Simon Remark Photography, via the Ealey family
The ball sits on a table somewhere in the house, not in a glass case with a light shining down on it, not on top of the fireplace mantle where it can be spied in its place of prominence. Just on a table somewhere in the house.
It means a lot, that ball, but it doesn’t mean much in comparison to what Chuck Ealey really values in his life.
It’s a ball that was only very recently shipped to Ealey at his home in Brampton, Ont. and it carries the following inscription:
“The National Football Foundation congratulates Chuck Ealey, University of Toledo, As A Member Of The 2022 College Football Hall Of Fame Class.”
It is also embossed with the date when Ealey will be formally inducted, Dec. 6.
‘About time,’ is the sentiment almost everyone shares when it comes to the announcement, made a few weeks ago, that Ealey was finally going to take up his well-deserved place in the hall. To most, it should have happened decades ago. Ealey, however, says he doesn’t really think of it in those terms, other than admitting the exclusion did lead him to feeling puzzled about it from time to time.
He chuckles a bit when asked if there is a place of distinction for that ball, waiting as long for it as he did. There isn’t one, he says, just that it’s there along with all the other things one gathers through one’s life, the things that collectively make a house a home.
— Skye Bowen (@HealthyMsB1) February 2, 2022
If you’re a football fan at all — even if you’re the most casual of them — you already know about the gigantic footprints Ealey has left on the sport; about the undefeated, multi-season run his teams went on while he was at the helm of the University of Toledo offence. About the championship he led the Hamilton Ticats to as a rookie in 1972, when he was named Grey Cup MVP.
You know about the trials, the tribulations, the obstacles and the heartaches. You know about the hard-fought battles against the bulwarks of racism. And you know about the determination and the ultimate triumph of Chuck Ealey in doing what he insisted he do: Play quarterback at the professional football level, even if he had to travel far from home in order to do it. All of that is very well-documented and takes up its rightful place in football and social justice lore.
But none of it comes close to what the 72-year-old icon holds up as the greatest source of pride in his life.
“I’m most proud of my family,” says Ealey, reflecting on the lives of his wife of nearly 50 years, Sherri, as well as daughters Skye and Jael and son Damon, and the six grandsons that Ealey’s children have blessed him with.
One of the Ealeys’ children is a celebrated author. Two of them are vice-principals. All three of them are determined and passionate in giving to their communities and to working towards a greater societal good.
And all three of them are immensely grateful for the upbringing they experienced in the Ealey household. They each speak of similar desires and responsibilities, all driven by a healthy dose of resolve, something for which Chuck Ealey is famous.
“My parents demonstrated,” says Damon, “this combination of personal determination and a strong faith. Strong spiritual things that just kind of combined, that all of us have adopted in everything that we do.”
You could call it “the undefeated spirit,” if you like. The Ealeys do.
“My dad started the organization ‘The Undefeated Spirit’ and I really feel like that’s what he’s passed down to each of us,” says author, speaker and activist Jael Ealey Richardson, referring to the sentiment imbued in the organization’s name.
“I think it’s rags to riches in terms of what we live for and what we’re about,” she adds. “What we’re committed to. And I think that’s a richness of character, a richness of human spirit.”
Jael’s most recent novel, “Gutter Child,” has been described as “a deep, unflinching yet loving look at injustice and power.” And, of course, she is the author of the pre-eminent book on her father’s life, “The Stone Thrower,” a memoir that takes its title from her father’s childhood habit of building up his throwing arm by firing rocks at freight cars as they passed over the rails that formed a physical racial boundary in his hometown of Portsmouth, OH.
“I think he’s instilled in us a real desire and ability to remain focused and do good, despite what’s going on around us, despite whatever comes our way,” says Jael.
The Undefeated Spirit, also known as the Chuck Ealey Foundation, was formed in 2006 in order to support, encourage and recognize community builders.
