A lot of it is about posture and the sport requires that non-violent people be violent. He sometimes could be there and you wouldn’t hear him. I don’t know if he was a loner per se, but he kept to himself.”
It was a team of great talent and strong personalities, the locker room policed by the likes of Ed Hervey, Terry Vaughn and Terry Ray. Boose’s easygoing nature fit in nicely on a defensive line with Charbonneau, Spencer, Randy Chevrier and the loquacious Rahim Abdullah, who was a constant foil for Boose.
“Dorian was extremely intelligent, dedicated, disciplined in the martial arts like jiu-jitsu,” said Spencer. “He said he was a black belt in more than one discipline. He’d teach me hand moves after practice, help me out with things like that. He was kind of a mentor.”
But Boose was gone quickly the next season, and he fell, perhaps too easily, from everyone’s radar. There is a transient nature to the sport, as rosters turn over from year to year, and it is easy to lose track of one another.
It was about 2006, Jamieson believes, that he heard Boose’s name again.
“I got a call from a gentleman who had bought a storage locker and it had a lot of Dorian’s personal effects, a jersey, that kind of thing in it. He had taken his stuff, stashed it, and not come back to get it or pay his bills. The gentleman was asking me whether the Eskimos would buy the stuff.”
Jamieson consulted with management, who declined to purchase the items.
There was no need to sound the alarm. Boose wouldn’t have been the first CFL player to run short of money or forget to pay a bill.
“Just by luck, I came across him in the street, he was with a construction group right in front of my house, and I talked to him then,” said Spencer. “I’d heard whispers that he was doing karaoke at a bar somewhere on the south side and I go, ‘Yeah, that sounds like Dorian.’ That was probably around 2010 or 2011. I had thought he wasn’t even here anymore.”
Truth be told, the Dorian they all knew disappeared soon afterwards.
“You pick this stuff up anecdotally, but I am led to believe he was probably homeless for up to four years and really living rough,” said Jamieson.
Rick Caparelli makes it his business to look out for people like Boose.
Caparelli has battled his own addictions but says he is on “the good side of life now.”
He helps out at the Operation Friendship Seniors Society (OFSS) on 106 Avenue — they offer meals and a respite from the weather to people over 55 — and he moves easily among those who frequent the facility.
Caparelli said he knew Boose, and in fact had seen the former Eskimo shoot opiates into his massive arm behind a downtown Edmonton health clinic that hands out needles to addicts.
“We shared some time together. He had that hurt,” said Caparelli, 65. “It’s an inner thing. We all hurt and we all hide it.”
That was the ‘B’ side of Dorian Boose.
Boose’s two worlds finally collided when friends on the street reached out to friends in the football community. Together, they made a concerted effort to find Boose and find him the help they thought he needed to beat his addiction.
Boose had shown up at the Operation Friendship building in August 2015. He looked ragged and appeared to be dealing with a mental health issue, according to Jimmy Morrison, the OFSS community relations supervisor.
“He wanted to volunteer, but if you’re not 55, you can’t come in, you’re just trouble around here,” said Morrison. “I thought he was lost, so I said come in and we’ll talk. We sat in the office. He said, ‘Google my name.’”
Most likely without knowing, Boose had reached out to someone perfectly positioned to get him help from the football community. Morrison had a working relationship with the Edmonton Eskimo Alumni Association, whose members volunteer monthly at the OFSS facility.
When Boose showed up at OFSS again some time later, Morrison called alumni president Bob Clarke, who in turn reached Boose’s former teammate Spencer on his cellphone. Spencer was in the middle of a doctor’s appointment.
“I walked out, drove all the way downtown,” said Spencer. “He was sitting in the back of the building. I saw him and I couldn’t believe it. Just a fragment of the person I knew before. About 100 pounds lighter.
“He stood up and just started crying. We both started crying. I said, ‘Well, you’re coming with me.’ At that moment, I didn’t know what else to do.”
They hadn’t seen one another for a decade, and the time hadn’t been kind to Boose. He had a huge dog bite on one ankle. His clothes were in tatters. “He was still athletic. You couldn’t take that away from him. But he looked gaunt now in his face,” said Spencer.
It was obvious to Spencer that Boose wasn’t going to survive out there much longer. It took some effort just to find him, and Spencer wasn’t about to lose touch again.
“I had two kids at the time and one on the way. I said no drugs in the house. He was still on drugs at the time, but even through that he was respectful,” said Spencer.
“I never feared for my family with him because I’d known him. That’s unwritten, you know.
“Maybe a few things were inappropriate because he’d been on the streets for awhile, but even then he immediately checked himself.”
He wasn’t perfect, but he fit in, Spencer said. “He cut the lawn, helped out.”
Spencer wasn’t sure how to deal with Boose’s addiction, so he doled out three beer per night, “just to keep him normal while he was coming down off whatever he was coming down off. When he was there, I would try to control whatever I could.”
