October 19, 2019

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Remembering a legend

Children of former Bombers great recall man behind Hall of Fame career

As a kid growing up in Winnipeg during the 1960s, Ernie Foort was always drawn to the Blue Bombers and one of their biggest stars.

"Ernie Pitts was my favourite player, probably because he was the only other Ernie I'd ever heard of, or knew of," says Foort. "Other than on Sesame Street."

That apparently random connection to the local football star had an eerie, supernatural feel to it years later when Foort, who had been adopted as a three-month-old, became aware that he was actually the football legend's son, the product of a relationship between Pitts, a native of Aliquippa, Pa., and his birth mom, Alex Bako, a Winnipegger.

Although he has no memory of ever meeting Pitts, the connection to his birth father was cemented in 1974. Foort, a Grade 9 student at St. John's Cathedral Boys School at the time, remembers meeting three members of the Blue Bombers who came to visit, unannounced.

As a kid growing up in Winnipeg during the 1960s, Ernie Foort was always drawn to the Blue Bombers and one of their biggest stars.

"Ernie Pitts was my favourite player, probably because he was the only other Ernie I'd ever heard of, or knew of," says Foort. "Other than on Sesame Street."

That apparently random connection to the local football star had an eerie, supernatural feel to it years later when Foort, who had been adopted as a three-month-old, became aware that he was actually the football legend's son, the product of a relationship between Pitts, a native of Aliquippa, Pa., and his birth mom, Alex Bako, a Winnipegger.

Although he has no memory of ever meeting Pitts, the connection to his birth father was cemented in 1974. Foort, a Grade 9 student at St. John's Cathedral Boys School at the time, remembers meeting three members of the Blue Bombers who came to visit, unannounced.

CFL Hall of Fame inductee Ernie Pitts' children Wanda Guenette, rear, and Ernie Foort, front, with Foort's daughters Ocean, left, and Autumn.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

CFL Hall of Fame inductee Ernie Pitts' children Wanda Guenette, rear, and Ernie Foort, front, with Foort's daughters Ocean, left, and Autumn.

"The next thing I know, I'm doing clean-up duty and I see three of the biggest people I'd ever seen in my life," says Foort, who is unable to recall the visitors' names. "I was introduced to them and I remember the first guy stood up and shook my hand and he said, 'I played with your daddy and he was a really fine fellow.' That's when I realized, I guess I am Ernie Pitts' kid.

"I've seen pictures of Ernie and I do have his crooked smile."

ERNIE PITTS BY THE NUMBERS

Click to Expand

Played 194 regular-season games and 24 playoff games in 13 seasons with the Blue Bombers

Played receiver from 1957 to '64 before switching to defensive back in 1965

Chosen a West Division all-star at receiver in 1957, '59 and '60

Named a West Division all-star at defensive back in '65, '66 and '67

In 1959, led CFL with 68 receptions for 1,126 yards and 16 TDs

Career numbers: 55 TDs (54 receiving), 331 points, 5,525 receiving yards on 337 receptions, averaging 16.4 yards per catch, four fumble recoveries, 17 interceptions

Pitts was a superb receiver and defensive back during a 14-year CFL career spent mostly with the Blue Bombers during their glory years in the late '50s and '60s. Later this year, he will be inducted posthumously, with four other players and two builders, into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

The five-time West Division all-star died on Sept. 24, 1970 at the age of 35, killed after being shot in the neck by his estranged wife, Ethel Pitts, during a domestic dispute at their home in Thornton, Colo.

Ethel Pitts, who had five children with her husband, was later acquitted of a murder charge. Foort has never met any of his American sibings and adds, "I've never had the desire to meet the lady who took my father's life."

The formal induction ceremonies for this year’s Hall of Fame class will be held in Hamilton on Aug. 9. The Hall of Fame game is slated for Tim Hortons Field on Aug. 10 when the Tiger-Cats host the B.C. Lions.

Pitts, who played his final season with the B.C. Lions in 1970, made six appearances in the Grey Cup game with the Bombers (1957, '58, '59, '61, '62, '65) and won four times — in 1958, '59, '61 and '62.

