No lead is safe: remembering the man who taught me to love the CFL

Photo courtesy: Zach Schnitzer

Canadian Football League commissioner Randy Ambrosie calls our brand of pigskin a “bums in seats league.”

This is often seen as a pejorative, given the fact that the gargantuan National Football League to the south doesn’t even need fans in the stands to turn a massive profit. I see it differently. Hundreds of thousands of CFL fans all over the world do as well.

You see, for many reasons, the CFL has a family feel, in part because of the accessibility of the players and staff, and the friends we make in our stadium sections or while we tailgate. It’s also a family because almost all of us have a beloved relative — a father, mother, cousin, uncle, or friend — who took us to a game and shared their love of three-down

Most of the time — probably by halftime — we were hooked. The drama, the smell of hot dogs, popcorn, and beer, and cowbells ringing in our ears. I’m one of those people who’s hooked, and what makes it rosier is the fact that my team, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, with which I’m obsessed, sport an impressive 9-1 record.

I’m still sore over the way the last game ended, but, as I’ve learned over the years, it’s not fair to my family to be grumpy all week. I’ve let the loss go. After all, my beloved Blue were the last team to have a bye week. They’ve also won the last two Grey Cups, so I can’t be too sad. They’re even going for a “three-peat,” which is unheard of since the days of Warren Moon.

The current Blue Bombers are a team any fan would dream of, but they’re a team my dad didn’t get a chance to see. He died from kidney disease in March 2017 at only 69 years old. Thus, my dream is unfinished.

If I’m lucky, while I sleep, I dream that I’m showing off the drought-ending 2019 and 2021 rings to my late father, the man who introduced me to our beautiful game, while he sits on his favourite beat-up recliner, eating unsalted peanuts, shaking his head and smiling in disbelief.

With a far-off gleam in his eye, he’d recite names like James ‘Wild’ West, Willard Reaves, Bob Cameron, James Murphy, Tyrone Jones, Chris Walby (his favourite), and Cal Murphy. The list would go on — longer if the Bombers were out of contention early, as they often were in the mid-1990s.

“Son, I wish you would’ve seen the Bombers in the ’80s. No one could beat us,” my dad would sigh as we glumly sat at the old Canadians Stadium on Maroons Road, watching our gridiron gladiators die many a slow death.

A 13-year-old when we began our 25-year season ticket member journey, I would listen in awe as he recalled those dominant 1980s teams. I’d try to imagine our squad squeezing the life out of its opponent night in and night out, winning three Grey Cups in seven years — ’84, ’88, and ’90.

Mostly though, the vivid fantasy would feature my dad, miraculously wearing a royal blue jersey with the number 48, his birth year, chasing down running backs like a mighty lion pouncing on a gazelle, lifting Earl Grey’s mug, his substantial moustache and bright red mane dripping with champagne.

My heart would swell with pride; tears would well in my eyes as he looked on, watching the game with his binoculars, munching on his giant bag of No Name unsalted peanuts. My dad played middle linebacker in high school. A muscular, barrel-chested young man, he brought down his prey — receivers, running backs, anyone who stood in his path.

By the time we started going to games together, the Bombers’ glory days were over. Not just the fabled teams of the 1980s, but the unshakeable confidence and hope of my dad’s youth. He was gifted with an unwavering faith in his own abilities, sporting a powerful build, a drive for excellence, and achievement.

My dad, a federal government employee, was on the fast track to be a deputy minister by the time disease hit. What a disease it was. As unlucky as the Bombers’ fate in the 2007 Grey Cup, what began as mild strep throat somehow found its way to his kidneys. Even then, there was a 70 percent chance of remission if he put in hours of intense exercise at the gym and ate like a monk.

But, like Kevin Glenn getting his arm broken by a falling Kevin Eiben at the end of the 2007 East Final, dad’s frenzied attempts to rust out every machine at the Reh-Fit Centre and cardboard, no-salt diet, he was, in a word, “unlucky.”

There is a statue at IG Field of the legendary “kindly” Cal Murphy, a charismatic leader of the unbeatable Bombers in their heyday. He was a hero of my dad’s because he too had had a transplant. A heart, in Murphy’s case, while my father’s was a kidney transplant that would last seven years.

