The story of Prince Hal and his pal

When I was a kid, I didn’t like Hal Patterson. Nothing personal, but he played for Hamilton, and the Tiger-Cats were the Grey Cup enemy of “my” Winnipeg Blue Bombers. In three of their championship meetings, Patterson was the receiver and kick returner who couldn’t be stopped. Others ran, he floated. I admired and disliked him.

At the other end of the spectrum was another sportswriter-to-be, someone like me. As it turned out, he was the more accomplished, decorated by magazine awards and lauded for his work on documentaries. He became decidedly more controversial but his talent as a wordsmith was always admirable.

His name was Earl McRae. When he was a kid, he loved Hal Patterson.

For football fans, first in Montreal and then Hamilton, what was not to love? Prince Hal was the primary receiver for passes from Sam Etcheverry of the Alouettes and then Bernie Faloney of the Ti-Cats, for 14 CFL seasons. In one game, Patterson ran up 338 receiving yards. No other player has ever done that in pro football (the NFL record is 336), and that was 67 seasons ago. Patterson’s last-minute touchdown catch gave the Alouettes a 44-43 victory. Curiously, in the game story there was no mention of 338.

It’s likely McRae, having just moved to Montreal, became a Patterson fan that day. When the Als traded him three years later for a pedestrian guard named Don Paquette, McRae and the rest of Montreal erupted in protest. The Tiger-Cats promptly marched to the Grey Cup against Winnipeg, and that’s where Patterson came into my world of fandom. While he never beat the Bombers on the last weekend of November, they hunted him, and he haunted them. When he retired after his fifth Grey Cup game, Patterson left behind a string of awards and records, and a Hall of Fame calling card.

Fast forward to 1978.

McRae was sports editor of The Canadian Magazine and determined to find his forgotten idol. He tracked him down in rural Kansas, his roots. Patterson was reluctant and recalcitrant at first, then warmed up…and wound up the visit by catching a football thrown by McRae, prompting him to call his story — cleverly — “The Last Pass.”

After the second day, McRae had enough material for a definitive story about his childhood hero…apparently too definitive for the hero. When he read it, Patterson was reportedly incensed at the personal details McRae included, specifically about Prince Hal’s divorce (McRae interviewed the ex-wife) because it revealed character flaws from both sides.

Talented and restless, McRae worked many jobs, one as editor of CFL programs. For a feature that I wrote, he sent instructions: “Profiles should be football-informative, natch, but also bright and entertaining. Lots of colour and personal stuff. Anecdotes. Fears and tears. Married. Divorced. Looking.” It was his credo. No subject was taboo. Poke and probe. Find the “real story” and, while that can be subjective, McRae was adhering to Journalism 101.

In the beginning, he and Patterson were awestruck fan and football hero. Their birth certificates were issued a decade apart; their death certificates three weeks apart, in 2011. Patterson was 79, McRae 69.

For different reasons, both deserve to be remembered.