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Emotional touchdown

Bombers connection plays minor role in TSN documentary about family

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It's part of a football documentary series on an all-sports network, but The Crash is really a family story in which football plays a rather minor role.

But that doesn’t mean sports fans should give it a miss — The Crash, which airs Friday at 7 p.m. as the fifth instalment in TSN’s Engraved on a Nation series, is a compelling tale with a distinct local connection.

The hour-long documentary, directed by Paul Cowan, follows current Calgary Stampeders lineman Edwin Harrison as he seeks out the story of his grandfather, Calvin Jones, who was one of five Canadian Football League stars killed in a plane crash the day after the league’s East-vs.-West all-star game in December 1956.

Jones, an offensive lineman for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, had just finished his rookie year in the CFL after a celebrated career in U.S. college football. He was scheduled to leave Vancouver along with four other Bombers, including Bud Grant, on an early morning flight bound for Winnipeg, but Jones overslept and was forced to catch a later flight.

That airplane, TCA flight 810, crashed in the Rocky Mountains near Chilliwack, killing all 62 aboard, including Jones and four members of the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Jones was 23.

The Crash reveals that while he was in college, Jones fathered a child; his girlfriend, Sandra Lee, was taken home by her parents after they learned of her pregnancy, and she never saw Jones again. But they never hid the fact that Jones was the father. In fact, after the football star died in the crash, Lee’s parents quickly adopted their infant grandson, fearing that Jones’s family might make a custody claim of some sort.

Years later, the two families actually became friendly, often discussing a get-together that would allow the boy, (also named Edwin), to meet his father’s family. But as The Crash illustrates, the meeting didn’t occur until a generation later, when Harrison began researching his roots and decided it was time to bring closure to the story.

The suggestion — made more than once by Harrison in the film — that Jones was on his way to establishing himself as the best offensive lineman in football history is open to discussion, but this much is clear: As a star guard at the University of Iowa, Jones was a three-time all-American, the winner of the Outland Trophy as U.S. college football’s top lineman, and the first African-American to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Because pro football opportunities were limited for black players in the U.S., Jones signed with the Bombers in 1956 (as Grant points out in the film, many American players of that era also opted to cross the border because the CFL paid more than the NFL).

Interestingly, Jones’s intention after the 1956 CFL all-star game was to travel to Winnipeg, collect his belongings and head south, making his way to Los Angeles in time to watch his alma mater, Iowa, play Oregon State in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 — a game the Hawkeyes dedicated to Jones after his death and won 35-19 on the strength of an MVP performance by quarterback Ken Ploen, who would join the Bombers’ roster in 1957 under new head coach Bud Grant.

The Crash doesn’t delve quite this deep into local gridiron history; as a football story, in fact, it struggles somewhat because there’s so little footage that shows Jones — an offensive lineman, not a quarterback or running back — in action.

But as a story about a family and connections and closure, it’s a touching film. It’s particularly moving to see Harrison finally arrange the long-overdue meeting of his grandparents’ families, and to see his father — Jones’s son — speak about what it means.

"I really have found out as much about Calvin as I’m ever going to find out," Harrison says at the film’s end. "It’s not everything, but it is enough for me. I’ve learned about family, and I’ve learned a great deal about myself."

And that’s why it’s not important that The Crash isn’t really a film about football.

 brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter:@BradOswald

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