March 9, 2017

Sweet sorrow

Rod Pantages, Sugarfoot Anderson and Keith Spaith

Among his many talents, in his younger days the man was reputed to cut a pretty mean rug on the dance floor.

“Why?’’ asks John Helton, quite possibly the greatest defensive lineman the three-down game has ever seen, “do you think they called him Sugarfoot?

“I mean, who else do you know who starred in Hollywood movies, played in the States, played in the CFL, was a mentor to so many people, a friend to so many more, lived such a long, rich life?

“I feel so wonderfully blessed to know him, and his family.

“I’ve never met a man more whole than this man.”

Ezzrett (Sugarfoot) Anderson passed away on Wednesday. Quietly, as was his custom.

At 97. A life well and fully lived.

One of the truly indelible sports figures of this city.

Sugarfoot Anderson

“There are not,’’ says Helton, “enough pages to write all the good things about Sugar.

“In my mind, in my heart, in my thoughts, Sugar’s still with me. And will be, always.

“He had such a wonderful life. Some men have a life that encompasses, say, 10 feet and they may only sample three feet of that. But Sugar, he had 100 feet of life in him and he sampled the whole 100.

“If you think of life as a smorgasbord, he tasted it all.”

The Sugar Man played for the Stampeders from 1949 through ’55, catching 142 passes, then in retirement worked as a ticket-account representative and in later years remained an ambassador for the club.

The seasons passed, the great players and coaches – Lear, Burden, Liske, Harris, Harrison, Flutie, Pitts, Dickenson, Buono, Sapunjis, Garcia, Burris, Cornish – came and went.
Sugarfoot remained.

Over the years, he became ever the watchful presence overlooking practice, an oracle always seated on the sunny side of the stadium, as much a part of McMahon as its bricks and mortar, its grass and its facade, as familiar to the extended football family as that big white horse that greets fans as they drive along Crowchild Trail North.

Equipment manager George Hopkins has been around an eternity — 45 years, to be exact.

“And he was there the first day I showed up,’’ Hopkins was recalling Wednesday. “I came in to meet (long-time equipment manager) George Dunn for the first time and he and Sugar were sitting there, in the equipment room.

“I came in as a 12-year-old kid cause I’d heard the team was looking for ball boys. And those are the first two people I meet: George Dunn and Sugarfoot.

sugarfoot andesrson

“A lasting image I have of him is from one of our Wall of Fame dinners, probably 14 to 16 years ago, and we were using Calgary Golf and Country Club as the venue. And Shug sat at his table, and everybody came to Shug. It was a lot of fun for him to sit there with all four Grey Cup rings on and hold court. Even these last few years, he made it to most of the games at the Red and White Club and it was always the same – Shug just sat at his table and everybody came to Shug.

“He was always happy to be at the stadium. And for a lot of years he was there … a lot. If he had a bad word to say about anybody, he kept it to himself. Just a truly classy guy.

“And through the years, very much a father figure to the young guys on the team, especially when he was more active and around a little bit more.”

One of those grateful for the advice was a DB named Terry Irvin, from Columbia, Miss., by way of Jackson State. Irvin would spend seven stellar seasons in the Red and White, beginning in 1977.

“When I got here, I was a 21-year-old kid, in need of guidance and support, and he instructed me on the dos and don’ts,” Irvin is reminiscing from Vancouver, on a business trip.

“He told me if I wanted to play in this league, wanted to stay in this country and make a life for myself, I had to make sure I got a good job.

“Well, this November I’ll have been with Sony for 35 years. And a lot of that I credit to his advice.

“You never had to worry about whether he had an agenda or anything. He just wanted to make you comfortable. He looked out for you.

“A lot of African-American players came up here because we didn’t make it in the National Football League. So to have a guy of his calibre, of his accomplishments, telling you this was a good place to be, a good league to play in, it kinda made you want to stay.

“I stayed.”

The Stampeders of a more recent vintage, too, fell hook, line and sinker under Sugarfoot’s spell.sugarfoot anderson catch

“He was kinda like a mythical creature,’’ says slotback Nik Lewis, now, of course, a Montreal Alouette. “When you first get to Calgary, you see him sitting over there on the sidelines during practice, thinking: ‘Who’s the old guy?’ And people are telling you: ‘That’s Sugarfoot.’

“Then when you’d go over and talk to him, he never seemed to be in his 80s or his 90s. He always seemed like he was in his 40s or 50s. So animated. The way he moved his hands. The way he loved telling stories.

“One year when Jeremaine (Copeland) was there, I remember Sugarfoot bringing an article, from Sports Illustrated, I think, referring to him as one of the greatest tight ends ever to play football.

“Then I remember, it was either 2012 or 2013, coming out of a meeting and Sugarfoot’s getting out of his car. He was still behind the wheel. And I’m like: ‘You’re still driving?!’ And he’s like: ‘Of course!’

“I loved to hear him. We all did.

“He cared about you. He cared about how you performed. He wanted you to go out and put on a show every week.

“‘Sugar pretty much says it all. Awesome man. Wonderful person.”

It goes without saying that what the Stampeders, the CFL, have lost is incalculable.

“I can’t believe there’s ever been a bigger fan than Sugar,’’ estimates Helton. “I don’t think this football club has ever had anybody who cared as much about it as he did.

“You think about it, over 50 years of service. So full of vitality. Always with an encouraging word.

“And I think the second half of his life was the best half. Which is wonderful to think of.

“His journey here has ended. But I don’t feel bad for those of us who’ve lost Sugarfoot.

“I feel bad for those who never had the privilege of knowing him.”

Such people may their take leave of us but they never really say goodbye.