One of the highest accolades a university football player can receive is to be named an All Canadian. Of the thousands of young players who have represented their university on the football field over the decades, only a handful have attained this honour.
But who were the first football players to earn this distinction, and where are they now?
Those are the questions author Keith Johnston found himself asking after a chance invitation to a football game at his alma mater, McMaster University Marauders in Hamilton, in 2006.
“I bought a McMaster football media guide, and as I looked at the names of all the players that had ever been selected as All-Canadian, it got me thinking —I played against some of these guys, but I really didn’t know who they were,” he recalled.
In July 2016, he decided to satisfy his curiosity and see if he could find at least one of the other four other offensive linemen from that team.
In October of that year, he met with John Buda, a fellow former teammate who encouraged him to reach out to the rest of his “brothers in arms.”
This meeting, he added, formed the basis of his newly released book, The End Comes Quick: Lessons Live On.
The book, which is currently available on Amazon.com, follows the Vernon-based author as he describes the complex task of tracking down his former teammates and eliciting information about their lives before, during and after their selection to the 1971 contingent of the Canadian Intercollegiate Sport (CIS) All Canadian football team.
From the phone call he received from his good friend Doug Cihocki on the morning of Nov. 20,1971, congratulating him on being selected to the All-Canadian team, to the pleasure of receiving warm replies to his invitations to connect, and the disappointment of discovering that three of the men are now deceased, Johnston said The End Comes Quick covers it all.
“I like to tell stories, and I felt like I was already calling these guys— so I thought, every one of them has a story to tell. Why not write it down?” he explained, adding that the title itself has a story.
“It comes from a guy name Bob Mincarelli, a defensive back with St. Francis Xavier X-Men in Antigonish, N.S. “We were talking one day and he says, ‘You know, if you play football, the end comes quick. It’s probably the only sport, that when it’s over, it’s over. And he’s right. If you play basketball you can still play when you’re 50 — if you play hockey, there’s 60-year-old hockey players out there. I think it’s similar with soccer or rugby,” he continued.
“But nobody plays football after it’s over— you win or lose a big game, you get injured or you get cut from the team. But when it’s over, it’s over.”
To get to the heart of his multi-voice memoir, Johnston said he asked each former player to provide details regarding his hometown, early football experiences, university teammates, coaches and personal highlights.
This, of course, Johnston noted, is only the “tip of the iceberg.”
Some of his favourite moments recounted in his book include; Carleton linebacker Bob Eccles’s tale of an absurd “who’s-on-first-type” phone conversation with a similarly named Bob Ackles, general manager of the B.C. Lions; or an incident involving University of Saskatchewan linebacker, Glenn Ponomarenko, who wore expensive contact lenses and lost one on the field. Miraculously, Ponomarenko found the lens and popped it into his mouth to clean it—when a teammate cracked a joke, the nearly blind linebacker accidentally swallowed the hard lens.
“Fortunately, I had a back-up pair,” Ponomarenko told Johnston on page 133. “But it was like having a $100 meal without the calories.”
Brian Gervais recalls his own “highlights,” calling the impact football has had on his life “immeasurable.”
Gervais, who was born in Niagara Falls, Ont., played offensive end for Dalhousie University for four years while working on his degree in Physical Education.
He later transferred to the University of Western Ontario where he was drafted by the CFL and offered a contract with the Ottawa Rough Riders.
“I was a slow white guy trying to keep up with best from Canada,” Gervais recalled. “But I trained hard and went in with a positive attitude.”
The chapter on Gervais in Johnston’s book briefly delves into Gervais’ struggle and ultimate acceptance of his “flaws,” both on, and off the field.
He credits his years on the gridiron for forming the foundation for a “life he wouldn’t trade for anything.”
“In retrospect, I didn’t make much money in the CFL but I would have done it for free. What you learn in football sticks with you your whole life. It makes you a better person and a better team player. It turns you into the kind of person people can depend on,” he added.
Cam Innes started his football career playing for Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., before moving on to the University of Windsor to play while pursuing his Master’s Degree in sports management.
Innes went on to accept an assistant coaching position with St. Francis Xavier.
In 1985, he completed his MBA at the University of Western, Ont. and in 1988, traded his helmet and shoulder pads for a hard hat and coveralls, and began his career in the oil and gas business.
Like Gervais, he said he frequently used the lessons he learned on the football field to help him in his career and everyday life.
“Character, teamwork and purpose —those are the values I took away from football,” he explained.
“These are the values my football days taught me, and they are the same values I raised my son with.”
In the oil fields, Innes said he often used his football stories to help communicate his lessons to the men he was working with, and found they no only helped convey his message, they also seemed to entertain people.
For Johnston, the impact of his experience is two-fold —the lessons he gleaned from his football years have translated into a litany of skills he uses in his highly successful consulting business, as well as his personal life.
“My closest friends are my former teammates, and now I have 20 more friends as a result of this project,” he said.”The game has blessed me every step of the way.”
The End Comes Quick:Lessons Live On is available on Amazon.com.