In an era where the league was more heavily devoted to the run game, Pitts caught 68 passes and scored 16 touchdowns in 1959 and also caught 62 passes in 1962. He also hauled in a club record five touchdown passes in a game on Aug. 29, 1959 and also once scored on a 107-yard touchdown pass-and-run play.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers Cec Luining (No. 73), Roger Savoie (62), Ernie Pitts (77), and Ron Meadmore celebrate a Western Final Victory over The Edmonton Eskimos in the late 1950s.

PHOTO COURTESY OF HUGH ALLAN

Winnipeg Blue Bombers Cec Luining (No. 73), Roger Savoie (62), Ernie Pitts (77), and Ron Meadmore celebrate a Western Final Victory over The Edmonton Eskimos in the late 1950s.

Although he has scant photographic evidence of his father's football career, the impact Pitts had on the gridiron was hammered home as an adult when Foort was able to watch one of his Grey Cup games.

"Years and years later I was living in Vancouver and I got a call at 3 o'clock in the morning from a buddy and he said, 'Ernie, you've gotta put on CBC.' I don't remember what game it was but I remember watching my dad play and it gave me chills up and down my spine. It was surreal."

Foort's experience went from surreal to the sublime in 2003, when he met his half sister, Wanda Guenette.

"As soon as I saw her, I knew she was my sister," says Foort, 59, who works in automotive sales and also maintains a sideline as an actor, with roles in The X-Files TV series to his credit and, most recently, in the locally produced movie, Breakthrough, starring Chrissy Metz. "It was like looking at my own eyes but in a different body."

Guenette, 56, is one of the most recognizable and accomplished athletes in Manitoba history.

She played for Canada's national women's volleyball team at the 1996 Summer Olympics, won a national championship at the University of Winnipeg in 1983 and was inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame in 2014.

Pitts, center, reviews the playbook with two rookies.

PHOTO COURTESY OF HUGH ALLAN

Pitts, center, reviews the playbook with two rookies.

She continues her active lifestyle a fitness trainer while also coaching and playing beach volleyball at an elite level.

"I grew up with my mom," says Guenette, admitting she has no recollection of meeting her birth father yet their connection was not a secret. "When I was younger (I knew about him) but most of the stuff I learned was from people who knew of him or played with him."

Guenette sees alot of herself in Pitts — "Same body type, some of the same athletic moves" — and takes great pride in his accomplishments and longevity in the game.

"I kinda feel like it's about time," she says of the HOF honour. "He held most of those records until Milt Stegall came around and he still holds one."

She has also never met any of her American siblings but meeting her brother Ernie was special.

"It was emotional but as soon as I saw him I knew," says Guenette. "I knew we had siblings in Denver but I didn't know about him at all. He knew about me before I knew about him."

Pitts runs for yardage against the Saskatchewan Roughriders in undated photo. Pitts' career numbers include 55 touchdowns and 5,525 receiving yards.

PHOTO COURTESY OF HUGH ALLAN

Pitts runs for yardage against the Saskatchewan Roughriders in undated photo. Pitts' career numbers include 55 touchdowns and 5,525 receiving yards.

Foort is planning to attend the HOF induction ceremony in August and Guenette is seriously consider making the trip.

"I've often wondered why he wasn't in the Hall of Fame earlier, because I know he put up some great stats and won the Grey Cup four times with the Bombers — five touchdowns in a game, the longest touchdown reception... which is pretty impressive."

Foort has also passed on his knowledge of Pitts to his daughters, 13-year-old Autumn, and nine-year-old Ocean. Both are athletes in their own right.

"What's really cool is my kids... they've both grown up knowing who their grandfather is," says Foort. "Even though he's been gone since 1970, he's always been around. They know their geneology for sure."

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Sports Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Wednesday, April 24, 2019 at 7:21 PM CDT: Fixes typo.

April 27, 2019 at 1:18 PM: fixed a pair of typos

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