Arts & Life
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Like most sports fans these days, Ralph Wild is trying to find other ways to fill the void in his life. With leagues around the globe on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic and no live games to watch, flipping through the channels is mostly an exercise in frustration.
"It's got to a point where everything is centred around sport, I think. When I have the TV on, most of the day I'm watching sports. I watch the news of course, some nature programs, but sports was the main thing," Wild says.
"But now that there's no sports on so what do we have? I don't even bother turning the TV on much anymore, to be honest."
A trivial matter in the grand scheme of life, sure, but you'll forgive Wild if his patience might be running a little thin. You see, the Winnipeg man is 101 years old.
Wild is believed to be the last remaining survivor of the Battle of Britain in the Second World War, joining the Air Force at the age of 20 and then moving from England to Canada in 1950 at the age of 32. He immediately fell in love with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers when his father-in-law began taking him to Osborne Stadium with tickets just three rows behind the bench.
"I used to go to all their practices, too. The way they lined up I could tell the kind of play they were going to run. I got to know most of the people on the team," he recalls.
Wild has been attending live games every season since, which now involves a nearly six-hour round-trip to IG Field and back. And he's not very happy knowing a 70th straight summer of watching three-down football is very much in jeopardy, in addition to news that the CFL itself could be in big trouble without a financial bailout from the federal government.
"It sounds like they're in pretty poor shape right now. I don't think they're going to be playing this year. I can't see it. I can't see it at all," he says, describing himself as "the oldest Blue Bombers supporter in existence."
"I'm so thankful to them. They've had their ups and downs, but at least we got the Grey Cup last year, finally," he said.
The admiration goes both ways, with the Bombers treating Wild as a VIP of sorts. In recent years, the senior formed a strong bond with Paul LaPolice, who lives near his All Seniors Care facility in north Winnipeg.
LaPolice, who left his job as the team's offensive co-ordinator this past winter to become head coach of the Ottawa Redblacks, attended Wild's 100th birthday celebration in 2018. A few weeks later, the coach and his wife Tina invited him for dinner, along with the team's entire offensive line.
"It was really cool to meet him and hear him talk about all the seasons of the Bombers. He's been to all the games. I remember he had a long talk with Paddy Neufeld, because Paddy had a grandfather in the war. So they were telling war stories," says LaPolice, who remains in Winnipeg, for now, with the 2020 season still up in the air.
Wild now regularly stops by their home on his daily strolls to chat in the driveway about football, and life, and anything else under the sun. LaPolice said this kind of unlikely friendship is what makes the CFL so great, calling it "as mom and pop football as it gets."
Despite his advanced age, Wild is sharp as a tack and a walking encyclopedia of all things Bombers. He rattles off the names of past coaches and players with ease, and said Bud Grant will always be his favourite bench boss.
"He was the cat's whiskers. He was a marvellous chap," says Wild. "He had his players under his thumb. They just worshipped him. You did what you were told, or else. If they made a mistake he'd just point at them, and they knew. I think he was the best coach of all."
Most recently, he loved the play-calling of LaPolice and head coach Mike O'Shea and how they played off the very different strengths of quarterbacks Zach Collaros and Chris Streveler.
"That quarterback we got (Collaros, in a trade with Toronto), I like him very much. He's the best quarterback I've seen in quite some time. And I've gone through quite a few quarterbacks in my time," he says, chuckling.
Wild never played football, at least not the North American variety, but was a talented soccer player in his day who used to attend Sheffield United games in England with his father. Following the war and his move to Canada, Wild began coaching a boys youth team here, then helped get a girls program started in the city.
"Girls soccer has really taken off and taken over. I'm very pleased about that," he says.
Wild has been keeping busy with books, puzzles and a variety of other activities at his assisted-living facility, but hopes to get the competitive juices flowing again soon by having something to cheer for, either in person or on television.
Sure, sports will come back eventually, but the sooner the better for the oldest living Blue Bombers fan, who is very much in hurry up-and-wait mode even if he admits things look bleak for the foreseeable future.
"I can see where the world's going and it's not very good," he says. "My father always said — and he was quite right, too — 'If you live with nature, nature will live with you. but if you defy nature, she'll kick back at you.'
"But we'll keep our fingers crossed."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
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