MONTREAL — Tony Proudfoot, a former CFL all-star who once employed a staple gun to give his team an edge in the Grey Cup’s storied “Ice Bowl,” has died at the age of 61.
The former defensive back died Thursday after a battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a terminal, degenerative illness more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease
On the field, Proudfoot was an aggressive, yet cerebral, defender who refused to back down from a challenge — whether it was the slick, icy turf or a big-time collision.
Away from the gridiron, the former defensive back proved to be even more courageous in the face of adversity.
Proudfoot rushed to save a student’s life amid a hail of bullets at Dawson College in September 2006 and then stared down a disease he knew would claim his own.
He was diagnosed in May 2007 with ALS.
But Proudfoot, a husband and father of three, refused to sit in the shadows as his health — including his ability to breathe and speak — quickly faded.
Instead, the former sportscaster and college professor mounted a public battle through the Tony Proudfoot Fund, which has raised more than $530,000 for ALS research and patients’ families.
He penned moving, personal accounts of his struggle by writing occasional columns in the Montreal Gazette.
“That was Tony — his motto in life was, basically, ’Suck it up and no complaining’,” said Jim Simons, a longtime friend who played football alongside Proudfoot at the University of New Brunswick.
“He didn’t make that up when he got ALS. He lived his life like that.”
Proudfoot starred at defensive back for the Montreal Alouettes and B.C. Lions over 12 seasons, earning a spot on the CFL all-star team in 1977 and 1979.
He also won the 1974 and 1977 Grey Cups with the Alouettes.
His greatest football memory?
“Winning the Grey Cup in my home stadium with 69,000 fans,” Proudfoot told The Canadian Press last August in an interview, referring to the Alouettes’ 1977 victory on the frozen turf of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.
Before the game, Proudfoot popped staples into the soles of his shoes to improve his traction, an innovation that etched his name into CFL legend.
“Me and a few teammates started using them and as the game went on, most of our team were using them,” recalled Proudfoot, who conversed via a portable keyboard with a robot-like voice in recent years after ALS robbed him of his ability to speak.
“But I felt it was a big factor. I felt I had good traction, so I could play aggressively.”
Former teammate Peter Dalla Riva, who caught a touchdown in the team’s 41-6 Grey Cup win over the Edmonton Eskimos, was happy with his footwear and didn’t opt for the staples.
But those who used them believed it gave them an advantage, said Dalla Riva, a CFL Hall of Famer.
“Psychologically, if you feel good about it, hey go for it,” he said. “(Although), I don’t know if it was 35 points difference.”
Dalla Riva remembers the arrival of a fresh-faced Proudfoot at his first training camp in 1971.
He said Proudfoot, at first just a Canadian kid trying to win a roster spot, set himself apart with his intelligence and passion for the game.
“He was always trying to be an innovator,” Dalla Riva said. “He was always trying to get better, trying to (make) everybody else better.”
In September 2006, Proudfoot proved he would go to great lengths to help others, even if it meant risking his own safety.
He ran to the aid of a wounded student after a gunman opened fire at Montreal’s Dawson College, where he taught for more than three decades.
Proudfoot, whose office was just above the entrance where the shooter entered the school, said he heard the first shot.
“I looked down and saw one of the victims lying in a pool of blood,” he recalled last summer.
“I thought I could help, so I ran outside and applied first aid for about 20 minutes. I didn’t feel I was in danger, but by that time there were a lot of policemen around.”
The student, who recovered and eventually returned to school, thanked Proudfoot.
John (Tony) Proudfoot was born Sept. 10, 1949 in Winnipeg and later moved to the Montreal area, graduating from a suburban high school in the mid-1960s.
He left for the Maritimes to study physical education at the University of New Brunswick, where he was a standout with the Red Bombers. His play convinced the Alouettes to spend a draft pick on him.
Simons, one of Proudfoot’s university teammates, recalled how the rugged defensive captain’s reputation followed him off the field.
He remembered how a mutual friend, who worked for campus security, called Proudfoot a few times to help settle things down when fights broke out. It worked every time, Simons added.
“He wasn’t really big, he was just tough, really tough — and everybody knew he was tough,” he said. “He wasn’t a bully, but he would take on the bullies in life.”
Simons, an alumni organizer for the university, said Proudfoot’s decision to wage such a public fight against ALS had a big impact on so many people.
“I’ve spoken to so many former players that I played with and nobody can believe what an inspiration he’s been,” he said.
Marv Levy, who guided the Alouettes to the ’74 and ’77 Grey Cup wins, remembers Proudfoot as an upbeat, character guy who often energized his teammates.
Levy also added he was a “darned good defensive back.”
“He embodied so much of what makes the game fun,” said Levy, 85, who later moved on to a Hall of Fame coaching career in the NFL. “I coached for 47 years and Tony is among the memorable players whom I coached.”
Levy, who only found out about the staple-gun story long after the ’77 Ice Bowl, still wonders how Proudfoot and his teammates pulled off the stunt right under his nose.
“I don’t know if it’s a fable or an actual (story), but it’s something that has remained as a sort of a trademark story whenever you talk about Tony Proudfoot,” Levy said. “I was in the locker-room, I didn’t see anyone going around putting staples in their shoes.”
Larry Smith, who was recently named to the Senate, spent most of his football career alongside Proudfoot and remembered him Friday for a sports accomplishment that had nothing to do with footwear.
He said the “tough, physical football player” was lucky to have ever donned shoulder pads because he had limited vision in one eye.
“He kind of snuck himself through a physical and got himself on the field and proved he could play and people never worried about him,” Smith said in an interview.
“But very, very few people ever knew that he had limited sight, if any, in one of his eyes.
“As a football player, period, you have to have lateral vision and the ability to see peripherally on the field. And with one eye — that’s quite a challenge.”
The CFL hailed Proudfoot for his contribution on and off the field.
“What we ultimately learned from him is that you can grow physically weak and frail and yet remain incredibly strong and resilient,” commissioner Mark Cohon said in a statement.
“To know him was to know character. To see him battle was to witness courage. And to watch him interact with his wife and family, as I did when our league honoured him a few weeks ago, is to see what love looks like.”
Proudfoot leaves behind his wife Vicki and children Michael, Lindsay and Lauren.
Funeral arrangements were not immediately available.