Gael legend named to Order of Canada

Gaels QB Dr. Jim Rutka appointed to prestigious honour

While some remember James Rutka for his accomplishments on the football field, his life’s work as a pre-eminent neurosurgeon has led to his recent appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada.

This honour may very well be his crowning achievement, but Dr. Rutka is no stranger to success. 

Rutka’s achievements began on the football field in 1978, where he not only won a Vanier Cup but also set the Queen’s single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback — a mark of 308 that still stands today.

The Queen’s Football Hall of Famer was drafted by the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL, but a pro career never materialized. While coming close to what he described as a “lifelong dream,” Rutka was realistic about his professional chances, given his size and injury history.

He said his time on the football field instilled important values in him. 

“The skills of working together with groups of people, working towards common goals, staying fit physically, and maintaining a work-life balance are all skills I developed further while playing football,” Rutka said.       

Rutka entered medical school and eventually trained to be a neurosurgeon — not the most typical path for a football player. But he said he’s always been good at balancing academics and athletics, studying for several hours each night after football practice.

“It was study, practice, study, repeat — day in, day out, for months,” he said.  

Following a PhD and fellowships in the United States and Japan, Dr. Rutka joined the Department of Neurosurgery at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and has been on the surgical staff since 1990. 

His professional career has been distinguished, serving as the President of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons and the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Neurosurgery.  

Becoming an Officer of the Order of Canada requires accomplishments that go above and beyond what might be expected of an average person.  The main portion of the criteria recognizes “outstanding achievement, [and] dedication to the community and service to the nation.”

As a both a neurosurgeon and a football player, Dr. Rutka has a unique perspective on the increased attention being paid to concussions in football.  

“Severe concussions can have [devastating effects] on brain function and quality of life,” he said. Effects that, as a neurosurgeon, Dr. Rutka has seen first-hand.

The concussion rates in football are higher than in almost every other sport, and less than four per cent of possible football concussions are reported, according to a study by Harvard and Boston U. However, with these alarming statistics comes increased action to help make football safer.  

Dr. Rutka sees the awareness programs and rule changes implemented by the National Football League as making it safer for the players on the field. He’s worked with professionals such as Tim Tebow to lead a helmet safety awareness program designed to reduce their occurrence.

Dr. Rutka isn’t the first Queen’s alumnus to be named an Officer of the Order of Canada, as he joins a long list of former students and professors who’ve earned the prestigious award. 

Some recent selections include Peter Milliken, ArtSci ’68; Michael Macmillan, ArtSci ’78; Dr. Brenda Gallie, MD ’69 and Dr. Norman Marcon, MD ’62. The four were named to the Order in December 2014 by Governor General David Johnston.

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