Every morning, Spencer would drop Boose off downtown and pick him up and take him home at the end of the day. Boose wasn’t working, so Spencer dropped him near his own construction work site, which was in the Brewery District in Edmonton’s Oliver neighbourhood.
But Spencer’s goal, and that of the other alumni members who stepped up, was to get Boose into a recovery program, either the Henwood Treatment Centre in Edmonton or at a facility in Grande Prairie in northern Alberta.
Former Eskimos safety Trent Brown, an Edmonton lawyer who was also an alumni board member and a survivor of his own battle with alcohol, had contacts with the Alberta Alcohol & Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC). He did what he could to steer Boose toward recovery.
“I haven’t had a drink in many, many years. But at one time, I sort of went down that path a little bit and I sobered up,” said Brown. “So at first, Dorian engaged with me and I’m not sure if he thought I was just going to give him cash, but I’ve been around long enough to know that isn’t going to help a guy.
“I let him know that anything he needed with respect to recovery, there was hope, there was an answer, that he’s not the first guy who has walked down this path. I honestly thought we were going to get this guy into rehab, that he was going to show up. That’s what he had me thinking. He expressed that he did want to change.”
Brown spent a handful of days in Boose’s company — at an Eskimos home game, at Brown’s downtown office, and on Edmonton’s streets — and his eyes were opened.
“I walked many blocks in the downtown area with him, enough to see how he was perceived. People looked up to him. He knew everybody out on the streets, everybody knew him. We’re walking across Churchill Square, five or six street people knew him,” said Brown.
“We are talking about a highly intelligent guy. This was not a guy you would expect to be living on the streets.”
Brown’s main goal was to get Boose into a residential treatment program, where he could get time sober, to help think clearly.
“But you have to understand, with a lot of these guys, there are a lot of different things going on,” Brown said. “Alcohol and drug addiction is often mixed with some sort of psychological depression.
“What’s hard for people to understand is it’s hard to get away from that life. Maybe there is a piece of this where he tries to go into the real world and he isn’t perceived as a hero. But on the streets, it was almost like he was this mythological guy. How could he know so many people?”
Boose was still living at Spencer’s house, visiting Brown’s office, going to football games with other alumni members. He was functioning normally and gathering the paperwork necessary to enter the treatment program lined up for him. Spencer had been keeping Boose’s mother, Evelyn, updated by phone.
“We were doing everything we could possibly do, but he did say he wanted to do it on his own accord,” said Spencer. “He thought he could solve it on his own. Out of respect (for Spencer and others), he did what he needed to do, up until the last day I saw him. That was the day he was supposed to get admitted. But he never went.”
It was late September 2015. Spencer left on a two-week family vacation to Germany, and when he returned to Edmonton, Boose got back in touch, looking for a place to live again. It was time, as Spencer recalled, to “draw a hard line.” Too hard for Boose, it turns out. And Spencer is left with an excruciating what-if.
“I said, ‘You need to go to treatment because my wife now is quite a few months pregnant. I can’t really accommodate you any further and you already got admitted.’
“I didn’t hear much more after that. I tried to contact him through other people. From what I heard, he basically got clean on his own.”
More than a year passed without contact between them. Spencer said he’d jump in his car, drive around downtown just in case, but he never saw or heard from Boose again. When word came of Boose’s death by suicide, it triggered a flood of guilt.
“I beat myself up over that for a long enough time … That’s the thing, you never know what the steps are,” Spencer said. “If I had taken him in immediately once again, I don’t know where that would have gone.”
Boose chose not to seek treatment and distanced himself from the Eskimos, even those who continued to reach out with offers of assistance and friendship.
“Randy is hard on himself, but he did way more than people would be expected to,” said former Eskimos defensive lineman Jed Roberts. “Dorian just didn’t want to come in. It was like he was more comfortable out there. And it was awful.
“Roving gangs beat him up. He was pretty candid about living in the river valley, sleeping with one eye open. At the end, he was clean and sober. He had a place, long-term housing. But in the end, he couldn’t escape his own head.
“A lot of it was mental,” added Roberts. “I think the addictions were secondary.”
Two years later, Spencer still isn’t sure why Boose took his own life.
“In talking to his wife and his kids, everything was perfect until they had to deal with the autism diagnosis,” Spencer said. “I think (Boose) took that the wrong way, as a partial failure on his part. And I think he didn’t want to go back looking the way he did. I think he wanted to be able to go back and look and be the successful person he was before he left. And I don’t think he thought it was possible anymore.”
Boose’s parents and siblings, who declined through his brother Eric Boose to comment for this story, were also left searching for answers.
“He never came back from Canada despite our pleas for him to come home,” Eric Boose wrote in a Facebook post two years ago. “I feel that he didn’t want to come back due to how much weight he lost from using drugs. My brother has two beautiful kids that were worth every bit of his attention. However, drugs make you selfish.
