(This story originally appeared in the November 2012 edition of Forever Young http://foreveryoungnews.com).
As Grey Cup 2012 rolls around on Nov. 25 in Toronto, there will be no escaping the fact that it is the 100th Cup game.
There will no doubt be debates over which of the 99 previous games is the greatest of all the “classics.”
|Jael Richardson and Chuck Ealey returning to Portsmouth Ohio|
Some will make a case for the 2009 match. Saskatchewan lost by a point to the Montreal Alouettes after being penalized for having an extra man on the field.
The Fog Bowl, played two over days nearly 50 years ago, will have its supporters, as will the exciting 1976 game between the Roughriders and the Rough Riders in which all 43 points were scored by Canadians.
I’m casting my vote, however, for the 1972 game held Dec. 3 at Hamilton’s Ivor Wynne Stadium – although I’ll admit I’m a little biased.
With a last-second field goal, the Hamilton Tiger Cats won an exciting match 13-10 over the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Rookie quarterback Chuck Ealey was the star of that game and that whole season for the Cats.
I’ve been a CFL fan pretty much all my life. My earliest memory, now a little foggy, involves Hamilton punter Cam Fraser throwing a pass to Paul Dekker out of that strange punt formation Hamilton used to employ – 1958, perhaps?
While I’m a fan, I’m not what you would call a rabid one. However, the CFL has always held some fascination for me that other pro sports haven’t. I’ve never been sure why – until now.
With the hoopla involving the 100th game, I have had a chance to take a fresh look back at that ’72 game through the excellent TSN-produced movie Stone Thrower, the book of the same name and other random research.
The game represented much more than the typical east-west Cup contest and this is why: Ealey shouldn’t have been in a position to earn the game’s MVP award, because in a just world he would have been quarterbacking in the National Football League.
Bowl victories and an undefeated college record (35-0) at the University of Toledo weren’t enough to get Ealey drafted by an NFL team. Prior to the draft, his agent sent a “well-thought-out, professional, not harsh” letter to all NFL teams, Ealey recalls.
The letter went like this:
“The only position I’m interested in playing is quarterback. Thank you for your consideration.”
He wanted to play QB because clearly, that was the position where he excelled. But an Afro-American had no chance to compete for a quarterback position in the NFL of the seventies. There were no takers among NFL general managers. And so Ealey moved on.
This story isn’t unique, of course.
Charles Officer, the director of Stone Thrower, considered doing a “bigger picture” that would have looked at other Afro-American quarterbacks who came up here to play. Standouts like Warren Moon, Condredge Holloway, Damon Allen and Bernie Custis all had to come north for their opportunity.
In 1951 Custis, a star quarterback at Syracuse University, was drafted sixth overall by the Cleveland Browns. But the Browns had no intention of letting him play the pivot position so let him go to Hamilton. Custis became the first Afro-American regular starting quarterback in North America. Earning all-star recognition in ’51, he was moved to halfback the next season.
“It’s the same story,” says Officer. “Bernie Custis coming up here and then getting switched over. He had to come here for a reason.”
Officer, an Afro-Canadian actor, writer, director and former semi-pro hockey player, believed that by documenting Ealey’s journey he could tell the bigger story of what was going on in American society in the seventies.
Meanwhile, Jael Richardson, Chuck’s daughter, has been on a journey of her own, recounted in her recently released book, similarly called The Stone Thrower: A Daughter's Lessons, a Father's Life. Richardson was born after her father’s football career had ended. As an adult she would go to Ohio with her Dad.
“When we went back to Toledo, people would start screaming ‘Oh there’s Chuck Ealey’ and ask for autographs,” Jael’s father recalls.
“She’d go, so who are you? What did you do?”
Ealey acknowledges that he “never shared a lot of story of how I got here.”
It is hard today to fully appreciate the barriers Chuck Ealey faced growing up poor in Portsmouth, Ohio, a typical American small town. Portsmouth is the kind of a place that valued football players but didn’t let black children swim in their public pools.
Ealey remembers the prejudices that held him and others back and contrasts that with the freedom “to do things a lot differently” that he found when he arrived in Hamilton. “There were none of the issues that socially held you back or that seemed to hold you back in the States,” he stated. And so Ealey was able to continue with his winning ways that memorable rookie season, 1972, in Hamilton, all the way to the Grey Cup win.
As Officer told me of his movie:
“It is a significant African American story that has everything to do about being Canadian.”
Yes, it is only a game but sometimes, like that 1972 CFL season, the life stories trump the game story.