Let’s talk about the NFL Hole of Fame Game…a fist-fighting farce…a snake-oil salesman…welcome to Alberta…Tebow of the North…QBs by the numbers…and Coach Grunge hits the century mark

Another Sunday smorgas-bored…and now they know how many holes it takes to fix an NFL field…

Did it really happen? Were the Green Bay Packers and Oakland Raiders really in Good Ol’ Hometown for a National Football League dress rehearsal last Thursday?

Well, yes, they were.

Aaron Rodgers: Good day, eh.

We know this for certain because there were sightings and photographic evidence to confirm the existence and presence of Aaron Rodgers, who apparently was separated from Borat at birth and looked positively hoser-ish in his Canadian Tuxedo.

Coo-roo-coo-coo-coo-coo-coo-coo! Good day, eh.

Mind you, I thought Rodgers was a bit too much of a denim dude. The jeans and jacket were fine, and the bolo tie was a boffo accessory, but he should have gone with a lumberjack shirt to complete the ensemble. Take it from a fashionista, overdoing denim is never a good look. On the red carpet or strolling through Osborne Village.

Anyway, a garment glitch aside, Rodgers was meant to be the star attraction in an exhibition of faux football between two storied four-down franchises at Football Follies Field in Fort Garry, but I’m sure you know by now that the Pro Bowl quarterback was one of 33 Packers no-shows. That’s right, 33 scratches. Sounds like a bad case of hemorrhoids.

Perhaps that’s fitting, though, since River City has become the butt of jokes.

To wit: How could the NFL tell it was in Winnipeg? They found potholes.

In re-configuring a Canadian Football League playground (110 yards with 20-yard end zones) to meet NFL dimensions (100 yards with 10-yard end zones), removal of CFL goal posts was required and, apparently, no one with the NFL thought to toss a few shovelfuls of good, rich prairie dirt into the holes left behind. Instead, they plopped something that looked like a swath of Austin Powers’ discarded shag carpeting on top and expected the boys to “Play on!” The Packers would have none of that. “No way, baby,” they squawked. Thus the pothole patches were ruled hazardous to the wellness of millionaire footballers and shrinkage ensued. Rather than frolic on their regulation-size grid, the large lads had to make do on an 80-yard pitch with makeshift end zones.

I’m not sure if the shrinkage was a salute to our metric system or the U.S.-Canada currency exchange rate, but it made for the kind of farce you’d find on Fawlty Towers.

Difference is, Fawlty Towers is funny, this wasn’t.

But, hey, it will forever be known as the NFL Hole of Fame game, and I suppose that’s something to shout about. Or not.

Watching the events unfold on TSN, it reminded me of another time and another place and another show fraught with farce. It was the night of Dec. 11, 1981, and Muhammad Ali was to meet Trevor Berbick in the main event of a calamitous fight card on a parched patch of earth in Nassau, The Bahamas. Before the first punch was thrown, someone discovered there was no official timer, no ringside bell to signal the start and end of each round, and only two pairs of boxing mitts. For the entire card. Promoters dispatched a man to Miami with instructions to return with fresh gloves for the Ali-Berbick bout, a stopwatch was located, and a TV crew loaned organizers a cow bell. In-ring hostilities began more than two hours late and, eventually, Berbick earned a unanimous decision for thoroughly boxing Ali’s ears over 10 rounds. Ali never fought again and, even though the card commenced on Dec. 11, none of us filed our final copy until Dec. 12. One wise acre on press row awarded the event the No Bell Prize for boxing. We laughed and agreed.

John Graham holding court.

The villain in the Gaffe-O-Rama that was the NFL experience in River City appears to be John Graham, mouthpiece for On Ice Entertainment. He didn’t have a clue about his market, hence the $75-$340 (plus taxes/fees) sticker prices and the insulting PR prattle that implied Pegtowners are backwater bumpkins who don’t know moonshine from a Slurpee. “It’s a premier event,” Graham gushed the day before they discovered the potholes. “In musical terms, it’s like the Rolling Stones or U2 type of thing.” Ya, for sure, John. Take away Mick, Keith, Bono and The Edge and it was just like that.

