The legacy of Normie Kwong

Norman Kwong never seemed appropriate. Norm — that suited him a little more. Normie, even better.

Wherever he went, somebody always seemed to be waving and saying, “Hi, Normie. How’s it goin’?” And Kwong would suddenly be in a conversation, usually with lots of laughter. Even when he was the province’s lieutenant-governor, a role he served from 2005-10, there weren’t many more humble, approachable people than Norman Lim Kwong, a Canadian sporting and political legend who died Saturday at the age of 86.

After a 12-year playing career in the Canadian Football League, he served as general manager of the Calgary Stampeders from 1988-91. He was also an original part-owner of the NHL’s Calgary Flames.

Kwong became a fullback for his home-town Stampeders in 1948 and, at 18, capped his rookie campaign by being the youngest player to win a Grey Cup. He also became the first Chinese Canadian to play in the Canadian Football League, earning him the nickname “China Clipper.”

Kwong often related that he faced some racism while growing up in Calgary, when there were still anti-Asian sentiments following the Second World War. His neighborhood had plenty of German immigrants, he wasn’t the only child dealing with post-war racism.

It was also an era when non-whites were finally starting to be allowed to play professional sports, so Kwong heard a few taunts that subsided, he said, after proving he could play and take the physical abuse that went with playing football.

Indeed, one of Kwong’s CFL teammates and close friends was Johnny Bright, who was the target of racist, physical attacks during his U.S. college career and subsequently decided to play in Canada rather than become the first black player with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles.

The CFL’s history shows that it was more welcoming to black players than the NFL. Quarterbacks, especially, such as Warren Moon and J.C. Watts, were given opportunities they may have never garnered in the American league. The CFL set a stage that allowed people to flourish, regardless of ethnicity or colour or religion. Athletes like Kwong, Bright and Moon — and so many others — became role models for future generations, honoured and respected by whites and non-whites. Bright became a teacher in Edmonton, Watts a U.S. congressman and Moon moved on to the NFL to the second portion of his double Hall of Fame career.

After his playing days, Kwong would regale his audience with stories about the melting pot of personalities and races on his CFL teams, while explaining that he never felt different from anyone else. Those qualities of acceptance, humour, talent and hard work served him well, as an athlete, executive, businessman and polititician.

Kwong was made a member of the Order of Canada for his work in multi-culturalism. His commitment to his community, his humility despite his high profile, and his understanding of the province made him a perfect choice as lieutenant-governor.

His political aspirations seemed short-lived after getting defeated as a candidate in the 1971 Alberta election, but he was a precedent-setter for other ex-CFLers who got involved in politics and their communities, such as: former Eskimos quarterback (and a teammate of Kwong’s) Don Getty, who became Alberta’s premier; former Saskatchewan Roughriders guard Gene Makowsky, who is a provincial MLA; former Roughriders fullback Chris Szarka, who served on Regina’s city council; and former B.C. Lions guard Bobby Singh, who was elected to the education board in his home of Richmond, B.C.

Darrell Davis has reported on the Riders for more than 20 years and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame media wing in 2006.