I remember walking into the stadium at Ivor Wynne with my father a few years ago for a game. I was a grown adult at the time, but I still felt like a child.
Whenever I go places with my father, I feel this way. I feel like I’m in pigtails with bows on the end, holding onto his hand – those long slender fingers. I feel uncertain, unsteady. Even now, after I’ve written two books about him.
Perhaps I feel this way because there is still so much I don’t understand, so much I still can’t relate to. Or perhaps it’s because the fondness I feel for him is not well suited to a grown adult relationship. I still adore him in a way that only a small-framed child with a towering father can. I still look up to him from a distance far greater than the height that now differentiates us.
It was a perfect day for football – cold enough that the spirit of fall was on its way, but warm enough to enjoy the full breadth of the day without worrying about frigid toes and fingers. My father led the way the same way he always does, with the confidence of someone who knows where he’s going, who’s certain others will follow without having to look back for reassurance.
We stepped out into the stands, bright sun on our faces, the gold and black of Hamilton Tiger Cats fandom all around us. For a moment, we were ordinary. A father and a daughter at a football game. And then it happened.
One person called out, and that is all it takes in Hamilton – one shout, one name recognition. Grown men stood up and introduced my father to their family members. Big grins, hearty handshakes. Little boys and girls climbed over benches and clambered down concrete steps with papers and pens to get his autograph.
It was clear they did not know who he was – he had led the Ticats to the Grey Cup at that very stadium more than forty years ago. But they didn’t come to get my father’s autograph because they recognized him. They came because they knew – because someone told them or because they felt it – that my father was someone worth speaking to, someone worth keeping a record of.
The African-American football player Chuck Ealey grew up in a segregated neighborhood of Portsmouth, Ohio. Against all odds, he became an incredible quarterback. But despite his unbeaten record in high school and university, he would never play professional football in the United States.
Chuck Ealey grew up poor in a racially segregated community that was divided from the rest of town by a set of train tracks, but his mother assured him that he wouldn’t stay in Portsmouth forever. Education was the way out, and a football scholarship was the way to pay for that education. So despite the racist taunts he faced at all the games he played in high school, Chuck maintained a remarkable level of dedication and determination. And when discrimination followed him to university and beyond, Chuck Ealey remained undefeated.