Tony Proudfoot's passing last week and his amazing farewell letter touched people across a wide variety of backgrounds, which was again demonstrated at his funeral today (pictured above). The funeral was attended by everyone from former Alouettes president and current Canadian senator Larry Smith to Proudfoot's former coach and supervisor Dr. Ted Wall to his colleagues from Dawson College. All had their own memories of an larger-than-life man who went from football star to grad student to educator to broadcaster to coach to author to fundraiser, recording tremendous accomplishments in each and every area he delved into.
For Smith, his enduring memory of Proudfoot will be the famous staple-gun move in the 1977 Grey Cup. The two were teammates on Marv Levy's Alouettes at that point, along with other CFL luminaries like Wally Buono, and they were facing Hugh Campbell's powerhouse Edmonton Eskimos. The game was to be played at Montreal's Olympic Stadium, which didn't have its roof in place yet, and a blizzard and transit strike made even getting to the field difficult. Once the players got there, they tried everything from broomball shoes to metal cleats, but neither provided much traction on the icy field. Proudfoot then came up with a masterstroke of an idea, spying a Bell Canada electrician wandering around just before kickoff with a staple gun. He commandeered the gun and tried the staples on his shoes, quickly getting teammates to join him when he saw how well they worked. Half the team had staples in their shoes by kickoff, most of the rest joined them by halftime, and the Alouettes rolled to a 41-6 victory. Smith said that game will always be the first thing he thinks of when he remembers Proudfoot:
"It's always going to be the 1977 Grey Cup with the staples - when Tony put the staples in the boots," Smith said.
"The guns went off, all you could hear was, 'tattattattat,' in the locker room. It was an amazing experience."
Proudfoot's colleagues from Dawson College likely were thinking of his time as an educator rather than his time as a football star. He started teaching physical education there in 1978 while still playing for the Alouettes, and continued to work at the school for most of the next 30 years, also spending time at McGill University and Concordia University. He made headlines there as well, heroically applying first aid to a student who had been shot in the head during the 2006 shootings; the student survived. Yet, his impact there went beyond headline moments to his day-to-day interactions with students and colleagues, who made sure to be the first in line at the funeral.
Wall got to work with Proudfoot on a couple of different levels. He initially coached Proudfoot at Montreal's John Rennie High School, where Proudfoot shone as a right guard on offence and a linebacker or halfback on defence. Their team won the 1966 Montreal junior championship, and Proudfoot also excelled in volleyball, wrestling, hockey and swimming. Wall told the Gazette's Dave Stubbs that Proudfoot's off-the-field accomplishments in high school were even more breathtaking, though:
What dazzled the teacher even more was Proudfoot's artistic side, something the student alluded to in his thumbnail by suggesting his ambition was to become a commercial artist.
"Tony's art teacher took me up to the art room on the last day of his final year and the whole back wall was filled with his work," Wall said.
"It was incredible. And she said to me: 'You know Tony has only one eye?' Impossible, I thought. This guy was a fantastic football player."
Yes, it's true that Proudfoot had severely limited vision in one eye. He managed to keep that from just about everyone, though, as his former broadcast partner Rick Moffat revealed in a piece for CFL.ca yesterday that also discussed how well Proudfoot was respected by even opponents like Tony Gabriel. Moffat relayed a quote from Proudfoot's University of New Brunswick and Alouettes' teammate Peter Merrill about how Proudfoot got around the eye test, which shows his quick-thinking approach to life:
"We had to go for our physicals," reveals Merrill. "And that included an eye test. Tony had a congenital cataract and was blind in one eye. But I don't think anyone ever found out."
They would laugh under their breath every time Canadian football Hall of Fame player-coach Gene Gaines would holler out advice: "Keep one eye on the receiver and one eye on the quarterback."
"He didn't know Tony only had one eye," Merrill says incredulously.
How did he pull it off that fateful day at the eye test?
Typical Proudfoot ingenuity in the face of adversity.
"You had to put one hand up over your eye and read the chart, then switch. Tony simply changed hands, but he didn't change eyes! They never picked up on it."
Nor did CFL quarterbacks and receivers for the next 13 years.
Wall also saw Proudfoot in a different capacity later in life, when he became McGill's chairman of physical education and dean of education and Proudfoot was a grad student working under him on a master's thesis on the development of sport expertise in football. There aren't many people who can be brilliantly successful in sports, academia and writing, but unsurprisingly, Proudfoot was one of them:
"Tony was one of the greatest students I ever had," said Wall, who has spent some time this week rereading Proudfoot's thesis. "As he was working, I saw his ability to write, to find his own voice.
"In what he wrote for The Gazette (as his health declined), you could see that he got to his deepest spiritual and belief values, the things he thought were important."
It was with deep pride that Wall watched Proudfoot research and produce his enlightening 2006 book First And Goal: The CFL and the Pursuit of Excellence. Thoughtful interviews with 44 Canadian football players and coaches were conducted from a developmental perspective to reveal how these men soared above the rest.
"Because of Tony's theoretical understanding of sport expertise, he could really probe what it is about these guys that allows them to perform at the moment," Wall said.
Proudfoot's story and his various careers inspired many people, including B.C. Lions' defensive back Davis Sanchez, but his struggle against ALS and the way he shared his battle with the public to raise awareness of the disease will provide some of the most poignant memories for many. That's the case with 89-year-old Alex Smith, who made his way into the church using a cane and delivered some remarkable thoughts:
"I think that Tony Proudfoot should be a lesson to all of us who have any problems, medically or physically, on how to handle life. Tony's favourite expression was "Just Suck It Up." All of us should learn to do that. Too many of us are, "Me, me" worrying about themselves, instead of looking after other people. Tony has done a good job raising money for the ALS and I'm sure that other people will help contribute now, after his wonderful effort that he has made."
To donate to the Tony Proudfoot Fund for ALS research, go here.