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Football memories: Who were we? Bulldogs!

September 3, 2010

Since my return to Edmonton, I’ve started reading the Calgary Herald as I walk home from work.

Herald photo (Bernie Morrison at right).

It may be an odd habit and an even odder sight (as I narrowly dodge a lamp post). But I grew up devouring the sports section of the Journal’s sister paper and never stopped cheering for the Flames and the Stamps. And there’s a convenient stack of papers on the way out of the newsroom.

This week, I was reading about the Stamps when I saw a picture of former linebacker Bernie Morrison. The Stamps are honouring Mr. Morrison, placing him on the ‘Wall of Fame’ along with Alondra and Will Johnson.

Bernie Morrison was one of a few ex-Stampeders who would come to NW Calgary’s Sir Winston Churchill high school each day to coach the junior football team in the mid-90s. Morrison coached linebackers, while our D-Line coach was the gentlemanly John Helton, another Stampeder Wall-of-Famer and #12 on TSN’s Top 50 CFL Players of all time.

Back then, I was an extremely shy 140 pound kid who liked playing sports. When I entered into high school, my friends and I decided to try out for football.

“You’ll never make it,” said my big brother. Thanks for that, bro.

I showed up on the first day wearing soccer cleats instead of football shoes. When I picked my helmet, I took an old one with a long grill — the old punters helmet (bad choice). I figured it would just be fun to see how I stacked up against others. Astonishingly, cut after cut, I managed to make the team, though most of my friends didn’t. I’m not judging the coaching staff, but they actually let me start at outside linebacker.

My memories of Bernie Morrison were of a guy who’d show up to practice about half an hour late — as soon as he could after work (in real estate? in insurance). Of the linebacker coaches, he was the good cop who gave us motivational speeches. Our other linebacker coach was the bad cop who would grab my face mask, cock an eye at me, and yell, “Contain, Witt, contain!!”

I don’t remember too much of Morrison. He was an impeccable dresser with massive arms. He didn’t say much to us individually, but would teach us the finer points of the game. In particular, I remember him teaching us techniques to ‘swim’ past the O-line.

I also remember one of the speeches he gave right before one of our playoff games. It went something like this:

“We need to get mean. Go out tonight and take a walk. Think about the game. Kick a dog if you have to. And if that doesn’t work, squeeze your left nut!”

It was fun to be part of something, but I never had the killer instinct to get mean. I certainly never kicked any dogs (or squeezed anything). I learned a lesson about football: I’m not that guy. And I think my coaches figured that out as well.

But looking back, I’m really thankful I got to play. It was great exercise — besides rugby and soccer, I have never run so much in my life. I was glad to be a part of something as a fledgling high school kid. It meant that despite my shyness, despite my reservations, I could actually contribute in a small way. And I could hold my head up as I walked through the halls.

So here’s a big thanks to Bernie Morrison, one of those coaches who took a couple of hours each day (five days a week for 3 months!) to teach some kids the game.

Here’s a story from the Sept 28, 1993 Calgary Herald, my first few days of high school and tryouts had just ended:

Planting Seeds at the Roots

Mental alarm bells clattered in a half-dozen Calgary offices as shadows lengthened Monday afternoon.

An elite corps of volunteers took heed, and downed tools. Just about 4 o`clock. Time for practice at Sir Winston Churchill high school.

Canadian Football League Hall of Famer John Helton offered apologies, and slipped away from a business meeting.

“You just have to say: ‘Excuse me,` ” shrugged the Schenley Award-winning lineman. He didn`t even have time to change his slacks.

Ex-Stampeder linebacker Bernie Morrison ducked out on his insurance business. Another Calgary linebacking legend, teacher Jim Furlong, got held up in a school meeting before escaping.

Real estate agent Gord Stewart, who once butted heads on the line, slipped out the side door. One-time CFL running back John McCorquindale bugged out of his physical therapy lab. Ex-Stamp Art Froese passed up another hunting trip.

Even some pro teams might kill to attract such a brain trust, if they could afford it.

But cash can`t buy what Churchill Bulldogs` football coach Greg Watson has in the bank — 1,500 volunteer coaching hours from six men with something substantial to offer 98 junior and senior ball players.

“I`ve got so many good coaches,” cackled Watson with a wink, “I can float. I`m nothing but a gofer out there.”

More seriously, the parents and kids of Churchill can only gain from Watson`s recruiting gifts, and the honest wish of six ex-pros to pass something worthwhile to fresh blood.

“I love the break,” admitted Morrison, still trim five years after leaving the game. “It`s just good being out on the field with enthusiastic people.

“After 15 years in football, it`s like you go through a withdrawal,” he said. “It`s a tough world out there. I`ve got something I believe I can give these kids.”

Big-name coaching help has become a tradition at Churchill, since Watson got an offer he couldn`t refuse from ex-quarterback Pete Ohler.

Hall of Famer Wayne Harris had sons at Churchill, so he was a natural. Since then, Watson and his paid assistants — they include Forrest Kennerd, brother of ex-placekicker Trevor — have pitched their pals and contacts.

Furlong met a Churchill track coach during a distance run. Froese, Stewart and McCorquindale had kids in Churchill athletics, and Stewart drafted Morrison. Helton was recruited through the Kennerds.

“It`s a joy to watch them progress,” said Stewart, silencing his belt pager, and indicating the juniors.

“We don`t holler and scold. Just pat `em on the back, and they`ll go out and bust their butts for you.”

Wearing dress shoes and pants, Helton watched the 14- and 15-year-old players.

He`d like to hone their football skills, and emphasize life skills, too.

“They don`t know what a defensive tackle is, or a slant pattern,” he grinned. “We`ve got to speak their language. When the team, as a unit, does its job, everybody wins.

“I tell `em: ‘That`s what life is. Sometimes bad things are going to happen, but you pick yourself up and go again.` “

According to one mother, an impact has been made.

Because of band and other commitments, her son decided to quit football. But he quoted his guest coaches in an English essay, and his parent took note.

“Was I impressed by his growth,” she wrote in gratitude. “My heartfelt thanks for your caring and sportsmanship that so obviously were transmitted to someone who didn`t stay to make the team.”

Those who stuck around won`t do badly, either.

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