They tell us that 21,992 bought the snake oil that Graham was selling, but I believe that like I believe the cow really did jump over the moon. Based on what I saw on TSN, Football Follies Field was a glass half empty. Naturally, Graham pointed an accusing finger at news snoops, because that’s what some PR flacks tend to do when their face hits the floor. He whinged to Paul Friesen of the Winnipeg Sun about “very biased articles” and “things that aren’t accurate,” then attempted to have Freezer banned from the press perch. What a tool.

My favorite headline on the NFL Hole of Fame Game was delivered by the Washington Post: “Canadians are very politely not buying tickets to the Packers-Raiders game in Winnipeg.”

A.J. Cole

Much was made of Raiders punter A.J. Cole wearing a t-shirt with the words “Winnipeg, Alberta” pasted across the front. Alberta only wishes it was so.

Cole was thoughtful enough to offer a mea culpa for his geographical goof-up, so I say we cut the guy some slack. Come to think of it, Cole has a degree in Industrial Engineering from North Carolina State. What, no one thought to ask him to come up with a better solution to the goal post/pothole problem than an 80-yard football field?

By the way, those “Winnipeg, Alberta” t-shirts and hoodies are available from TeeChip on the Internet. They come in sizes S-XXXXXXL and nine colors. I’m not saying I endorse them, but they might make a good gag gift for family and friends unfortunate enough to live in Wild Rose Country.

When the Packers-Raiders skirmish was announced, Winnipeg Blue Bombers CEO Wade Miller described it as a “once in a lifetime experience.” After Thursday, I’d say that sounds about right.

Chris Streveler

Moving on to football with a rouge, if you’ve ever wondered what Tim Tebow might have looked like in the CFL, Chris Streveler provided a hint on Friday night in E-Town.

Pretty he ain’t, not at all like Trevor Harris, his counterpart with the Eskimos who usually looks like the ‘after’ part of a Tide commercial. You know, all spiffy, fresh and clean. Streveler, on the other hand, is kind of like Mike O’Shea, his head coach with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Grungy. With a game to match his scruffy chin whiskers.

Going by the QB numbers on Friday, Streveler had no business beating the Eskimos 34-28 in a West Division top-dog throw-down at Commonwealth Stadium. Harris flung the football for 430 yards and a touchdown, Streveler 89 on just seven completions and zero scores. But they don’t give the guy operating a wrecking ball marks for artistic impression, and that’s the way it is with some quarterbacks.

Tim Tebow

Guys like Harris are a candy store. Streveler is a hardware store, full of nuts and bolts and wrenches and all manner of heavy-metal gadgets. He’s Tebow of the North. Tebow with a toque. It’s all about the legs and smash-mouth with the neophyte QB, subbing for wounded starter Matt Nichols.

Streveler crash-banged his way to one Tebowesque TD and set up another with a 30-yard Tebowesque boogie, and small DBs and safeties across the CFL landscape better get used to the idea of being the bug rather than the windshield for the next month-plus while Nichols is in the repair shop.

You know what the narrative would be today had it been Nichols tossing the rock for just 89 yards, don’t you? That’s right, even in victory, the rabble would be breaking out the pitch forks and putting a match to torches.

Trevor Harris

That old bromide “statistics are for losers” certainly applies to the quarterbacks in the two Winnipeg-E-Town skirmishes this season. Here are the numbers:
Trevor Harris       61/94   775 yds.
Nichols/Streveler 20/38   289 yds.

Sean Whyte of the Eskimos hoofed 14 field goals v. Winnipeg FC, so why would I still rather have Justin Medlock doing my three-point kicking in a big game?

A quick thought on Willie Jefferson, the holy terror who most often lines up at defensive end for the Bombers: Exactly what part of Jefferson did the Saskatchewan Roughriders not like? Seriously. Gang Green let this guy get away? I’m pretty sure when Trevor Harris brushed his hair after Friday’s game, Jefferson fell out. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking Glen Suitor would be a much better broadcaster if he actually knew what was in the CFL rule book. Just saying.

