Milton: Mosca still looms larger than life


If not for the reality that there could never, ever, be another quite like him, it sometimes appears that the current Hamilton Tiger-Cats are loaded with Angelo Moscas.

The Tiger-Cats are the best team in the Canadian Football League right now, as they were for most of the 13 seasons that Mosca wore black and gold between 1958 and 1972.

Those ancient Cats lived defence and breathed fire, anchored and defined by their legendary interior defensive linemen, John Barrow and Mosca. But it was the distinctive No. 68 who clearly personified not only the Ticats’ overall identity, but that of the gritty ambitious city they represented.

Even if you didn’t know his personal history, and not many did at the time, you always suspected he had a hard-earned chip on his shoulder, revelling as he did in sticking it to the more privileged in football, and in life. And such chips don’t have a past-due date, as evidenced by the cane-wielding Mosca, then 74, engaging Joe Kapp in a YouTube classic bout.

He played angry and looked angry, never showed remorse and represented true physical peril to his opponents. And he brought to the CFL something it had never really seen before, at least not consistently year after year: a smaller man’s speed in a bigger, stronger man’s body.

That sounds like a description of just about every defensive lineman on the Ticats’ roster. They are as smash-mouth as he was. As a group they’re spectacular-fast, they take no prisoners, and most games their physicality dispatches at least one victim from the field with a trainer as a human crutch. They own Tim Hortons Field as the Mosca-Barrow-Henley-Faloney Cats owned Civic Stadium, and they are 6-2 for just the third time since Mosca retired. Mosca’s teams went 6-and-2 or better in six of his first nine years here.

So, it is perfect timing for two of the greatest nights of Mosca’s post-athletic life. The CFL Alumni will honour him at Carmen’s on Wednesday with their Still Mosca tribute, and the Ticats will retire his No. 68 during at Thursday’s home game against Montreal, where Mosca spent a bit of time in his two-year, early career exile from Hamilton.

But the timing is not really about how this year’s team, on both sides of the ball, channels everything Mosca. It is about the cold reality that cannot be wished away.

The Tiger-Cat franchise and players past and present are honouring him now because he can still appreciate it and still remember it. And, despite always having been wonderfully rough around the edges, he deserves it.

Mosca was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s six months ago and he is not afraid to tell people about it. He calls it the hidden disease and he and his wife Helen are glad that they’ve got a chance to make others more cognizant of its earlier effects.

“I’m happy I’ve been made aware of what’s wrong with me,” Mosca said Tuesday afternoon, accompanied by Helen, his cousin Gary Mosca and his sister Carol Roberg.

“I don’t know (what stage) I’m at with it, but it doesn’t really matter. I hope people understand if I stutter a bit.”

There will be nobody, at Carmen’s or the stadium, who doesn’t understand. Or who doesn’t care.

Mosca grew up as the son of a drinking, mixed-race couple in Waltham, Mass., hard by Boston, arguably the most racist city in the northern U.S. He was ordered by his father, often punctuated by a beating, to hide that heritage. He and his siblings spent much of their childhood in dark fear of parental wrath and abuse which, naturally, affected the way they approached the world and their own adulthood.

In recent years, Mosca flushed out and stared down most of the roots of any negative attitudes that plagued him, by talking about them, writing about them and not fearing them.

Just as he seems to be doing with Alzheimer’s.

In most of North America, Mosca was better known for his wrestling career, nearly twice as long as his football one. But it is the CFL which he has defended and promoted in the 43 years since he last played in it. And he stands for the Ticat franchise more than any other player ever has, because he has continued to loom larger than life, has always defended Hamilton verbally and sometimes physically, has always maintained contact with the Cats and has always offered his services to the team even when some of its misguided leaders weren’t really interested.

Since Bob Young took over in 2004, there has been no equivocating: Angelo Mosca is an integral part of the Cats image and brand. He has never felt so at home with the team and its players, the same players who, one-by-one, shook his hand on Tuesday and congratulated him on joining the late Bernie Faloney — the best man at his and Helen’s wedding — as the only Cats ever to have their numbers retired.

Kent Austin says it has been, and will continue to be, important to have Mosca around the team regularly.

“Having a tie to the past, and understanding what it means to the fans and the value of the franchise,” Austin explained. “Also, it gives you something to aspire to as a player, to reach that level of greatness.”