Wednesday, August 8, 2018 — TORONTO – The Canadian Football League (CFL) is dedicating upcoming weeks of the CFL season to its Diversity Is Strength theme, with special tributes to the league’s trailblazers and gameday activities hosted by local clubs.
Weeks 10 and 11 – with games from August 17 to August 25 – will highlight the important role diversity and inclusion have played in our league and our country.
“This initiative builds on the strength of the campaign we launched a year ago, when CFL coaches, players and fans rallied around this positive message by donning Diversity Is Strength t-shirts,” said Commissioner Randy Ambrosie.
“Football is the ultimate team game because it welcomes and includes participants from every background as well as of every shape and size. It’s in this spirit that we invite and welcome all Canadians, be they Canadians by birth or Canadians by choice, to join us in our stadiums.”
CFL teams will incorporate a wide variety of activations and activities into their individual Diversity is Strength gamedays. Some teams will be hosting visitors and fans from remote areas of Canada or facilitating citizenship ceremonies to welcome new Canadians to our country and our game. Fans can experience pregame and halftime cultural showcases as teams celebrate their heritage and community.
This year, participating teams will wear special edition t-shirts (in team colours) on the sidelines and during the pre-game walkthrough that honour trailblazers such as Tiger-Cat Bernie Custis, the first black quarterback in professional football, and Ottawa’s Jo-Anne Polak, the first female general manager in the CFL and in North American professional sport.
A league shirt, which features the CFL’s Diversity is Strength mission statement, will also be for sale on CFLShop.ca. Proceeds from both shirts will go to CFL teams’ charitable activities, which serve diverse communities across the country.
A new web portal – CFL.ca/DIS – features the stories of CFL personalities who broke barriers, changing our league and helping to change society.
Here is a list of CFL trailblazers who will be honoured along with a summary of their stories:
Wally Buono | BC Lions
Wally Buono is a Canadian immigration success story. Two years after his father left Italy to work in Canada, Buono, his brother and his mother arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax, then relocated to Montreal to start a new life. It wasn't easy: Buono was nine when his father died, and he and his brother lived in a boys' home for three years until their mother got on her feet. Sports kept him out of trouble and football opened the door to a scholarship, a Canadian Football Hall of Fame playing career and a legendary 30-year run as a coach and executive. The current head coach of the BC Lions, he is the winningest coach in CFL history.
Johnny Bright and Joey Moss | Edmonton Eskimos
As a young African-American man trying to play quarterback in the U.S. college ranks, Johnny Bright had his jaw broken in a game. Drafted by the NFL, he chose to play and stay in Canada, where the opportunities were more plentiful on and off the field. A star on the field and a community leader off of it, his Canadian Football Hall of Fame playing career was followed a highly successful tenure as a teacher and principal. He had an Edmonton school posthumously named after him in 2010.
Joey Moss, who has Down Syndrome and is now 54, has been a popular figure on the Edmonton sports scene for years. After first joining the Edmonton Oilers as a locker room attendant in 1985, he began working with the Esks in 1986. Over the years, he has endeared himself to Edmonton’s athletes and visiting stars as well as his fellow Edmontonians. A member of the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame, he has received numerous tributes over the years, including a mural on 99 Street in Edmonton.
Herm Harrison and John Helton | Calgary Stampeders
Both members of Calgary's 1971 Grey Cup-winning team, Harrison and Helton took similar paths to arrive in the CFL. Harrison was the veteran player on that team, a biracial tight end who came from an Arizona State program that had a first of its own, when their white quarterback roomed with a black player.
Once established in Calgary, Harrison became the player that welcomed his American teammates and helped them settle in Calgary. He did that for Helton. Also an ASU alum, Helton left the racial climate of the US in the late 1960s – and NFL interest – behind him to pursue a football career and life in Canada.
Both found long-term homes with the Stamps and remained in Canada, with Harrison staying in Calgary until his death in 2014. Today, Helton splits time between Kelowna and Calgary.
Neal Hughes | Saskatchewan Roughriders
Growing up in Regina, Hughes was bullied because of his Metis background. But he persevered, earning an education degree from the University of Regina's ‘Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program’ (SUNTEP). When he fulfilled his football dream of playing for the Roughriders, he toured Saskatchewan schools and spoke to children about bullying and his Metis heritage. As a father, he tries to carry the message of diversity, acceptance and understanding forward.
Obby Khan | Winnipeg Blue Bombers
A Muslim with Pakistani roots, Khan built a successful football and business career, and credits the inclusive attitudes of his teammates for helping pave the way for his success. Born in Ottawa, he attended Simon Fraser University before spending six seasons in Winnipeg, playing as an offensive lineman before settling in Manitoba and establishing a chain of restaurants, Shawarma Khan.
Bernie Custis | Hamilton Tiger-Cats
The first black quarterback in professional football, Custis had to cross the border to get the opportunity denied to him in the NFL. He fell in love with his new life in Canada and stayed here until his death in 2017. His successful playing days led to a sterling career as an educator, coach and community builder southern Ontario. He influenced hundreds of young players with his mentorship and inspired thousands more with his example.
Orlando Bowen | Toronto Argonauts
Former Toronto Argonauts linebacker Orlando Bowen is passionate about youth leadership and helping people overcome adversity, find their passion and using their gifts and skills to help others. Bowen's adversity came in 2004, when he suffered what he believed to be racially-motivated violence. He didn't let the incident change him. He founded the ‘One Voice, One Team’ Youth Leadership organization to inspire and to teach resilience, leadership and teamwork to youth. Orlando has served as a guest speaker across North and South America as he focuses on equipping people to get off the sidelines and become difference-makers on their teams and in the lives of those around them.
Moton Hopkins and Jo-Anne Polak | Ottawa REDBLACKS
Moton Hopkins’ army family, including his autistic, non-verbal brother Matthew, moved often. His size – he weighed 250 pounds in the eighth grade – made him a target for bullies until he found football. A scholarship to Tulsa and a seven-year CFL career gave him the opportunity to crusade against bullying, work with autism and disability advocacy groups, and share his story as a motivational speaker.
Jo-Anne Polak made history in 1989, when she became the first female GM of a pro sports team in North America. At the helm of the Ottawa Rough Riders for two years, she was instrumental in shepherding the team through a tumultuous time. Often the only woman in the CFL boardroom, she paved the way for women who are now working in front offices and football operations across the league.
Herb Trawick | Montreal Alouettes
Trawick made history in 1946 when he became the first black player to join the CFL. He faced discrimination, with two opposing teams threatening to boycott their games if he played. Als coach and GM Lew Hayman backed his player and Trawick enjoyed a 12-year, hall of fame career. A doorman and pro wrestler in the offseason at the beginning of his playing career, Trawick eventually ran his own business and became a key figure in the community in his post-playing days. He spent the rest of his life in Montreal, passing away in 1985. A park there bears his name.