Speaking of Suitor and the squawk boxes on TSN, here are a couple of juicy snippets from Kirk Penton’s latest offering of sound bites from CFL GMs, coaches and suits in The Athletic:

* “They were down 10-0 in the first quarter, and Suitor said the Lions are improved. I’ve gained 20 pounds since training camp. Too many desserts and too many late-night chips. But if Suitor says the Lions are improved, guess I can tell my wife that the fatter me is improved too.”

* “We (coaches) respect Matt Nichols more than you media guys do. When the Bombers lose the next three without him, you’ll see why coaches are smarter than newspaper guys and talking heads.”

Mike O’Shea

And, finally, never thought I would mention Mike O’Shea, Bud Grant and Cal Murphy in the same sentence, but Coach Grunge has joined the Bombers coaching legends in a very exclusive club—the only Winnipeg FC sideline stewards to work 100 regular-season games. O’Shea hit the century mark on Friday night in the E-Town rain, and I thought someone would have made a big deal out of the milestone. Trouble is, a lot of folks still aren’t sold on Coach Grunge, and they won’t be until he brings the Grey Cup back to Good Ol’ Hometown, like Bud (four times) and Cal (once) did. Still, 100 games is a noteworthy achievement, and there’s a boatload of us who didn’t think O’Shea would last this long.

About Jim Kernaghan…the Grim Reaper…charismatic jocks…and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers Wall of Honor

I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…

Jim Kernaghan
Jim Kernaghan

The trouble with aging isn’t in the living, it’s in the dying.

Not in our dying, understand, but in the passing of so many of our contemporaries, the people we grew up with, worked with, learned with, played with, laughed with, cried with. The people we watched and admired. The people who inspired and delighted.

No one here gets out alive. We know that (although Keith Richards appears to be pushing the envelop). But the reminders come too rapidly once we have arrived at a certain vintage.

On Friday, Muhammad Ali leaves us. Two days later, Jim Kernaghan is gone.

Those who knew him best might suggest that it’s just like Kernaghan to check out so soon after the former heavyweight boxing champion died. That would be ‘Kerny’. Chasing the story. Still. Always.

Kernaghan, one of the flowers of Canadian jock journalism during a 42-year print run that stretched from 1964 to 2006, was someone to be admired and respected as a person and writer. He spent a considerable amount of time chronicling the fascinating deeds and derring-do of Ali, initially for the Toronto Star then the London Free Press. He was on site to deliver daily dispatches to readers for more than two dozen of the champ’s 61 fist fights, including the night he bade farewell in a cringe-inducing tiff with Trevor Berbick.

That was in Nassau, Bahamas, early in December 1981. I remember spending time with Kerhaghan in a Paradise Island bar, talking Ali, trying to soak up his knowledge and listening to tinny Christmas carols being played by a steel drums band.

I never thought I’d ever be sitting in a bar in the Bahamas, a couple of weeks before Christmas, listening to Jingle Bells and Silent Night being played on steel drums,” I said to him. “It’s real strange and different.”

You can’t have a big fight without strange and different,” he said. “Especially if Ali and his people are involved. They’re always strange and different.”

I never saw much of Kernaghan after the Ali-Berbick bout, because I soon was off on other adventures that landed me at the Calgary Sun and Winnipeg Sun. But I never forgot his kindness and I never stopped reading him. He was terrific.

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali

I know Kernaghan was there. I know legendary Toronto Star columnist Milt Dunnell was there. And I know I was there. If there were other Canadian jock journalists at the final Ali fist fight in Nassau, I don’t recall. Two of our unholy trinity are dead. As are five of the boxers on the Drama in Bahama card: Ali, Berbick, Greg Page, Scott Ledoux and Jeff Sims. Makes me wonder why the Grim Reaper has spared me.

