Bud Grant has left the building, at age 95, so you’ll excuse me if I wax nostalgic this morning…
When I hear the name Bud Grant, two things immediately pop to mind: The Grey Cup and the Day of the Watermelon.
Way back in the day, you see, my friend Chester and I would hop on our bikes and pedal from Melbourne Avenue in East Kildonan to Packers Field, a parched patch of earth across the street from a meat rendering plant in St. Boniface.
We would make this journey twice every day, morning and afternoon. We did so because Packers Field is where we would find our football heroes, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. These were the late 1950s/early 1960s Bombers of Kenny Ploen and Leo Lewis and Ernie Pitts and Pepe Latourelle and Herb Gray et al, and while they grabbed grass and growled in what would hopefully become another Grey Cup-winning crusade, we stood on the sidelines of this sun-scorched field and observed as if we were familiar with the inner workings of football.
“I see the jury has arrived,” Pitts said as he greeted us upon arrival one day.
Chester and I looked at each other. The great Ernie Pitts, the all-star receiver, had spoken to us. We didn’t know how to respond or react, so we did what most kids would have done—we gave one another a gob-smacked look and giggled.
Shortly thereafter, Grant, the legendary coach, blew his whistle to signal a halt to the on-field activity. He gathered his players, spoke to them briefly and they began to trudge toward the sideline, most of them walking past Chester and I as they headed toward a white cube van parked near the west end of the field.
This had been the final session of their two-a-day workouts, the most demanding, onerous and imposing portion of training camp, and our football heroes were sweaty, stinky and as parched as the field beneath their cleated feet. We followed them and watched with urchin-like curiosity as a man with a lumpy waistline raised the back door of the van. Watermelon. Behind that door was a truckload of beautiful, refreshing watermelon.
That was the players’ post-practice reward for making it through the two-a-days.
Chester and I collected our bikes and were about to leave when we heard a voice call out. We turned and looked back. It was Bud Grant.
“Here,” he said, “you kids have been out here all week just like the players. This is for you.”
He handed us a watermelon, about the size of a football. A member of the training staff cracked it open and two kids sat eating watermelon and spitting seeds with the Grey Cup champions.
How many kids could say they sat and spat watermelon seeds among sporting deity? Only Chester and myself from our neighborhood. It was magical.
The Bombers, after all, were top dogs. The Winnipeg Jets had yet to arrive to adjust the sports pecking order in Good Ol’ Hometown, and our gridiron gods had brought us great glory, winning the Grey Cup in 1958, ’59, ’61 and ’62.
I’ve told the Bud Grant watermelon story a few times, because those morning/afternoon sessions at Packers Field are among my most cherished childhood memories and serve as the first stirrings of my life-long fling with the Canadian Football League.
I was fortunate. Actually, blessed would be a better word. I grew up when the CFL mattered from the Left Coast to Montreal (and perhaps even in the Maritimes), then I got to cover it for 19 years in three locales—the Republic of Tranna, Calgary and, finally, Winnipeg.
And I’ve been a member of Bombers Nation since that Day of the Watermelon, all thanks to Bud Grant.
History records that Grant served as Bombers sideline steward for 10 crusades, 1957-66, making six trips to the Grey Cup game and winning four times. Fifty-seven years later, those totals remain Winnipeg FC standards, as does his tally of 102 regular-season Ws. Legend.
After learning of Grant’s passing, I was curious about what one legend, Jack Matheson, had to say about another legend bolting from the Bombers to the Minnesota Vikings in March 1967.
Here’s what Matty scribbled for the Winnipeg Tribune:
“You knew about class, just by looking at his athletes milling about an air terminal; or riding 35,000 feet high on a diet of coffee, tea or milk; or checking into a hotel. Ask the stewardi, or the desk clerks, and they’ll tell you the Blue Bombers were winners. A white shirt and tie wasn’t good enough, it had to be a CLEAN white shirt and tie, because that was Grant’s style.
“If you’re going to go in style, you might as well go first class, I always say. That was Bud Grant’s way, and it was a good feeling, knowing he was in charge. Now that you mention it, I never really did see him walk on water, but he was right about so much, so often, that most of us got to the stage when it wouldn’t have surprised us.
