THINKING ABOUT THE CAREERS OF TOM PATE, NORM CASOLA, MARCO IANNUZZI AND KEVIN GLENN
When the Canadian Football League Players’ Association announced this year’s nominees for the Tom Pate Award, I immediately thought of the person for whom this was named after, and then I thought about another player, Norm Casola. And by the end of the week my mind shifted to Marco Iannuzzi and Kevin Glenn.
All four are among a pantheon of players who played at least one CFL game. All four probably had hopes, dreams and aspirations of playing a long time and experiencing a Grey Cup win.
But there are no guarantees in life or the career of an athlete, nor the possibility that any CFL player will celebrate a championship.
Tom Pate played for less than a full season with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats as a rookie in 1975. He died from an injury after he suffered an aneurysm during a game and passed away three days later.
He was only 23.
The following year the CFLPA named an award in Pate’s honour for sportsmanship and community service.
I only know this because of what I have read. The Omaha, Nebraska native played for the Nebraska Cornhuskers and was a member of their 1971 National championship team. The CFL gave him the chance to play pro football, four years later, albeit it ended far too soon.
The fact his career ended prematurely reminded me of Norm Casola, who played in the CFL from 1994-97 as a slotback for the Toronto Argonauts. He passed away the following year following a three-year battle with cancer which he had largely kept private. He was only 29.
Norm became a vital member of the Argos, captaining their special teams. The Sault Ste. Marie native played with heart and soul and yearned to be a starter, but accepted his role as a backup. He was a member of the Argos’ teams that won the 1996 and ’97 Grey Cups. Everyone remembers the star players in those back-to-back championship squads, but Norm did his part, fighting through the pain and discomfort of his cancer ailment without making it an issue. He was a warrior, one of the toughest players given all he had gone through just to continuing playing the game he loved.
He died in the fall and was buried in a coffin painted in the Argos’ blue colours. His pall bearers included players and members of the organization.
I was given the opportunity by Norm’s family to write about his life and reveal the secret that he kept private.
“He didn’t deserve to die, not Norman, but he did what he wanted to do,” his father, Louis, told me in the article. “He worked so hard. That was his dream to play football. He won back-to-back Grey Cups with that injury in him and he knew, but he didn’t want to use the word cancer.
“He was invincible,” his sister Dawna said in the story. “He thought he could take care of the situation, get on with his life and play football again. It’s just hard to believe.”
Playing football meant more to Norm Casola than undergoing radical surgery that might have saved his life, but would have left without a feeling of normalcy.
And just this past week as I was thinking about Tom Pate and Norm Casola and the brevity of their careers, Marco Iannuzzi wrote on Instagram his final post as a professional athlete.
“Wow, this is it…It’s a very heavy feeling,” said the now former B.C. Lions’ receiver, who received the Tom Pate Award last year.
Iannuzzi played seven seasons in the CFL. He is only 30.
“Football taught me…life. Thank you football.”
The Calgary native was selected sixth overall by the Lions in the 2011 CFL Draft. He was a graduate of Harvard and was a member of the Lions’ Grey Cup-winning team in his rookie year. He became a valuable special teams’ player returning punts, starting out his career that way and returning to it in recent years, fluctuating between being a backup and a starter because of changes in the coaching staff. In 2017, he had his most productive season, setting personal bests with 34 catches and 425 receiving yards, while also regularly fielding punts.
With three games remaining in the season and the Lions out of the playoff picture, he announced on Twitter his plan to retire at the end of the regular season.
In an interview with the Vancouver Province’s Cam Tucker, he explained his reasons, which were many. He talked of a conversation he had with his wife a few weeks previous, wondering what she would think if he decided to retire in 2017 instead of after the conclusion of his contract after the 2018 season.
“It was kind of a shock to my wife because her mindset was that we were going to play for another year,” he told Tucker. “There is no one specific moment. I just started feeling that maybe it might be time…I’m looking forward to not feeling like I got hit by a car every weekend; looking forward to spending more time with my family. My eldest daughter had made a few comments to me regarding some kids get to go on holidays at certain times of the year in the summer and it kind of made me realize that we really haven’t had a true family summer together at all.
“Everything just sort of played together and…obviously I’ve been lucky not being too injured through my whole career. Seen lots of guys go down with head injuries and I wanted to get out while I still could…before I had to be forced out. Another important part is I wanted to do it on my own time instead of having the organization call me up to tell me they were going to release me. I wanted to leave when I wanted to and not when I was forced out the door. As far as it goes, I think about 95 per cent of guys are forced out and only five per cent get to go out on their own time and I wanted to make sure it was my decision.
“I’ve put everything I could into football, my whole life into football,” he added. “Football gave me a lot, but why at the end should I give too much back to football? Why do I have to go out when I’m too slow to run anymore? I’d say we’re even right now. Football gave me a lot. I gave a lot to football and we’re even. To be honest, it wasn’t a difficult decision.”
Neither Tom Pate nor Norm Casola had a chance to decide on their careers. Tragedy struck them down and they are forever remembered by the people who knew them and the contributions they made.
The CFLPA will announce this year’s Tom Pate Award winner during Grey Cup week. And when the winner is announced, I will think of Tom Pate and Norm Casola and feel a sense of sadness, and I will think of Marco Iannuzzi, comfortable in the decision he made to end his career with a sense of fulfillment and clarity of thought.
And I’ll also think of Kevin Glenn, who at age 38 is still chasing that elusive Grey Cup ring. Kevin won the Tom Pate Award in 2011 with Hamilton. His stops in the CFL have been many. This Sunday in Toronto, he will be the starting quarterback for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, who play the Argos in the East Final.
I’ve known Kevin a long time and have always admired his ability, his focus and his passion, all of which has allowed him to stretch out a career that began with Saskatchewan in 2001. This is the third time he’s been with the Riders.
It is interesting how the careers of CFL players evolve, some stretching out more than 15 years, others lasting less than one season.