Just wondering: Would there be a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or an Ahmad Rashad if Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. hadn’t become Muhammad Ali in 1964? Somehow I doubt it. There’d most likely still be a Lew Alcindor and a Bobby Moore.

Ali’s passing put me in ponder of the charismatic jocks and/or sportsmen I was fortunate enough to meet and write about during my 30 years in mainstream media. They are:

  1. Muhammad Ali: One of a kind.
  2. Pinball Clemons: A pure joy to be around.
  3. John Ferguson: The former Winnipeg Jets general manager was a keg of dynamite, but he had a compelling, powerful personality. Everyone knew when Fergy was in the room.
  4. Cal Murphy: Yes, the former Winnipeg Blue Bombers coach and GM was curmudgeonly and oft-cranky, but he was also a sackful of howls. Oh, how he would make us laugh. And he filled notebooks.
  5. Vic Peters: The curling legend had an every-man air that was very inviting and appealing.
  6. Chris Walby: The big man on the Bombers’ O-line seemed ever-present. Even when he wasn’t in the room, he was in the room. If you catch my drift.
  7. Pierre Lamarche: Most of you probably don’t recognize the name, but Pierre is a long-time big shot in Canadian tennis. I covered him at the Canadian National Tennis Tournament in the early to mid-1970s, when the event was staged at the Winnipeg Canoe Club. He was a big, happy-go-lucky French-Canadian who delivered great quotes and brightened your day.
  8. I’d say Bobby Hull, but I can’t get past the domestic violence stuff.
Indian Jack Jacobs
Indian Jack Jacobs

So, the debate is on: Which names belong on the Wall of Honor at Football Follies Field in Fort Garry? And in what order? Well, much respect to Chris Walby, one of my top-five fave Winnipeg Blue Bombers, but no, he ought not be the starting point when the Canadian Football League club begins to salute its legendary workers. You begin with Indian Jack Jacobs and the Galloping Ghost, Fritz Hanson. I never saw either of them play, but I know what they did, and anytime you need to build a new stadium basically because of one man (see: Jacobs, Jack) he has to be first in the roll call. Next up would be Bud Tinsley, then Ken Ploen, Leo Lewis, Herb Gray, Gerry James, Frank Rigney and Walby. That’s your starting nine. Old friend Paul Friesen of the Winnipeg Sun has other ideas, but it’s apparent that he’s unaware they played football in River City prior to the Bud Grant era.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 45 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.

 

Muhammad Ali: Kicking the ‘shit’ out of Sonny Liston and getting a kick out of life

I don’t pretend to have known Muhammad Ali, even though I am like many folks of my vintage who like to think we knew him.

Ali arrived in my consciousness early in the 1960s, when he began shooting off at the mouth (a la flamboyant grappler Gorgeous George) and wrested the world heavyweight boxing championship from the dreaded, mob-linked thug Sonny Liston. He was called Cassius Clay then, and I recall listening to the first of his two fights with Liston on the radio.

The grownup men had gathered in our kitchen, the non-interested women sat in the living room.

“Come on, Clay!” I yelped with the enthusiasm of any 13-year-old sprig. “Kick the shit out of him!”

This was the one and only time in my youth that I used profanity in the presence of grownups and, although there was mild tittering at the kitchen table, I was scolded, yet spared the harrowing punishment of my mother shoving a bar of soap in my mouth and giving it a good scrubbing. Perhaps it helped that Clay did, in fact, kick the “shit” out of Liston.

Whatever, little could I have imagined that, not quite 18 years after that Feb. 25, 1964, incident I would meet the great man.

***

ali6It was early December, 1981, and I stood within heckling distance of Greg Page, a growing concern among the world’s preeminent heavyweight fist-fighters.

Page was moving briskly to and fro in a makeshift ring, bobbing and weaving and flicking left jabs and right crosses into the thick air of anticipation that accompanied all big bouts back when boxing still was big. In a few days, the product of Louisville, Ky., would be throwing down against Scott Ledoux, a Minnesota miner’s son and a plodding palooka best known for his mental toughness and inadvertently knocking the toupee from the head of bombastic broadcaster Howard Cosell. This was Page’s final prep as part of the undercard to the Drama in Bahama and its main event, Muhammad Ali vs. Trevor Berbick.