“I guess we always knew that Bud would be leaving some day, because ambition drives big men to bigger things and it was naive to think that Grant would be part of the scenery until the end of time, if not longer. When I called and wished him well on Saturday I said I understood about him wanting to coach in the big leagues. ‘Don’t forget this is the big leagues here, too,’ he said. That’s class.”
Just so you know, Grant made his exit Stage South for a fabulous National Football League adventure (one NFL title, four trips to the Super Bowl) on March 11, 1967, just one month after he had signed a five-year deal to remain on Maroons Road. Some among the rabble thought him to be quite the Benedict Arnold for going over the wall, but most of us, like Matty, understood his desire to try his hand stateside.
Interesting how the two dailies in Good Ol’ Hometown played the Grant story: The Winnipeg Sun has it on the front of the paper today, plus three pages inside, with quality articles from Paul Friesen and Ted Wyman, both of whom picked up a phone and talked to people who knew the man. Over at the Drab Slab, apparently everyone took the day off. There was just one article, written by wire services, and one canned quote from Bombers CEO Wade Miller. So very lame.
Let me say this: I’m glad there’s a TSN, even if its devotion to all things Republic of Tranna is insufferable. But who decides the story lineup for SportsCentre? Circus clowns? A couple of kids playing rock, paper, scissors on a street corner? I mean, a pair of the deepest pockets in Canada are now bankrolling the Montreal Alouettes, and it was item No. 6 on the docket Friday. Apparently, an NFL swap of mostly draft picks, NBA highlights of 3-pointers, NHL highlights, soccer and the second round of a PGA tournament were more newsworthy than noted Quebec separatist Pierre Karl Péladeau picking up the tab for the Larks with a portion of his $1.9 billion fortune. Sigh.
This was TSN insider Dave Naylor’s take on the Larks time slot: “As the reporter who covered this story for TSN, let me state I believe it is appropriately placed in our SportsCentre lineup. 23 minutes into a 1-hour show in March? No objections at all.” Good grief, man. What in the name of Rod Black does the calendar have to do with it? News is news 12 months of the year.
The Péladeau takeover is hugely significant because the other eight Rouge Football outfits won’t be required to pay the bills in Montreal, and Pierre Karl’s abundance of wealth puts the Larks on sturdy financial footing. Mind you, if he starts acting like the second coming of the Glieberman guys, all bets are off. We don’t need Separatist Sunday game-day promotions.
Here’s Damien Cox of the Toronto Star on Twitter: “Pretty clear the men running national sports federations will never treat female athletes equally until they are forced to, or forced out of office. They always have believed male athletes deserve more, and should play by a different set of rules.” Oh for gawd’s sake. That’s like Tiger Woods telling Max Verstappen he has to be more alert behind the wheel. I mean, has Cox ever looked at his own business? When have major newspapers on Our Frozen Tundra ever treated female athletes equally? Or even close to equal? Never, that’s when. Because the guys who run the rag trade in this country “always have believed male athletes deserve more.”
In today’s Star, only three of 19 articles articles focus on female athletes/teams: Premier Hockey Federation, skier Makaela Shiffrin, NWSL. Perhaps Cox can have a fireside chat with his sports editor. If the Star has a sports editor, that is.
I note the Winnipeg Sun is still running Steve Simmons’ Republic of Tranna-centric alphabet fart on Sundays. So I ask once again: Why? Oh, wait, I forgot: It’s actually the Torontopeg Sun.
Just wondering: Does anyone truly believe Tom Brady is retired, and does anyone believe Aaron Rodgers will make up his mind? Here’s a better question: Why don’t the Green Bay Packers make up Rodgers’ mind for him? Like, let Mr. Tin Foil QB leave for parts unknown, then lure Brady to Wisconsin.
I don’t know if the Toronto Jurassics will qualify for the NBA playoffs, but if points were awarded for whining about game officials they’d be in first place.
And, finally, it was 50 years ago last week when New York Yankees pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich completed the most oddball trade in Major League Baseball history: They swapped wives, children and family pets. True story.