Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Ron Atchison, football player (1930-2010)
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
July 27, 2010
To football spectators in rival cities, Ron Atchison was evil incarnate, a rough defensive guard and tackle not above stretching the rule book for advantage.
A man who would play despite injury, he also found benefit in his infirm status, as he was known to wear a cast on his forearm long after a wound healed. This reinforced limb was wielded like a battle ax on wary opponents.
Mr. Atchison, who has died, aged 80, was fined more than once by Canadian football officials for unsportsmanlike play. Even in retirement, one rival refused to shake his hand, or even speak to him, maintaining a grudge for years.
In Regina, where he was a household name, as he was among the prairie diaspora, his bloody play in the football trenches was celebrated.
While Ron Lancaster threw looping passes for long touchdowns and George Reed plowed through opposing defences, it fell to Mr. Atchison to harm, harass and otherwise distract attacking opponents. Even when they scored, the points usually came at a price. The Roughriders’ colours are green and white, but Mr. Atchison left opponents black and blue.
Some sportswriters referred to his home field as Atchison’s Abattoir.
In a 17-year career with the same club, he became an epitome of Saskatchewan spirit, wrote Winnipeg Free Press “Pigskin Parade” columnist Reyn Davis — “half rural, half urban, neither rich nor poor, fiercely proud and as optimistic as next year.”
His status as a flatland hero was cemented when the Roughriders won their first Grey Cup championship in 1966, ending a 56-year quest for the trophy.
It is a cliche to describe such men as gentle giants, but from most accounts Mr. Atchison fulfilled the stereotype.
“Ron Atchison is big, tough, nasty and big, gentle, soft-spoken,” wrote Gord Walker of the Globe. “It all depends whether you meet him on a football field or in the dining room.”
Ronald William Atchison was born on April 21, 1930, at Central Butte, a hamlet surrounded by ranch land about 200 kilometres west of Regina. His parents, Florence and Lloyd, moved frequently during those harsh years of Depression on the prairies, farming at Mullingar before moving on to North Battleford and, finally, Saskatoon. Ron was still a teenager when his mother died of cancer in 1947.
That same year, he began the first of three seasons playing football for the Hilltops, a junior team. Thinking he was not good enough to turn professional, he did not try out for the Roughriders, instead taking a job as a truck driver for Marshall-Wells, the hardware company.
He later earned a spot with the club as a walk-on at training camp.
A decade after his debut, Mr. Atchison told a story about playing against Dick Huffman, Winnipeg’s hard-nosed tackle and a Pro Bowl player during his four seasons as a professional with the Los Angeles Rams.
“I was wearing a helmet with the name Ollie taped on top of it,” Mr. Atchison recounted. “After one play Huffman grabs me and says, ‘Ollie, I’ve just about taken enough from you.’
“When I went back to the dressing room at the half I ripped off the piece of tape with Ollie written on it and taped on another and wrote Atch on it. When I came out for the third quarter Huffman took one look at the name on my helmet and thought I was someone else.”
Another time, he warned that a rival had no fear of reprisal for a dirty hit — “at least not if anyone’s looking.”
The 235-pound guard and tackle earned press clippings that were part police blotter, part hospital chart. He was fined $50 for a match penalty incurred in 1956 and $100 for an end-of-game brawl in 1967. In 1957, he sent B.C. Lions quarterback Toppy Vann to the hospital with suspected knee damage. A partial list of his own injuries included twisted ankles, a shoulder separation, and a bruised back. He was diagnosed with a fractured transverse process — a bone spur on the spine — before the 1966 Grey Cup, his first championship game after 15 years of doing battle on the frozen tundra in Regina.
“A man can’t sit out a game as important as this just because his back hurts,” he said.
The Roughriders, guided by coach Eagle Keys, defeated the Ottawa Rough Riders by 29-14, ending a half-century drought and the club’s reputation as the only eligible team not to have won the Grey Cup.
After the final whistle, delirious and undoubtedly inebriated fans rushed onto the turf at Empire Stadium in Vancouver to hoist the bruising player on their shoulders. He was captured in one photograph being offered a swig from a nearly empty bottle of Crown Royal. In the locker room, he took long pulls on bottles of champagne.
“That Keys,” he said amidst the happy tumult, “he’s the best coach I ever played for. He’s tough but he’s fair.”
Ten years earlier, on that same field, the West all-stars had defeated Eastern rivals in an end-of-season charity game. On the way home, an aircraft crashed into Mount Slesse, near Chilliwack, B.C., killing five football players, four of them Roughriders, including Gordon Sturtridge and his wife Mildred. The wreckage was not discovered for months.
Back in Regina, it fell to Mr. Atchison to tell the Sturtridge children — aged six, five and 15 months — that their parents were missing.
“It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Mr. Atchison once told the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
The green ’Riders again advanced to the Grey Cup game in 1967, losing to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Saskatchewan’s 56-year wait for a first championship would be followed by a 23-year wait for a second.
Mr. Atchison’s final game was a 25-12 loss to Calgary in the second game of a best-of-three Western Conference final in 1968.
“The only thing bad about losing is that I am a year older,” the veteran said. “But I’m still itching to attend next year’s training camp.”
