Tony Proudfoot has done what numerous owners, GM’s and coaches for decades have only dreamed of doing — make the Commissioner come to him.
The everyday trooper in the fight against Lou Gehrig’s Disease and the best living example I know for the meaning of the words hero, mentor and father certainly deserves homefield advantage one more time if his latest honour involves the legacy of a coaching nemesis.
The Grey Cup champion and archetype for ingenuity since the Alouettes’ Staple Game Victory of ’77 over the Eskimos will be awarded the CFL’s equivalent of the Order of Canada…which happens to bear the name of the coach he humbled that frigid November day in the same building, Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.
Decades of Quebecers have called it The Big Owe. For Campbell’s Esks it was The Big Owch.
“This strengthens the award, having Tony accept this award and allowing his name to be attached to it,” says Hugh Campbell, Canadian Football Hall of Famer, en route to Edmonton for Grey Cup Week Festivities by way of Calgary to see his son’s university playoff game.
“As good as Proudfoot was, he was also a great character off the field and just the ideal guy to represent our league. As a player and a broadcaster, as an author and as a friend of the CFL, particularly in more recent years as an ally for the Montreal Alouettes and helping build them into such a power, he was right there and one of the reasons why everything worked.”
Tony has worn many helmets in his career. College and university educator. Coach. Special consultant to Marc Trestman. Outdoorsman. Defensive back. Alouette forever.
As a rookie he ran back kicks. The expendable Canadian in an era when no blocking was permitted. “Must be an old punt-returner,” he’d only half-joke giving a half-wave to some of the street people we’d encounter during our travels through CFL cities together as the broadcast team for CJAD 800 Radio in Montreal. Never condescending, I think Tony admired in everyone the most basic human instinct — survival.
Don Mathews, an assistant to Hugh Campbell in 1977 once admitted the Staple Game was probably the longest day of his life. So I have to ask The Don’s former boss: ‘will you be OK if Tony’s got a wry smile breaking across his face when he’s handed the Hugh Campbell Distinguished Leadership Award?’ The coach who lost the Grey Cup that day is in effect lending Tony another honour for all-time.
“I think that’s all part of it and all terrific,” says Campbell. “You know what, I think there was a young CFL head coach who grew up a lot that day, learned some lessons. That was me. I was the youngest coach in all of pro sports that day and the way the Alouettes handled everything prepared me for years afterwards.”
“I just remember one of their players ran by me and it sounded like one of their players had spurs on. I thought what in the world is that, something is going on that they have and we don’t.”
Coach Levy’s buddies in the NFL were soon demanding to know the secret of the Als’ super-traction on the frozen slushy that was the field under lidless Olympic Stadium. Industrial staples left behind by a workman during the interminable construction, blasted through the bottom of their soles. Levy had no idea. Tony still has the staple gun.
“I really think it was our springboard,” recounts the Eskimo forced to come in from the cold, Campbell. “That game itself was really the game that made us grow up and improve preparation. We were so excited to have won the Western Final. We thought that we were ready to play but not enough. They had great players and earned the victory.”
For the Als of the 70’s it was their pinnacle. They had grit, skill and determination from Ah You to Zapiec. Stability and Canadian talent meant something. Proudfoot, Buono and their cohorts made the calls on the field and signaled defensive coordinator Dick Roach just in case he had to prove to head coach Marv Levy they were following his orders. Truth is they’d been schooled so well under Roach and Tony’s mentor Rod Rust, Levy rarely had to ask.
At the time, Stanley Cup parades were annual events along Ste. Catherine Street. The Canadiens were frequently busting curfew on Crescent Street. But the Alouettes OWNED Crescent. They were animals on the field and party animals by night. Dashing, daring. Tony’s simple gesture of putting a seagull feather in his helmet became cool.
Proudfoot was an Alouettes’ top draft pick in ’71. He asked for a signing bonus. A couple of hundred bucks, maybe? “You’ll never play in this league unless you sign now,” growled Bob Geary.
Tony signed. It was only during the Canadiens Centennial celebrations that I told him of Larry Robinson’s contract negotiation that same summer with the Habs. The farm boy defenceman had immediately signed the first offer from Claude Ruel. The Canadiens actually felt guilty and gave the future Hockey Hall of Famer $500 bucks without him even asking for it.
Turns out Proudfoot had already signed for a bigger rookie salary than the NHL star commanded to begin with.
In 2001 Tony was assistant coach to Rod Rust but game days rejoined me in the broadcast booth. Grey Cup Year in Montreal and the best shot at winning on home-turf since ’77. He never betrayed a coaches’ or players’ trust, yet always gave Alouettes fans unique insights.
On road trips, I shook my head many times as he and Coach Rust would be diagramming and scheming blitzes and coverages on flight sickness bags between challenging each other over their guilty pleasures — the New York Times crossword puzzle.
Tony was as comfortable coaching at the university (Concordia) and the pro level as with his own children. An academic mind with a simple clarity, he always chose brain-candy over eye-candy. As some players would file down the aisle for a team flight carrying mens magazines with racy pictures of desirous women, Proudfoot would already have his nose in the latest Scientific American.
You never stop learning and Tony has never stopped teaching.
“I want to express my honour in having Tony Proudfoot win this award,” concludes Campbell. “I think it’s terrific.”
Future Hall of Famer Ben Cahoon agrees. I tell him Tony’s exciting news on the eve of the final walk-through before the Eastern Final.
“I haven’t told anyone this, but my mission is to win that Grey Cup for Tony and to get him another ring. There’s a special bond. His spirit and his family have made us close.”
Cahoon’s headed to the Hall with the same combination of cerebral survival skills and steely determination to win.
“He is a very special man,” says the all-time leading CFL receiver.
Tony’s defended “3rd and long” before. At the Dawson College shooting tragedy. That could have been your child he talked out of dying, his hands closing a head wound. It could have been my child. She was right across the street, held out of the line of fire only by a chance encounter with a friend across the street seconds before the first pop of gunshots.
Now he faces “3rd and impossible.”
But Mr. Commissioner, Tony’s got you covered. Man-to-man. And you just may want to check for staples in his shoes.