I distinctly remember Murphy being the keynote speaker at an event in my youth, an event my dad spoke at as well. My chest burst with pride as both men, both symbols of the miracle of modern medicine, recounted respective victories over disease. Their red bloated faces, suffused with prednisone, the cost paid by a mad concoction of anti-rejection drugs, told another tale. After all, their bodies knew these foreign organs didn’t belong, even if the men willed them into formation.

Ever resilient, my dad didn’t give up, even though the kidney disease would turn out to be unbeatable; as unbeatable as Doug Flutie, who defeated Winnipeg in the Grey Cup in 1992, the year my dad got his first kidney transplant. I imagine my dad knew, watching that game when Calgary got off to a 24-0 start, a metaphor was afoot. A parallel tale.

For Bombers fans between 1990 and 2019, life was a roller-coaster of hope, desperation, and devastation. There was the 12 straight victories of the seemingly unbeatable 2001 Blue Bombers — perhaps the best team never to win the Grey Cup — who lost to sub-.500 team they’d let off the mat. A Calgary team that became the first to ever win a CFL title with a losing record. How very Bombers to let that happen?

Then in 2007, a surprising Winnipeg team willed themselves to the East Final with an unbelievable goal-line stand against the Als and a walk-off field goal by Troy Westwood, followed by a shocking victory over the powerful, Michael Bishop-led Argos at SkyDome. I still have dreams where backup quarterback Ryan Dinwiddie, now (ironically) the head coach of the Argos, runs for the first down that was open in front of him, rather than throwing that third interception — a dagger in the hearts of Bomber fans — losing to their prairie rivals in the championship game.

Those two teams, 2001 and 2007, should have won the Grey Cup. Even in 1993, if Dunigan hadn’t blown his Achilles, we probably would have beaten an Edmonton team that we slammed twice during the regular season 53-11 and 52-14, respectively. Fate would say otherwise, as every Bomber fan’s scarred heart will tell you.

It seemed fitting, somehow, that my dad would never live to see the drought end. The Bombers were mauled by the surprising B.C. Lions in 2011, and then went on a run of lurid losing seasons as horribly tragic as the new stadium was beautiful, narrow concourse be damned.

Despite all the heartbreak, my dad and I soldiered on. The Bombers was our thing. Cribbage another. Sometimes, simultaneously. Dad pacing me with endless double runs to the soundtrack of the legendary Bob Irving calling games on summer nights. Perhaps unfortunately for spectators watching at the field or friends at home, my dad poured all his negativity about his disease into the team. Even an early two-and-out would have the venerable lion roaring at the TV. Some friends laughed, others only smiled sadly.

Fast forward to Sunday, Nov. 13, the 2016 West Semi-Final, my dad and I watching in abject horror as the upstart Winnipeg Blue Bombers somehow fumbled away a seemingly unsurmountable 19-point lead in B.C. They lost tragically, by one point. I even did the sign of the cross to ward off the inevitable Jonathan Jennings touchdown marches in the fourth quarter. Anything to stay our demise.

That gesture had my dad more furious with me than the Bombers’ defensive ineptitude. After all, his parents were Holocaust survivors, and the sign of the cross was as foreign to him as losing. Little did I know, that tragic game would be the very last Bomber game we saw together. How fitting, you might say.

I realize you are reading a sad tale. I’m certainly grieving as I write it, remembering the parallel narratives of our plucky, yet inevitably losing Bombers and my dad’s slow decline. However, this is also a tale of gratitude. I am thankful that my best memories of my dad are painted onto the canvas of a CFL field, a massive rectangle, where anything could happen. The Crazy Football League. The No-Lead-Is-Safe League.

Three-down football was our saving grace, as much as it was a site of almost absurd bad luck for our team.

My dad passed on March 26, 2017. The grief was excruciating. Mendel Schnitzer was my hero, companion, and the best friend I’ll ever have.

Snuggled next to the almond-shaped wooden box containing his ashes on our buffet are two gorgeous Grey Cup replica rings. 2019. 2021. Back-to-back champs. Games I attended in person with my mother-in-law and friends. Those games are some of my best memories. I still can’t believe we won. Perhaps the years of losing, both on the field and off, rendered me forever pessimistic, just like my dad.

The Bombers won the Grey Cup!? I was there. I saw it. I have the rings. I have the pictures. It doesn’t seem real. If only dad had been there.

