Milton: Mosca will always be the face of Hamilton

Fundraiser in honour of  Angelo Mosca, Ti-Cat great who has been diagnosed with Alzhiemers

People who were around at the time – and there were a lot of them at Carmen’s Wednesday night – say that Angelo Mosca became the symbol of Hamilton when the city was in its absolute prime.

And as Mosca is honoured with two major events this week, it is in a Hamilton clearly on the rebound.

The iconic athlete, a hall-of-famer in professional wrestling and professional football, arrived in Hamilton from the University of Wyoming in the summer of 1958 when the mills were at full capacity, downtown was thriving and the future looked even brighter than the present.

The Tiger-Cats had been formed only eight years earlier, and the team had already won two Grey Cups when Mosca got to town. It only got better once he arrived.

An Italian-American in a Canadian city with a heavy Italian flavour, Mosca fit in right away. He was loud, physical and truly outrageous, on and off the field, and by late 1963 he had provided a team and its city – both already successful and prosperous and rooted in diligent labour – an immediately recognizable identity.

He and fellow lineman John Barrow were the lightning rods of the dynastic Cats teams of the 1950s and ’60s, but after Mosca’s controversial tackle on the B.C. Lions’ Willie Fleming in the 1963 Grey Cup game, his face became the face of Hamilton football, and it still is.

TV and newspaper commercials played on his toughness and anger and, of all the famous and infamous people ever connected to this city, Mosca is the one whose image is most intertwined with Hamilton’s, especially to outsiders.

But inside the city, Mosca’s successes and those of the Ticats not only made it OK to be from an industrial city often lost in the shadow of the nation’s economic capital, they made it a badge of honour.

In that era, the Canadian Football League was as important to sports fans as the National Hockey League, and the best team in the league – boasting the most feared player in the league – was here. Civic Stadium, which became Ivor Wynne Stadium, was bare bones, spare, intimate and intimidating, and even the most gentle Hamiltonians took pride in its no-frills, smash-mouth reputation.

Factually, what Mosca did was play an integral role in establishing the only dynasty in Tiger-Cats history, compete in a record nine Grey Cups, and make the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

Metaphorically, he defined and crystallized a civic character that, while an often unfair stereotype, helped carry the city and team through some very tough times to come.

Although born American and living mostly outside the city proper in his 58 years since coming north, Mosca is still more Hamilton than smokestacks, and than many who actually grew up here.

He already had a thriving pro wrestling career, based on his football reputation, when he retired from the gridiron immediately after the 1972 Grey Cup victory at Ivor Wynne. Although wrestling took him around the world several months a year, he always came back to Hamilton and was fully engaged here.

Mosca spoke at banquets, often for free if the beneficiaries were kids programs, and always got to know the new Ticat players. He spoke up for the league, but publicly rapped the CFL’s knuckles when he thought it wasn’t handling things well, which it often wasn’t. The CFL, the Cats and the city had given a young man who’d always felt homeless a home, and he believed it was a debt he could never fully repay.

When Mosca finally retired from wrestling, two decades after he quit football, his third career – Being Angelo Mosca – kicked into another gear. As Bob Young rescued the Ticats from bankruptcy in 2004, he recognized Mosca’s value to the city, brought him into the fold as a team ambassador, and Mosca has never felt closer to the organization than he does today.

When Mosca, then 74, got into a cane-swinging battle with old football foe Joe Kapp during Grey Cup week in Vancouver four years ago, it solidified his image and legacy, and gave the public right across North America a new look at an older idol.

Mosca was diagnosed in February with Alzheimer’s disease and Wednesday night’s Still Mosca event at Carmen’s, organized by his grateful colleagues in the CFL Alumni association, raised funds to help battle the disease.

True to Mosca’s motif, the evening was full of deprecation and the humour and camaraderie of a locker-room, Mosca’s favourite place. Like Mosca, it was irreverent, funny and from the heart. Host Mike Bullard even made fun of Alzheimer’s itself and Hamiltonian Brian Williams narrated his brilliant, funny video feature on Mosca and Kapp.

Thursday night Young’s Ticats will retire his No. 68 jersey, which will sit forever on a flagpole in the southeast corner of Tim Hortons Field 65 yards across the turf from the No. 10 worn by the late Bernie Faloney, his close friend and quarterback and the best man at Mosca’s wedding. They are the only two numbers ever retired by the Tiger-Cats.