“It’s about an attitude that you don’t quit, that you don’t give up,” says Chuck of an organization that was formed, in part, in honour of his mother, Earline, a single mom, with barely an eighth grade education.
Ealey says Earline worked tirelessly to keep her son well cared for and on the proper path forward.
“I understood education was the key to all of this, you know, not just sport,” Chuck says of his own upbringing. “That’s what I try to work with the young kids. To talk to them about that type of thing.
“And we were able to deliver that with our kids,” Ealey adds. “That’s the glory point, as far as I’m concerned.”
Damon Ealey agrees with his father’s sentiment, and lets it guide him through his everyday life as a vice-principal at John F. Ross Collegiate Vocational Institute, in Guelph, Ont.
“I want to make an impact on kids,” says Damon who, like his father, played football at the University of Toledo. “The way of doing that is to be a leader in education. Being a leader in the education field is what I’m passionate about doing.
“I really want to impact kids who don’t have the same family situation that I have. And that’s kind of always been my desire.”
Damon remembers his own tenure at the University of Toledo as being an eye-opening time when it came to his father’s accomplishments.
“That’s where it became real to me,” he says of the enormity of Chuck’s impact, both on the field and off. “That’s when I started to realize, ‘Whoa, this is a big deal,’ because I started to see how people talked about him.”
Damon feels that, before he set off for Toledo, his parents had endeavoured to shield him from having to deal with racism as best they could.
“I think there was a lot of almost protectionist (tendencies), like they were kind of trying to keep me from that because they tried to escape it right?”
“I understood education was the key to all of this, not just sport. We were able to deliver that with our kids. That’s the glory point, as far as I’m concerned.”
Chuck Ealey on what he and his wife Sherri taught their children
Skye Bowen agrees with her brother on that point. “I think their way of feeling like they were empowering us was to protect us from some of the things that they had to go through, and what they experienced, so that we wouldn’t have to go through those same experiences.”
Skye says she’s different from her dad in that she is very vocal when it comes to issues of social justice. Chuck talks about his past and his battles against brutal racist norms as not so much a broader, dutiful calling, but more as a young man needing to step forward time and again in order to attain his goals. “What I did is what I did,” he says, flatly.
When he says things like that it deftly illustrates why Skye likes to refer to her dad as “the Humble Warrior.”
Skye is not as humble, she admits, with a knowing laugh. “Dad always said, ‘When we talk about social justice issues, we always tried to go around the wall with you, and you just go right through it.’”
In spending some time as an educator in the youth correctional system before becoming Vice Principal at Brampton’s Jean Augustine Secondary School, Skye Bowen found the inspiration to go through walls wherever she sees them.
“It became a real catalyst for me to be more vocal about the injustices that happen for a lot of Black, Indigenous and other racialized youth within the school systems and what we need to do to be better and to serve our students in more meaningful ways,” she says, offering up a mission statement.
“When harm has happened, what are we doing to actually repair the harm?”
The Ealeys remain a tight-knit group, and not just emotionally or intellectually. The children live in close proximity, their three households all within about a kilometre of each other, in Brampton. Mom and dad’s house is only about five kilometres away, so they’ve been nice and close to those six grandchildren of theirs.
“We’re very thankful,” says Sherri, asked how she feels about how her three children have turned out. “They’re lovely. They are very giving.”
Chuck and Sherri met when Ealey was in the middle of his hall of fame college career and she was a high school student, in Toledo. They married in 1972, three weeks after Chuck capped a glorious CFL rookie season by driving the Hamilton Ticats from their own 15-yard line to a last-play field goal in a 13-10 Grey Cup win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
They set about to raise a family and had specific notions as to the home life they wanted their children to experience.
“It was to raise them with high values,” says Sherri, “a love for God — which would instill in them a love for themselves — and a love for other people.”
