The colour in CFL colour commentators

Every time I see Duane Forde on the TV screen during a CFL game, I think of George Dixon. When I see the panel of experts — Milt Stegall, Davis Sanchez, and before them Jock Climie, Henry Burris, Les Browne — I think of George Dixon. All ex-football players. All black. All on national telecasts, except the late George Dixon, arguably the best of all.

For historical context, Dixon was among the CFL’s most talented running backs ever. He was the country’s most outstanding player, holds a record that can never be broken (109-yard run from scrimmage) and is a Hall of Famer. Three touchdowns in five minutes in one game, 235 yards rushing in another. A complete back, despite a pre-season 96-yard kick-off return, he was released by Green Bay guru Vince Lombardi, who directed him in Montreal.

That was George Dixon, football player.

His seven-year career was terminated by knee injuries. Dixon became Canadian college football’s first black head coach, turning 0-10 Loyola University into Canada’s only undefeated team (201 points for, 18 against). Then he spent seven seasons on Alouettes’ radio broadcasts. In my opinion he was the CFL’s best colour man, because he told you what you didn’t know, concisely explaining what you had just seen…objectively, eloquently and economically.

He’d have been the best on TV, but black wasn’t one of the colours for football commentators in his era. He came close once, and I inadvertently had something to do with why it didn’t happen.

In 1981, after six years of being the analyst, a radio executive unwisely decided Dixon should do play-by-play, and I was to be his colour man. As good as George was at explaining why a quarterback found a wide open receiver, he couldn’t “paint the picture” as radio play-by-play broadcasters must, no matter the sport. That season, the only thing worse than our broadcast team was the one on the field, where all but 13 of 16 games were victories.

That winter, Dixon had a call from Johnny Esaw at CTV, telling him he in the final three for colour commentators in 1982. Meanwhile, as our station’s sports director, I was signing him up for radio. The plan was we’d switch roles. George told me of his CTV opportunity, which — rightly — took priority. With the season opener looming, I said we had to make a decision. Dixon called Esaw. CTV hadn’t decided, so George opted for radio.

Meanwhile, the football team was in danger of folding. Saved and re-named the Concordes, new team president Sam Etcheverry said he didn’t want Dixon and Dunn on the radio broadcast because we were “too negative” — about a 3-13 team, remember.

My day job was sports director, and we had a young play-by-play talent named Chris Cuthbert waiting in the wings, but Dixon’s presence was vital plus he had my word on a deal. I fought and lost. George, by then dismissed by CTV, wound up suing the radio station.

It was a crime. If CTV had decided Dixon was their man, he’d have been the best on TV and that racial barrier would have fallen much sooner.