Thursday, September 18, 2008

R.I.P., Little General: Ron Lancaster's era a nice place to revisit

Between Bob Ackles in July and Ron Lancaster today, it's been a very tough year for CFL legends.

Lancaster's death is a reminder that the CFL and Canadian sports will never again have anyone like the Little General, who lost his fight with cancer today at age 69. There will be always be very good quarterbacks who come to the CFL, walk humble and seem unprepossessing. Anthony Calvillo comes to mind but he could never matter to as many Canadians across the country the way Ron Lancaster will forevermore.

People should mourn the man and keep his family and friends in their thoughts first, second and third. Lancaster's death gives pause to reflect on how difficult it is in Canada to have whose best work comes on Canadian soil. That's a part of the mourning. He was above us and he walked among us in a way no one can now.

We know much to deify a CFL player. At the other end of the spectrum, the great Canadian sports figures today, all the guys in the NHL, along with the likes of Steve Nash, Kara Lang or Justin Morneau, each do their thing in the U.S., so there's not the same familiarity.

As much as people are reflecting on Lancaster's careers as a Grey Cup-winning quarterback who threw for 50,535 yards, coach, CBC commentator and team executive, that's something else to reflect upon. To a generation which only knew him as a player thanks to the Grey Cup Classics that CBC used to run during the build-up to the CFL's championship game, Lancaster best evokes a bygone era. When you want to take people back in time to that era of Canadian sport, mentioning Ron Lancaster does the trick.

This is, for all its flaws, is a fairly golden age in sports. The digital revolution has basically made it possible to follow any athlete, any team, in any league -- if you decided you were going to abjure all other sports and only follow the Swedish Elite League or a small-college NCAA football team (how 'bout them Montana Grizzlies!), chances are some of your friends would nod in understanding. They might actually applaud your attempts to simplify, man.

What does this have to do with Ron Lancaster? There's so much opportunity to know so much as a sports fan. Frankly it can be off-putting if you think too much about the futility of trying to keep up with everything, especially if you take pride in not having to check sports scores first thing every morning. (You check them before bed, silly.)

That's why the passing of Ron Lancaster is not so much a chance to wax nostalgic for the good old days of the CFL, especially as someone who wasn't there. It's more of a desire to have what Canadian football nuts seemingly had in the heyday of Lancaster, Russ Jackson, George Reed, Ronnie Stewart, Angelo Mosca and the greatest generation of Canadian football legends who played from the dawn of the 1960s through the early '70s.

They knew that as a sports fan in Canada who liked football, you could set your watch to seeing Ron Lancaster, No. 23 with the single-bar facemask, under the centre for the Saskatchewan Roughriders on a September afternoon. They knew you could call him Canada's answer to Johnny Unitas (both were from the same part of the U.S., Lancaster from Ohio, Johnny U from Western Pennsylvania) without it seeming like an overreach from a second-rater.

As well, in an era when the salaries in the CFL and NFL were actually comparable, you knew he wasn't settling or looking at the CFL as a way station. Not unlike Jack Donahue, the long-time national team basketball coach, or Michael "Pinball" Clemons nowadays, Canadians had a special place. An Ameri-Canadian -- born in the U.S., but born to make his mark here -- is a special validation that although we can't match the U.S. for glitz, glam and over-the-top hyberbole, we're just as good.

From this vantage point, there must have been great comfort in having that kind of certainty. The roughly 2,000 or so remembrances that will be written across this country over the next day or two will certainly be full of first-person anecdotes, reflections on Lancaster's impact on the Canadian game, the records, the Grey Cups.

There was a shared experience taking place. It's quite possible it was just as cliche then to say that the entire country came to a standstill for Grey Cup, just as it doesn't today. In the sports world that existed before NFL Sunday Ticket, you could watch the Grey Cup knowing that was the first choice for most people who were watching football that day. No one was saying, in a somewhat guilty tone, "OK, I guess I'll watch the Grey Cup."

No one was guilted into trying to be a good Canadian (not that anyone should feel guilty if they watch the NFL instead). Back then, though, the CFL was the first choice, with good reasons.

There's no desire to go back to those days. However, along with celebrating the man, please reflect on how Ron Lancaster was important because everyone understood what Ron Lancaster did. He was the Little General. People probably learned how to do math problems by figuring out his completion percentage, even though he was the one who said statistics are for losers if you didn't win.

He belonged to Canada in a way that no CFL player ever could again.

CFL legend dies at age 69 (Canwest News Service)


Duane Rollins said...

Thanks Neate. That's pretty much what I would have (tried) to write. The Canada of black and white CBC archives is slowly disappearing. Lancaster was part of that world and although we don't want to go back, we don't really want to let go fully just yet.

It's a sad day when our legends leave us. Especially when we can't see who might replace them.

Andrew Bucholtz said...

Well done, Neate. Captured the essence of why I care about the CFL quite nicely.

Anonymous said...

Although he was from Wittenburg, Ohio, Ron Lancaster to me was every bit a Canadian sports icon as our most revered hockey players.
He was a great player, a very good 'player's' head coach, but most of all, he was just one helluva nice guy.
He will be sorely missed.

Rob Pettapiece said...

When I was in high school, the joke going around after Greg Marshall moved from McMaster to the Ti-Cats, and our coach went to McMaster was that Ron Lancaster would surely come to town. He didn't, but that hardly affects his reputation.

The 1996 Grey Cup will forever live in memory (and, also, on a battered VHS tape), as will the Little General.

Dennis Prouse said...

It really is the end of an era. The CFL's salad days, and those of Ron Lancaster the player, perfectly coincided, making his career such a tremendous study in the history of the game. Would a guy like Lancaster even get a look in today's game? Not a chance. Guys like Lancaster and Tom Wilkinson, though, who had brilliant CFL careers despite having the body type of a salesman, are what made the CFL great. It's worth noting as well that he played in an era when, believe it or not, the NFL and CFL were considered reasonably equal in terms of both skill, and in many cases salary.

The fact that Lancaster fell in love with Canada and stayed here, contributing to the game as a coach and executive, is also a great CFL story. Many other American born players came to Canada and never left, building a life for themselves in their adopted country. Before there was Pinball Clemons, there was Ron Lancaster and George Reed.