If it was put up for auction among Canadian Football League fans and memorabilia collectors, Tony Gabriel’s varsity letter from his days at Syracuse University before going on to a hall of fame career up here would surely be worth something.
Yet as she stared at it lying there in a photo album she’d made so many years ago, she wasn’t thinking about cashing in. Instead, his long-ago girlfriend, who’d lost touch with him four decades earlier, could only think she should figure a way to get it back to him because his grandkids might like it someday.
“It didn’t work out for us,” says Lyle Kahle, “but I always cared about him.”
Little did she know how that six-inch orange S would change both their lives.
Pardon the Hollywood-esque cliché, but theirs truly was the all-American love story. He was a junior and the record-setting MVP of the Syracuse football team. As such, he was the proverbial big man on campus. She was a social sophomore who volunteered with a group that helped freshmen move into their dorms.
Which is where they met in the fall of 1969. She was outside his dorm helping some newcomers find their way around when he noticed her.
“I started flirting with her,” Gabriel says. “We ended up dating.”
Before long they were engaged. She even bought the dress.
They remained an item after he graduated and moved to Hamilton where he began carving out a career with the Tiger-Cats. She came up a few times to watch games. Once, she recalls O.J. Simpson sitting in the stands at Ivor Wynne Stadium right behind her, watching one of his buddies play.
It wasn’t easy, though. Almost all Gabriel’s time was consumed with football. She was still in school. For a while, they wrote and talked on the phone. He visited her in Syracuse. Eventually though, the distance did them in.
“We never made it to the altar,” he says. “I wasn’t quite ready to get married.”
He would be in time. First to CFL commissioner Jake Gaudaur’s daughter, then once more. She’d marry, too. Also twice. They each had kids and grandkids. But the moment they split they got on with different lives, never to speak again.
She never knew he became the star football player he always wanted to be and then an investment adviser with CIBC. She wasn’t aware he’d been traded to Ottawa, made one of the most-famous Grey Cup-winning catches ever, became league MVP, set records, was inducted into the hall of fame, had his number retired and was named the 18th-greatest player in league history.
Meanwhile, he had no idea she’d flourished in a career in software that took her all over the world, eventually landing her in the Pacific Northwest with management positions at Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard.
About a decade ago, she came across his work email address. Suddenly curious about what had happened to the man she nearly married, she Googled him. For the first time, she saw The Catch in the 1976 Grey Cup and learned about his life. Still, she didn’t get in touch.
Then while unpacking some boxes after a move some time later, she came across some university stuff she’d kept. There was a school notebook in which she’d practised writingLyle Gabrielover and over on the back page. And a photo album with clippings and memories. Including that varsity letter. In that moment, she decided she really should return it.
So she finally sat down and typed out an email. Then hit send.
Even though it had been 41 years since they’d last spoken and her last name was now different — it was Confrey when they were together — he knew who it was from as soon as it landed in his in box.
“There aren’t too many ladies in my life named Lyle,” he laughs.
Four days later he wrote back. Which led to another note. And another. Soon he’d headed to her new place in Rhode Island to visit. It was New Year’s Eve 2013. The tough retired football player — he’s 67, she’s 65 — turns into a softy when he says she looked a bit different than she did in the first Trudeau era but he instantly recognized her smile.
“Quickly we saw that the spark was still there,” he says.
From that point, things moved pretty quickly.
She started coming up to Burlington for visits and was blown away that he’d be recognized on the street or in restaurants. He spent time at her place. She attended Gabriel family picnics where his mother, six brothers and four sisters were rather shocked to see her back in the picture.
Roughly a year after that first … er,secondfirst … meeting they got engaged all over again. With a wedding date set for June 16. The dress she’ll wear that day is being made from some pieces of the dress she bought for their first wedding.
Oh yeah, she kept it. Just like she kept that orange letter.