If you spot a fan named Chris Matthew wearing pants, you’ll know it did actually happen. He refused to wear anything but shorts until the Bombers won the mug again, following the soul-destroying Grey Cup loss in 2001. Yes! We won the cup, not once but twice. And, it very well may happen again this year.

The more I think about my dad, and his daily war with disease, a war he waged for decades, the more the rings on my dining room buffet swim into focus. First diagnosed with a kidney infection in 1985, there was no conceivable way he should’ve lived another 32 years. He survived decades of dialysis and a failed transplant only to become the guinea pig and poster child of a new technology: home hemodialysis.

He could literally clean his blood at home three nights per week all by himself. I’d look on, holding a tube or vial filled with blood, as he literally stuck himself with a massive needle, right into his forearm. He was miraculous. Every day was a fight to survive, a quest to tackle the impossible. Our team never won the Grey Cup while we watched, but, as I think now, he certainly attained greatness.

Perhaps his Grey Cup was surviving to my wedding day. Perhaps it was living to become a zaida (Yiddish for grandfather) and seeing our daughter born. He witnessed my wife and I buy our first house. He met my brother’s future husband, a wonderful and brilliant man who fits right into the Schnitzer brood, also built like a linebacker, albeit a pretty short one. He never did make it to their wedding, but as my family well knows, he probably shouldn’t have made it to mine either. He had an indomitable spirit, just like his 1980s Bombers heroes.

Jefferson, Jeffcoat, Bighill, Bryant, Hardrick, Neufeld, Alexander, Nichols, Rose, Medlock, Collaros, Harris, Adams, Schoen, Woli, Thomas, Oliveira, Hall, Lapo, the Canadian Mafia — the triumphant triumvirate of Miller, Walters, and O’Shea — these are the names I’ll one day recite to my son and daughter as we carry on the Schnitzer Bomber-for-Life tradition.

I’ll show them the 25-year season ticket member brick outside Gate One of IG Field. We’ll wear ten layers of clothing for the November games — less for my daughter if she’s still as into fashion as she is now — and maybe, in my dad’s honour, we’ll eat a Walby
Burger together.

Hopefully they’ll enjoy my YouTube Shows with Bonfire Sports, talking CFL to a live online audience with my good buddy Darrin Bauming. Their dad, living the dream yacking about football.

Sometimes I imagine my dad as part of the live Bonfire “Fireside Live Chat,” our awesome listeners providing insights, questions, comments, and funny jabs at each other and at us. Each participant uses their own name, or a funny moniker. My dad would’ve called himself “ZaidaMendel1948,” writing, “all Zach’s good insights come from me,” or, “Darrin, ditch this schmuck. I’d be a better cohost.”

He’d chastise us, somewhat in jest, ever nudging, “Darrin, why haven’t I met Walby yet?” My dad would also probably throw in a few comments to embarrass his son, too. Something like, “Isn’t Zach cute when he shaves? Luckily he looks like his mother.”

I know my unbridled and perhaps unmatched passion for the Blue Bombers is a metaphor. I still live and die with each victory or defeat, just as my dad and I projected his fate onto decades of Blue Bomber campaigns. Luckily, I am relatively healthy.

What my fervent Bomber fan children may lose in wild and chaotic passion for the team, they’ll gain in perspective. Win or lose, at IG Field or on TV, watching Winnipeg Blue Bomber games will be more of a fun and relaxed family tradition than a desperate quest for the impossible.

We all have our list of player names, heroes who animate our jubilant or frustrated memories of watching our team with loved ones. We all have that one family member: a parent, grandparent, sibling, aunt, or uncle who introduced us to the great Canadian game. Many of us have a late father, mother, or relative who sit beside us in spirit — loved ones who’ve died, who we’d die to be with just one more time, their memory providing both comfort and heartache as we watch our local team.

I know my team is on the upswing, perhaps historically so. But another team will take its place soon enough. I’ll always treasure my rings, nestled beside my dad’s ashes. Just as much, I treasure all of the wonderful friends, family members, really, that I’m making as my CFL journey continues.

CFL fans, CFL family members: may the game continue to produce joyful and meaningful memories, whether your team wins or loses. After all, the best part of watching CFL is being with the loved ones with whom you share the game.

Zach Schnitzer is a Winnipeg Blue Bombers' season ticket holder, podcaster, and mental health advocate.