A dying man and the Ticats team he loves: Labour Day for Bill Hrasko

His first game was at Civic Stadium in the fall of 1951. That he knows. He was 19. A bunch of his co-workers had decided to buy some tickets one day and he gladly came along since he loved football.

But the opponent? The score? Where he sat? Those memories are lost.

A lot of memories are gone these days. Even many of the recent ones. Alzheimer’s is robbing Bill Hrasko of his past. His almost complete kidney failure is about to rob him of his future.

But ask him about some Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ moments from over the years and he recalls a bunch. Mostly the big playoff dramas. And ask him about the surprise visit from Jeremiah Masoli, Brandon Banks and Luke Tasker the other day, and his 86-year-old face lights up.

“It was a good visit,” he says.

How three of the biggest names on the Ticats ended up spending nearly 90 minutes with him at his hospital is a story that goes back to that autumn day 67 years ago.

By the time Hrasko — some folks would make that a silent H but he pronounced his last name huh-rasko — walked into the stands for the first time that day, he was already ahead of most folks in town. A TV assembler at Westinghouse, he made sure his family was the first on their block to have a set. A beautiful 13-inch black-and-white unit that he’d assembled at home with parts from work.

No, this isn’t a confession along the lines of Johnny Cash’s One Piece At A Time. The bosses there encouraged him to take some parts and tinker so he could really learn how to build and fix those early sets. Which he did well enough that he eventually became Ontario branch manager for colour TVs, travelling the country and teaching others how to build them. If you had a TV in Hamilton in those days, chances are Bill’s fingerprints were on it.

Even so, when he walked into the park for that first game with his buddies, there was no football on TV. No CFL anyway. That didn’t make its debut until the next season’s Grey Cup. Keep in mind, I Love Lucy had only debuted that October so these were the early days. As a result, seeing it live was mind-blowing. The sights, the smells, the noises, the excitement. He loved it.

The next summer he bought season tickets right at the 35-yard line. Then re-upped year after year, decade after decade, almost never missing a game unless he was travelling for work. And kept at it until, well, until when?

“He still has them,” says his wife, Kathy.

Really?

Yes. The organization says he isn’t the longest-tenured season ticket holder, but he’s close. He even kept his seasons-attending-a-game streak alive when he went to the home opener this year with his son.

But these are tough times for Bill. The Alzheimer’s is unforgiving. He lost one kidney back in 2006 when a tumour had to be removed. And now …

“His other kidney has slowly declined,” Kathy says. “Now it’s in failure.”

Some time back he decided not to seek desperate measures. So he’s not waiting on a transplant. He’s not having dialysis. Kathy says his kidney is running at about five per cent today. He looks good and says he feels good, which is a surprise to everyone since he was expected to live a week or two when he arrived at the palliative-care ward of St. Peter’s Hospital in the first week of July.

There’s a Ticat dreamcatcher hanging on his wall among some other Ticats memorabilia on display. Best of all, from his window, he can see Tim Hortons Field. But she says he really is day-to-day now.

With this as the inevitable backdrop, his son Nathan reached out to the team some time ago and let someone there know his situation. Which led to what happened a week ago Sunday.

As Bill was sitting outside by the garden enjoying some sunshine and wearing Ticats’ pants and his black-and-gold jersey — No. 52 with Season Tix Since on the back nameplate — Masoli, Tasker and Banks suddenly appeared. Just walked up to him and said hi. Kathy quietly told him who they were. When it clicked, he came alive.

“When she whispered in his ear, his whole body posture just …” Banks says, puffing out his chest and straightening up. “He almost jumped out of his chair.”

Three days later, the Ticats would knock off the Edmonton Eskimos in a 25-24 thriller. Bill would watch on TV from his hospital bed. Right now, though, the guy who would make the miracle touchdown catch-and-run and the quarterback who would have thrown him the ball were here. Along with the enthusiastic Banks giving him a ball they’d signed.

For 90 minutes, the players sat with him and some other patients and families. They chatted about life and football. Mostly football. They signed his jersey, took photos and kept talking. At one point, Tasker crouched down to Bill’s level, took a weak hand in both of his and thanked him for being such a loyal fan.

“I was taking pictures and crying,” Kathy says.

It was a beautiful moment done out of the eye of the media and absent any public attention. Neither the players nor the team said anything about it before or after. It was an hour and a half of private, sincere humanity.

Sadly, when he woke up the next morning, Bill’s memory was foggy. He knew something special had happened but couldn’t quite remember what. Until Kathy pulled out her phone and started showing him the photos. Then it came back. Along with the smile.

Even days later, Masoli says it was clear how excited Bill was to see them and talk. Tasker says this response was meaningful, not just for Hrasko, but for all of them.

“It certainly reminds us how important the Ticats are to the community,” he says.

Bill doesn’t have much longer. Everyone knows that. Still, he’s hoping to get to one more game. Labour Day is Monday. He’d love to go with his son.

Kathy’s hoping, too. For that and more.

“I just come in here every day hoping everything is good,” she says.

This sure helped.

Must Read