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May 22, 2020

O’Leary: DeNobile the link between hall of famers

Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca

When TSN’s Friday night double header of CFL games gets rolling tonight (7 p.m. ET, TSN1), you’ll see some of the biggest names of the last generation of Canadian football be inducted into the hall of fame.

They’re the names that fans have come to know, the ones you see on the back of jerseys, that you’d see in the post-game interviews and read about through the course of their seasons.

Behind all of those names that eventually stand on a stage in Hamilton and make a speech to their peers and have their bust go into the hall of fame in Hamilton stands Mark DeNobile. He’s been the executive director of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame since 2008.

On TSN, you’ll see the inductions of Anthony Calvillo, Geroy Simon, Mike O’Shea, and Jon Cornish, to name a few high profile players. DeNobile is the thread that connects them with the rest of the players and builders inducted into the hall.

His happiest day on the job is when the voting is complete and there’s a new class of players and builders ready to be inducted to the hall. His second favourite day comes when he gets to pick up the phone and relay the good news to the inductees.

“That’s a whole different world,” DeNobile said from his home in Hamilton.

“When you make those calls, you change people’s lives. You’re always going to get that person that says, ‘I thought you guys forgot me.’ Or they’re just absolutely dumbfounded. They don’t know what to say.”

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The 2019 class of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame at the induction ceremony on Aug. 10 in Hamilton (Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca)

It’s not purposely a carefully guarded secret, but the process for voting for the Canadian Football Hall of Fame is a low-key one. It’s usually debated and sorted between early January and February and DeNobile starts making calls and arrangements shortly after for a March announcement and a September induction. While this year’s inductees have been determined, the coronavirus has put the remaining part of the process on pause for now.

DeNobile gets the full range of emotions from players. He remembers former BC Lions d-lineman Brent Johnson almost getting in a car accident when he heard the news in 2018. That year, former Montreal Alouettes’ o-lineman Tom Hugo was posthumously inducted. Sixty years after his career, 23 members of his family flew into Hamilton from Hawaii for the ceremony. It felt like they brought their father’s spirit with them.

“The toughest (calls) I find are the posthumous ones going in,” DeNobile said.

“The family…there’s just tears and they wish their father was around. I remember when Gino Fracas went in posthumously we made his family part of the ceremony unveiling the bust. Before he was inducted he wrote his own speech for his hall of fame induction and his son read it. It was really heart wrenching.”
After the players make their speeches, get their rings and jackets and celebrate their careers, their busts go into the hall of fame, which has been located at Tim Hortons Field for the last two years. The entrance to the hall is lined with those busts, signifying a new and elite team that the players are joining.

“I say to them, ‘Now you become a museum piece. You’re an artifact.’ They don’t necessarily like hearing it,” DeNoibile laughed, “but it’s reality. You’re there forever. Your great, great grandchildren will know that, ‘Hey, Doug Fluitie, Barron Miles, they’re always going to be in Hamilton.

“That’s special because the players and builders don’t do that job to get in the hall of fame. They do it to win championships. This is just icing on the cake.”

DeNobile looks at his time on the job and can rattle off the names of some of the greats that he’s seen go into the hall in that time. Flutie, Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons, Tracy Ham, Danny McManus, Damon Allen, Milt Stegall, Dave Dickenson, Anthony Calvillo. An incredible stretch of players on the field has turned into an equally impressive run of hall of famers.

“We’ve had 20 first-ballot hall of farmers since 1963. Some of these guys who have those careers have to wait three years and they’re in. Other guys wait. They wait 40 years, 60 years. Sometimes they’re gone (when they get in) but their families appreciate the fact that that name will live in there forever.

“I say to them, ‘I can’t play you and I can’t trade you and I can’t pay you, but you’re in there forever.’ It’s a great team. When you look at the players that have gone through Canadian football, not just CFL football in the players category…we only have 309 members. You take 90 builders out of that and that’s not many players. I think it’s less than 0.2 per cent of players that have gone into the hall.”

DeNobile will watch the games tonight and think back to those not-too-distant memories and watch those players go into the hall of fame again. He’s hopeful for a season in 2020 but like so many of us, doesn’t know what that might look like at this point. DeNobile’s father, Geno, played for the Ticats from 1957 to 1964. He says he was born into the game and played at Concordia University before a quick tryout with the Argos in the early ’80s brought his playing days to an end.

For now, he waits and uses his job with the hall of fame to pass the time. He has a century-plus of Canadian football history at his fingertips.

This league is an old one that’s found ways to survive in lean times before. DeNobile knows that better than most. For now, he leans on that and hopes for the best.