She admits, as Damon and Skye have said, that she and Chuck may have shielded the children from knowing the full details of the challenges and injustices faced by their parents. But that was not by design, really. Her own parents, Sherri says, did their own amount of shielding. That’s just how parenting is.
“If they asked us a question about something we would answer it,” says Sherri, “but we weren’t necessarily going to share every detail of difficult things that we went through.”
“She was the one that really nurtured the three of us as kids,” says Jael of her mom. “My dad is, you know, a really stable, focused kind of steady ship. He’s always kind of the same. My mom is really able to sit with us in our hard times and really help us navigate things on a really personal and emotional level.”
Sherri’s influence on the trajectory that her children would take has been, of course, enormous. It’s just that her accomplishments cannot be quantified in the same way some of her husband’s accomplishments can and have been.
“There’s nothing that can be put down on a piece of paper about what my mom does, right?” says Jael. “She hasn’t got statistics.”
Chuck has, famously, fought his battles, overcome his obstacles. Now, he says, he watches with a glowing heart as his kids take on their own, with the tools that he and Sherri tried their best to provide. “I’m kind of in the background watching them taking care of the things that they need to take care of to make community a better place,” he says, proudly.
“None of those things would make a difference if it wasn’t impacting the things that he saw within his family.”
Skye Bowen on her father’s determination to shape his family
On Dec. 6, Ealey will be enshrined in the College Football Hall Of Fame. For so many football fans, the reaction to the news has been universal in two ways: One, that it is so very well-deserved and two, that it is long, long overdue. Ealey-led teams amassed a record of 35-0 over three seasons, winning three consecutive Tangerine Bowl games along the way. He was named a first-team All-American by the Football News in his senior year, in 1971. His is just one of four retired jerseys in Toledo Rockets history.
“We’re making plans to be there in December and I think I’ll be a hot mess when it actually happens,” laughs Jael.
Chuck, though, is predictably low-key about it, joking that his speech will consist of not much more than “thank you very much, time to go home.”
But there is much deeper meaning here for the family. While Skye says her father kept the news quiet when he became aware he might finally be inducted, the phone call he made to her, when it was confirmed, was an emotional one.
“I started crying right away,” she says, “then my dad was crying.”
It is important, this honour, even if it gets downplayed by the man who will be inducted. Being celebrated for one’s accomplishments is important. Ealey’s own Undefeated Spirit Foundation is proof he believes that to be true. It’s just that some accomplishments, like those displayed on a field — and the embossed footballs that come along with them — mean only so much. And only then if they are accompanied by something more personally and contextually rewarding.
“None of those things would make a difference,” says Skye of her father’s triumphs, “if it wasn’t impacting the things that he saw within his family.”
Happily for Chuck Ealey, they did, and they do.
“Life is never going to be perfect,” he says, “but you keep going. And you could make a difference in other people’s lives.”
GREATNESS RECOGNIZES GREATNESS
Damon Ealey first got a real sense of his father’s fame when he was eight or nine years’ old, when Chuck took his son to an Edmonton Oilers game. Part of the deal was a post-game visit to the locker room.
“I was so pumped because, as a hockey player, I was going to meet Wayne Gretzky,” remembers Damon.
“I had the (autograph) book open, I had my marker ready for him to sign. And as I approach Wayne Gretzky, he passes me by and says ‘Holy cow, you’re Chuck Ealey! I can’t believe you’re in the locker room!’
“I was like, ‘What the heck? The Great One knows who my dad is.’”
Gretzky, who would go on to be a part-owner of the Toronto Argonauts in the early 1990’s, had Chuck Ealey to look up to when he was a kid, himself, growing up in Brantford, Ontario, not far from the scene of Ealey’s most notable performances, as a Hamilton Ticat.
“That’s when I knew that there was more to the story than I understood at that moment,” says Damon of his meeting with Gretzky, and of his father’s impact. “That’s how I finally knew my dad was great.”
“I almost forgot to get the signature after that. I was so shocked.”