He retired during that camp, ending a 17-year career that included six selections to the All-Western team. He twice won the Stack Tibbits Award as the team’s most valuable Canadian.
The Roughriders held a ceremony for their all-star middle guard at halftime during a game against Winnipeg the following season. A crowd of 16,828 in Regina gave him a standing ovation, while his team gave him a car, a snowmobile, and a colour television set.
The opposing centre presented him with an arm cast mounted on a stand. The cast had been flown across country to be autographed by players who had once been clobbered by Mr. Atchison.
Contemporary reports describe him returning to school to complete his education, having dropped out after Grade 8. He had worked on a farm as a youth. After football, he worked in the promotions and advertising department of Saskatchewan Government Insurance, later starting a carpentry business known as Atch & Son.
In 1964, as a provincial election loomed, the popular athlete tossed his football helmet into the ring. The Liberals recruited the 33-year-old Roughrider as a way to attract votes from the oldest of what would become known as the Baby Boom generation, who were eligible to vote in their first election.
The candidate acknowledged his football background helped on the hustings.
“It’s a bit easier to talk to people and I guess more are willing to let me have my say, even if they don’t agree with me politically,” he said.
The Liberal standard-bearer in North Regina conducted an unorthodox campaign. Mr. Atchison crashed an event held by his Co-operative Commonwealth Federation rival, dancing with women before helping to make sandwiches.
When his own executive held a meeting at a constituent’s home, the candidate slipped away from the boring talk. He was found in the basement rumpus room playing marbles with neighbourhood boys.
The CCF’s Ed Whelen took the seat with 4,722 votes to Mr. Atchison’s 3,867. Football referee Paul Dojack also lost his bid for a seat in a neighbouring riding, the two Liberal defeats a rare spot of bad news for a party that formed government after the election.
The following year, Mr. Atchison attended the founding meeting of the Canadian Football League Players Association in Toronto.
Mr. Atchison was inducted in 1978 into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame at Hamilton, Ont. He was also named to the Regina, Saskatoon, and Saskatchewan sports halls of fame. The team has honoured him with inclusion in the Roughriders Plaza of Honour. As well, he was named, in 1985, to the club’s all-time all-star team.
His name graces a Regina street (Atchison Crescent), a popular fishing destination in northern Saskatchewan (Atchison Lake), and a sports facility used by the Hilltops (Atchison Field).
Two related stories capture the practical spirit of a farm boy who became a football legend. It is said he arrived at his first practice with the junior team wearing rubber boots, presenting as a rather unsophisticated athlete even for a farming province. Many years later, he wore a pair of light summer shoes in a game played on an icy field in Calgary, the rubber soles offering a better grip than the metal cleats on the bottom of football boots. After the game, he crunched through the snow in the same pair of shoes to get home.
Ronald Wiliam Atchison was born on April 21, 1930, at Central Butte, Sask. He died on June 23 at Pasqua Hospital in Regina. He was 80. He leaves his second wife, Brenda, whom he married in 1989, and their son, as well as another son and two daughters from a first marriage. He is also survived by 10 grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, and two brothers. He was predeceased by a grandson.
Atchison revealed story behind gridiron mystery
The mystery lasted seven years — who was the unidentified player who kicked Dick Fouts in the groin, triggering an on-field brawl?
A 1957 preseason exhibition game in Toronto pitting the Argonauts against the visiting Saskatchewan Roughriders was memorable only for the wild scenes a few minutes from the final whistle.
Reporters were uncertain what had triggered the fight, but the result was clear — Mr. Fouts writhing on the turf of Varsity Field, another player unconscious, fist fights galore.
After the game, the Argos blamed the Roughriders and the visitors blamed the home team.
Years later, Gord Walker of the Globe got Saskatchewan’s Ron Atchison to ’fess up about his role.
“I was trying to block the punt and Fouts was blocking (me),” Mr. Atchison said. “Now he’s a big guy and he set himself with legs apart. I tried to run through him and I guess my knee banged into his groin. I can remember thinking, ‘Oh, that poor ...’
“Anyway, I didn’t block the punt. As I made sort of a semicircle to our bench, I kept looking over my shoulder. I knew if he got up, he’d be awfully upset about it. Then I saw him coming. Just before I got to our bench, I turned around. All I knew was that I was going to get in the first swing.
“But when I turned around, he had disappeared. I didn’t know then but Larry Isbell had seen him coming and rushed off the bench to tackle him.
“Our fellows were holding (Fouts) down. But I kept pulling them off and telling them that it wasn’t his fault.”
Meanwhile, Toronto’s Bobby Kuntz grabbed every Roughrider, demanding to know if they were the one who had injured Fouts.
“He finally met up with Bill Glass,” Mr. Atchison said. “When Kuntz asked Glass if he was the guy, Bill didn’t take him too seriously, I guess. He said, ‘Wha’ if I am?’ and before he could say or do anything else, Kuntz whomped him with that helmet and knocked him out.”
Somehow, the perpetrator and his victim avoided fisticuffs.
“The funny thing after that was that I think Fouts and myself were the only players who didn’t get into some kind of scuffle,” Mr. Atchison said.