The Grey Cup coach and his good deed

When I was on the football beat in Montreal, one of the head coaches I encountered was Al Bruno, whenever his Hamilton Tiger-Cats were in town. I thought he was gruff, mildly co-operative and looking like a man who wished he could be anywhere but talking to football reporters.

It turns out we had met before, and I didn’t remember. Understandably, neither did he. As a young fan of the Blue Bombers, I belonged to the Junior Quarterback Club in Winnipeg. Kids would assemble on Saturday mornings and the Bombers would send a few players, usually non-stars or injured players.

One Saturday, Al Bruno was one of them — I still have the autograph book to prove it.

Jump ahead to 25 years after the Junior Quarterback Club. His Tiger-Cats are playing in the Grey Cup, in Toronto. My wife and I are entrepreneurs now, doing PR for a company that has brought 50 Western Canadian lottery winners east for the big game; part of their prize is to be in a draw for a large lottery prize. The past-commissioner of the CFL, Doug Mitchell, is to draw the winner.

It’s time for the draw. No Mitchell. It becomes clear there will be no Mitchell. This is mid-morning and the Grey Cup Game is mid-afternoon. I am asked to find a substitute. In the lobby of the hotel, I see a candidate.

Al Bruno.

I explain the dilemma, knowing he has more important things to do with his team hours away from the biggest game of the season. I resist the urge to ask if he remembers me from the Junior Quarterback Club. Bruno says sure, he’ll do it, and I assure him it will only take a few minutes.

Well, he stayed 20 minutes. After the draw, he spoke passionately about Canada’s football fans, knowing that none in this group from the West wanted his team to win (it didn’t). It was a PR miracle, for which the organizers gave him a soapstone carving of a Canadian loon as a thank-you.

Another 25 years later, I track him down in Florida, just because his name and his good deed flashed through my empty head one day. We talked, we corresponded, we visited him and Marie, his feisty wife, in little Punta Gorda, Fla. We saw the soapstone loon, plus a collection of artifacts Al created with sea shells. We stayed friends until he died, seven years ago this week.

Forever grateful for the day there was “no Mitchell.”