It was 60 years ago. I was a 19-year-old second-year student at St. Francis Xavier University. I was drifting blindly — or something even worse — in engineering. I was the proverbial square peg in a round hole.
But I was busy doing something else that, to me, was much more interesting. I was the sports editor of the campus newspaper, The Xaverian Weekly.
It surrounded me with politicians.
There was Brian Mulroney, the future prime minister. There was Pat MacAdam, the editor of the paper and later a senior adviser to Mulroney. There was Lowell Murray, who later become a federal cabinet minister and member of the senate. There was Rick Cashin, who went on to be a member of Parliament and the Privy Council. There was Gerry Doucet, who later became the youngest-ever member of the Nova Scotia cabinet.
Somehow I escaped untarnished.
There was no future politics in my resume, the credit perhaps belonging to a former four-time Canadian Football League all-star who, that year, was the new coach of the football X-Men. Don Loney encouraged me on the direction my life should take. As a result, there would be no engineering for me.
Don and I clicked from the opening kickoff.
I was at the field looking for a subject for my first column for The Xaverian and the new coach was the perfect person. I remember being a bit apprehensive as I approached him at practice. There he was, looking big and gruff, standing on the sidelines, a cigar in his mouth. Much more frightening was the huge dog at his side.
As I got closer, Loney extended a hand and introduced himself. Hey, it wasn’t a scary moment at all. Actually, the guy seemed downright friendly.
I got my interview after practice and wrote my column. Now as I look back six decades, I think our friendship began that day.
There would be other get-togethers that season, other interviews, other columns as Loney began building what would become a gridiron powerhouse. When he was finished after a 17-year run, he had compiled a fantastic 133-31-2 record, nine conference championships, four Atlantic Bowl wins and a College Bowl crown.
I once asked him why he was successful.
“I think, if you put all the pieces together, one of the reasons is we got the right kids. We did a lot of recruiting. There was always a good connection between St. FX and the New England states. So a lot of our kids came from there. Another reason was the spirit of the institution. And pride was a big thing. Once all these things came together, it seemed to be the recipe to have winning football teams.”
His fabulous playing and coaching career was underlined by his induction into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, Canadian Football Hall of Fame, Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame, Canadian Forces Hall of Fame and St. FX Hall of Fame.
Don and I crossed paths frequently in the years that followed, at football games, at sports events, at other gatherings. Even political meetings. There was always the big smile, the firm handshake, the kind comments. That was the Don Loney away from the field. The competitive one was always on display when he was with his players.
He and I not only got to know one another very, very well, we got to respect each other.
As years passed, Loney was much more than a football coach on campus. He served as athletic director. He was director of placement, alumni director and director of student affairs. He was fire marshal, manager of the rink and superintendent of security. After a brief departure, he returned to his old director of alumni office.
When retirement came, it was without his consent.
“I was asked to leave,” he told me bluntly. “My feelings towards the person who later became the prime minister of Canada were not the same feelings that the university had. So, diplomatically, I was asked if I wanted a retirement. I still had five years and I said, ‘No, I want to stay.’ They couldn’t get rid of me. But I did leave.”
He settled in an old house, in a pretty spot in Guysborough County.
Maybe the nicest day I ever spent with him was there at his home in the fall of 2002 — some 45 years after our first meeting — when my wife Jane and I went down to visit him. He knew we were coming and, sure enough, he was out on the doorstep, his hand extended as always, his gigantic smile clearly visible.
We talked and laughed and enjoyed one another’s company for hours, none of us even noticing how quickly the time passed. The old Toronto Argonaut, Ottawa Rough Rider and Calgary Stampeder never seemed happier — unless it was in 1966, on the day his X-Men won the College Bowl.
That enjoyable afternoon at his home, Don was 79 years old — my age right now. When Jane and I said our goodbyes, I didn’t realize I wouldn’t see the old coach again.
Just over a year later, on Oct. 24, 2003, I was inducted into the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame. Ironically, that same night, Don Loney’s 1963 St. FX team — one of his best — was also inducted .
Many of the players were there to accept their rewards. Sadly, Don wasn’t on the stage. He was too ill to make the trip to the ceremonies.
Knowing he wouldn’t get there, I phoned him two days earlier. He was heartbroken because he couldn’t be there “with the guys, my guys.”
Eight months after that, an 80-year-old Loney lost his last battle on life’s gridiron.
When I got the news, my first thoughts were of the smile and handshake. I wished I could visit him again.