O’Leary: Missing the people around the CFL in 2020

About three or four days before the Grey Cup last year, I started walking through downtown Calgary.

We were blessed with a gloriously warm lead-in week to the game. I remember 10-degree days and snow melting in the streets. It was perfect weather to get out and talk with jersey-wearing strangers. I left my hotel looking for fans in blue and gold and black and yellow. It didn’t take long.

I was looking for the tales of long-suffering Blue Bombers and Ticats fans and there was no shortage of those, but what I found and what stuck with me was bigger than that.

It started with my first interview. I ran into Miles Martin and Lisa Fourneaux about 10 minutes away from my hotel. They were in from Winnipeg, two Bombers fans in between Grey Cup parties, decked out in the gear of their team, more than happy to stop and talk on a dark street with a very sober guy with a notepad in his hands. Within minutes, Lisa opened the green bag on her shoulder and took out a framed photo.

“He usually goes with his dad,” Lisa told me, looking at Miles. “But his dad passed away in August.”

She showed me the picture of his smiling father and said he loved Grey Cup weekend.

“We brought this so he could be with us.”

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Andrew Harris played a big part in bringing some long overdue joy to Blue Bombers fans last year, ending Winnipeg’s 29-year Grey Cup drought (Photo: The Canadian Press)

As you often do with a story, you go out looking for one thing and you end up finding something totally different. That night, I ended up finding my favourite thing about the CFL, over and over again. There were father and son duos, best friends that flew in together from Hamilton, old friends that had reconnected via a mutual friend that morning and were hanging out like they’d never parted ways.

By the end of that night, I looked around the ballroom at BMO Centre in Calgary and realized there were thousands of stories like this all over the city that weekend, just like there are every year at a Grey Cup. Some have called the Grey Cup the Grand National Drunk but I’ve always thought that sold it short. The casts are never the exact same, but it kind of feels like a hub for a bunch of simultaneous family reunions. You won’t know everyone, but you’re all there for similar reasons and that ties the whole thing together.

I’ve thought a lot this week about those fans I met that night and the things you see every year in the days leading into a Grey Cup. In so many ways, November feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? Hundreds, maybe thousands of people crammed into these rooms, mixing and mingling, laughing, yelling over the noise while overwhelmed bartenders watch their tip jars fill up. Of course, we won’t get that this year. We can’t.

In speaking with Pinball this week, he mentioned looking at these past few months and the now cancelled 2020 season as a time to pause, reflect and look forward to next year.

In the first two parts of that idea, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the CFL changed my life. When I lived in Edmonton, I was thrown into fill-in coverage for Vicki Hall at the Edmonton Journal, when she had to leave to cover the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. I knew nothing about football (some have argued I still don’t) and thought I’d be on to my next basketball-driven assignment after the Olympics were over. Three years later, I became the full-time beat writer and spent the next 4.5 years covering football in Edmonton. It helped me grow as a journalist, advanced my career and introduced me to a core group of colleagues that currently contribute to one of the funniest group chats in the history of text messaging.

In my third year of covering the team, my editor at the time insisted I take more days off. He sent a reporter with me to practice so she could learn the ropes and fill in for me down the stretch of the season. We hit it off and we’ll celebrate our seventh anniversary in just over a week (note to self: put anniversary plans in motion).

As I explained the day-to-day of my job to her, I inevitably had to try to explain the CFL as a whole as well. It’s a quirky league full of really interesting people and those two things make for lots of possibilities for really good stories. That’s been my favourite thing in writing about the CFL, either as a journalist or from inside the league, which offered me this incredible role three years ago, after the newspaper layoff machine eventually came for me.

Edmonton long snapper Ryan King accepting the Tom Pate award in 2018 for his dedication to the community (David Chidley/CFL.ca)

There’s a glitz and glamour with the other pro leagues and I’ve spent varying degrees of time around the NBA, NHL and MLB, but with that also comes barriers. It’s not open season in terms of access in the CFL for reporters anymore, but there’s still a different dynamic when you talk with a CFL player. Maybe it’s because they park their cars in the same lot that you do when you go to practice, or because you might be working at a coffee shop in your neighbourhood, look up and see the player you’re writing about there with his family. Every team in the CFL has at least one player that’s genuinely invested in making their community better and I honestly believe you’ll never find the sincerity and relatability of CFL people in other pro sports.

I think back to that night last year in Calgary and how happy all of the people in the ballrooms were, even if they were wearing different teams’ jerseys. It was nothing to look around the room at the Spirit of Edmonton or Riderville or any other team party and see former players or coaches there, helping out behind the scenes, or just having a beer with fans. It made you smile in the moment, but knowing what we know now, you couldn’t have appreciated it enough.

As for that final part of what Pinball said this week, I’m not quite there yet. We’ve been stuck in uncertainty for the last five months. That close-knit world we were all a part of last November is now shattered into a million socially distant pieces. I miss it and I hope it’s back in 2021.

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