Last September, Rob Ford did something truly scandalous: he wore a Hamilton Tiger-Cats jersey to an Argonauts game.
An avid sports fan, the former Toronto mayor and city councilor was a dyed-in-the-wool Argo supporter but on this day, he had a rooting interest that superseded his typical allegiances: one his former players was suiting up for the Ticats.
Hamilton defensive back Jay Langa played for Ford for five seasons staring in 2004 while attending Don Bosco high school in a Etobicoke, where Ford served as head coach. It was a rough neighbourhood and Langa says football – and Ford – helped him stay on the right path.
“I live right on the bum crack of the ghetto. I’ve seen shootings, I’ve seen people get stabbed, I’ve seen someone get their tongue cut off,” Langa said. “Without football, I would have been doing stupid stuff, I might have been in jail, I could have been dead.”
Langa said Ford knew that many of his players came from difficult family situations – Langa’s mother was raising him and his little sister on her own – and needed the structure that football provided.
“He as a good coach but there was no b.s. He didn’t even let us swear. Every time someone said the f-word, we had to run laps. If one guy was late for practice, we had to run,” Langa said. “He was on time every day, usually in a sweater and jogging pants but if he was running late, he’d just wear his suit. Late for him was 15 minutes early.”
Ford’s unwavering commitment to football – he sometimes skipped council meetings to attend practices – eventually became a point of contention among his critics. But Langa said the players saw Ford as one of the few people they could depend on.
“Once you lose a player’s trust and focus, they are gone forever and they’ll start slacking and missing practice,” Langa said. “It’s a huge commitment to be the mayor but so is coaching and helping kids. I never understood why he was criticized for that.”
Those detractors would ultimately have plenty to choose from. Ford’s descent into scandal and addiction didn’t truly begin until after Langa had graduated but he says it was hard to watch his former coach fight his demons while taking so much personal criticism.
“I always tell people, I know the real Rob Ford. I know what he’s done for the community, for the kids at my school. Everyone has skeletons and his were very public,” Langa said. “It was hard and I didn’t want to believe it but I still supported him 100 per cent.”
Ford’s support of Langa went beyond football. When the family was struggling to make ends meet, Ford showed up, unannounced, with several bags of groceries. When Langa travelled to Quebec to continue his football career after high school, Ford gave him $500 to help cover expenses.
“He said ‘don’t tell your mom, I just want help you out.’ That gesture, it was huge,” Langa said. “It made a difference.”
Given their close connection, news of Ford’s death has hit Langa hard. He vacationing in Thailand last week when his mom called with the news that Ford had passed away at the age of 46.
“I think I was denial for a couple of days. But when I got home and starting reading about it, seeing all the photos…that’s when it hit me,” Langa said. “I called one of my old teammates and just cried. It broke my heart.”
The last time Langa saw Ford was just before that September game last season, when he gave his old coach a Ticat jersey emblazoned with Langa’s name and No. 30. They talked for a couple of hours, reminiscing about their time together as player and coach, Ford encouraging Langa to stay committed and disciplined in his pursuit of a CFL career.
And Ford told him he’d be wearing the Ticat jersey to the game, instead of his usual Argo one.
“I said ‘you’re actually going to do it?’” Langa said, laughing at the memory. “He said ‘of course, you’re one my sons, you’re one of my kids.’
“I just hugged him and said ‘I love you coach. Thanks so much.’”