“I’ll never judge anyone for failing, because life is all about the comeback story. Nevertheless, only God can judge one’s heart righteously. My brother is with God now. I trust God to do right by him. There is a gap in my family where my brother once stood. I think in depth about everything that crosses my path. The way he died continues not to make sense to me.”
News of Boose’s death spread quickly through the Eskimos alumni community via the Facebook account of former linebacker Singor Mobley, who attached a Washington Post article from 2014 that described how Boose had abandoned Brenda, Taylor and Brady.
“Dorian was an amazing dad with a larger-than-life personality, but after how things ended in the NFL and all the pressures, I truly believe he ran from the fact that he had an autistic child,” Brenda Boose said in the piece. “He never accepted it.”
Chevrier referred to the story in an emotional post he wrote on Esksfans.com .
“If this story touches a nerve, let it serve as a call to action. Dorian’s death highlights the struggles that most people don’t see when the big game comes on TV or when they are cheering in the stands,” he wrote. “His death also highlights the lack of support many players receive long after their usefulness has expired.
“You see, he did what all good athletes did, focused on football. High school, college, pros. Focus on football and avoid distractions. But when distractions hit, how are guys prepared? When disability, addiction, job loss, mental illness hit, how has focusing on football helped? In this case it hasn’t.”
But the football community did reach out: Spencer, Brown and other Eskimo alumni. The CFL Players Association’s Dire Needs Fund compensated Spencer for the money he spent on new clothes for Boose. It would have covered the cost of treatment too, had Boose shown up.
“Some people say the alumni association should be doing more. But short of locking a guy up, what do you do?” said Brown. “Maybe that’s what we should have done, had him committed. I don’t know.
“On social media, I saw people saying ‘how can we keep letting this happen?’ In my mind, there were people and supports that he had here. Maybe not enough. OK. Maybe not enough. But at some point in these stories, there has got to be some willingness and ownership from the person. That guy was well aware of where he was and what he needed to do.”
Or so it appeared from where they all stood.
“It’s hard looking from the outside,” admitted Brown. “How would a guy choose that when he could make another choice? But it’s not a choice. It’s the addiction.”
Maybe it was the transition from football to so-called real life. Coming off that hero-worship high isn’t easy for everyone. Maybe he struggled with a loss of identity. Maybe it was CTE manifesting itself as depression. Maybe he beat himself up for turning his back on two sons and a wife. It’s not believed he left a suicide note that could have answered any of those questions.
Attempts to contact people seen with Boose in YouTube videos posted a couple of months before his death were unsuccessful. One shows Boose with a woman he called Angel. It appears they were in a relationship.
Another shows a healthy-looking Boose with a cigarette in his left hand, reciting rhymes written on the back of a cardboard beer case held in his right.
“Yo. Where do I start? Where do I go? If you gotta fight, you gotta let it go. Some things don’t make sense. Like a man with no legs trying to jump over a fence.”
The ‘A’ side of Boose’s life made sense. He played high school basketball and football, went to community college in Walla Walla, transferred to Washington State, married a nice girl, played in the Rose Bowl game, had kids, turned pro, signed a rich contract, played in the NFL. That’s a reasonable facsimile of the American dream right there.
When that football dream died too soon, Boose’s life changed dramatically.
“I’ve always said every professional athlete dies twice,” said Roberts. “I know Dorian died when he got cut.
“It was cool to see everyone come together to help him, but sobering too that despite our best efforts he wouldn’t take it. We tried to get him structure. He chose the streets. It was a wake-up call for us. It taught us to make sure you’re checking in with each other.
“It’s like a 45 record,” said Roberts. “The ‘B’ side is where you spend most of your life. I think Dorian’s ‘B’ side was pretty interesting.”
Boose’s funeral was held on Dec. 12, 2016, in Lakewood, Wash. As a friend, former teammate and Eskimos alum, Spencer paid his respects, met the family and tried to give them a sense of the player and man Boose had been in Edmonton.
“It was great to meet them all and meet the son who is basically the spitting image,” said Spencer. “Brady looks exactly like him. Same happiness, same joy he had through and through.”
Today, Brady has graduated from high school, Taylor is a college junior and backup running back with the Bearcats, and Brenda is a ministry assistant at Expectation Church in Fairfax, Va.
She thanked people in Edmonton who tried to “rescue” Dorian, and hopes his story makes a difference in the lives of those who will inevitably come down that same path.
“This won’t be the last Dorian Boose,” said Brown, the Esks’ alumni and lawyer who tried to help. “I hate to say it. But with stories like this, with awareness and the compassion and thoughtfulness it hopefully brings, we can reduce the number.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019
Dan Barnes is nominated for a National Newspaper Award in the Sports category for his reporting on the sad tale of Dorian Boose, who played in the NFL and won a championship with the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos, only to end up living on the streets and eventually taking his own life. This story was originally published on Nov. 22, 2018. Winners will be announced May 3. Get more of the Edmonton Journal’s award-winning journalism complimentary for 30 days at edmontonjournal.com/prestige