As I watched Page punch at shadows while all manner of misfits consorted with seedy, nefarious-looking leeches on the periphery, I felt a presence to my left flank. It was heavy. Imposing. I turned, ever so slightly. The man standing beside me was dressed in black. Shoes. Trousers. Untucked shirt hanging over a substantial girth. All black. I looked up. Way up.

Muhammad Ali was listed at 6-feet-3 and he would weigh in at 236 and change for his bout with Berbick, but he seemed so much taller. His crop of short, curly hair surely seemed at least seven feet above the soles of his shoes.

“Hi Muhammad,” I said. “How’s it going today?”

“The kid,” he said, nodding in Page’s direction, “thinks he’s as pretty as me. But he ain’t. Ain’t nobody as pretty as me.”

When I met Ali during the run-up to his Dec. 11, 1981, bout with Berbick, he wasn’t pretty anymore. His belly was layered with flab and he shuffled along. Parkinson’s syndrome had begun its assault, although we didn’t know it at the time. We just thought he was punch drunk, which is why no athletic commission in the United States was willing to grant him a license to fight again. He was forced to take his act to Nassau, Bahamas, where he and Berbick pitched duel on a parched patch of earth known as the Queen Elizabeth Sports Centre.

The entire production was patchwork. The ring was set up on a pasture disguised as a sandlot baseball infield, at second base. Nobody thought to bring an official timer, so a stopwatch was used. Nobody thought to bring a ringside bell, so a cowbell was located. There were only two sets of gloves for a dozen fighters. All but Ali, Berbick and Thomas Hearns were required to squeeze together in one tiny, cramped changing room, like so many cattle in a pen.

ali1Only a month shy of his 40th birthday, by the time Berbick was done boxing his ears, Ali looked to be on the far side of his 60th birthday. It was to be the last of his 61 professional fist-fights, the final two of them humbling losses at the fists of Larry Holmes and Berbick.

All considered, it was an inglorious way for the most glorious of gladiators to bid farewell to a sport that for the best part of two decades had ridden the coattails of his boxing skills, charm, charisma and social awareness.

Still, I often cite covering that event for the Toronto Sun as the signature assignment of my 30 years in jock journalism.

In the few hours since his death on Friday, there has been an outpouring of admiration and affection for Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. (his “slave name,” as he called it). Many have said he was larger than life, but we know that isn’t so. No one is larger than life. But Ali’s life was larger than most. From the moment he whupped Liston, his life was large.

His joining the Nation of Islam, changing his name and refusing induction into the U.S. military amplified it.

It has also been submitted that Ali was the first athlete whose impact transcended sports. Again, no. Jack Roosevelt Robinson beat him to that punch when, in 1947, he became the first black man to perform in a Major League Baseball game. The difference was that Robinson was advised to zip his lips. To play the part of the humble worker. Ali, on the other hand, never shut up.

Much of what the three-time heavyweight champion had to say was silly, spoofish stuff. He would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” He’d recite hokey poems predicting the outcome of his fights, and the round in which his foe would fall. That part of his shtick entertained and amused the masses. He was a man-child, walking through life with a wink and a nod.

Yet for every chuckle there was a harsh criticism. And flat-out hatred.

ali4Many, like myself, saw him as a hero for saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong” and refusing to be shipped off to a senseless battle on the other side of the world. But his anti-Vietnam War stance rankled and raised the ire of millions of Americans. Even the aforementioned Jackie Robinson turned on him.

Ali didn’t care, though. He was willing to forfeit his lucrative boxing career and, indeed, go to jail, but he was not willing to compromise his beliefs and go to Vietnam.

Each of us is a song of life, and I’ll always remember Muhammad Ali as a song of joy and freedom.

“I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” he once told the braying jackals who would condemn him. “I’m free to be what I want.”

Words to live by.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 45 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.