To celebrate the 100th Grey Cup, TSN presents ‘Engraved on a Nation,’ a series of documentaries highlighting eight indelible moments in the history of the CFL’s ultimate prize. TSN.ca producer Shane McNeil presents a feature story on how each of these stories was brought to the screen.
Originally published on TSN.ca – October 16, 2012.
While Chuck Ealey is best remembered as the first African-American quarterback to lead his team to a Grey Cup, his story is about much more than firsts.
Ealey – who was signed by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats after being passed over in the 1972 NFL Draft – came to Canada with a point to prove.
His journey from a Portsmouth, Ohio youth – a town that actually had a ‘wrong side of the tracks’ – to a CFL great is the focus of Charles Officer’s Engraved on a Nation documentary “Stone Thrower: The Chuck Ealey Story”.
“When you look at youth in the ghettoes across Canada, across the United States and across the globe, there’s a bunch of youth in there that only need an opportunity,” said Officer, a Genie-nominated filmmaker.
Opportunity is the central current that flows throughout “Stone Thrower”.
The film marks the third sports documentary from Officer to examine success on Canadian soil. His 2008 doc “Mighty Jerome” won acclaim with its examination of former 100-metre world record holder Harry Jerome, while it was his next project – “Fuelled by Passion: The Return of the Jets” – that led him to the Engraved on a Nation series.
Officer then hooked up with Gordon Henderson of 90th Parallel Films who was also pitching ideas for the series. Henderson – an Ottawa native and lifelong CFL fan – started brainstorming with Officer and Ealey’s story grabbed him immediately.
Officer found immediate parallels with Ealey’s daughter Jael Richardson, who was writing a book about her father (entitled “The Stone Thrower”, a link that Officer would draw upon). She was just learning the details of her father’s life herself as Officer was researching the film.
“She didn’t get to see him play,” said Officer. “I wouldn’t have been able to see him play, so this whole other discovery of another generation that has contributed towards my pathway as well.”
Ealey’s legend still looms large in Ohio.
After leading the University of Toledo Rockets on an incredible 35-0 run over his final three seasons at the school, Ealey set his sights on quarterbacking at the highest possible level. He was in prime position to do so, as well, finishing eighth in Heisman Trophy voting as a senior.
When NFL teams expressed reluctance to draft him as a quarterback, Ealey set his sights on becoming a star in the Canadian game.
The journey north – one that, as Officer points out, has tangible connections to the Underground Railroad that led freed slaves to Canada during the Civil War – would land Ealey with a serious chance to shine.
“There are places around this country that people can come to and not be afraid and they’ll be respected to a degree more so than they’ve experienced,” Officer says of Ealey’s move to Hamilton.
“They’ll be given the opportunity and they’ll be given the benefit of the doubt…It’s pretty telling and it’s not just in sports.”
While Canada would offer Ealey opportunity, he would repay the nation in his very first CFL season with one of the most incredible stories in a century’s worth of Grey Cup finals.
Ealey would lead the Ticats to an 11-3 record despite a rocky first few games in the league. Ealey’s athleticism and ability to think quickly under pressure would suit the league perfectly, setting the table for a date with one of the game’s all-time greats: the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ Ron Lancaster.
“This rookie just comes in and it’s like a David and Goliath story,” Officer said. “The veteran, he’s kicked butt, he’s won championships and then this rookie kid comes up from the United States, this black kid.”
But Ealey’s perseverance would rear its head as the seconds wound down, in a thrilling finish.
“He’s this guy that would always create these drives at the last minute of games,” Officer said. “He would never defeat himself before the buzzer sounded.” Ealey would hit Tony Gabriel on three successive plays helping set up a 34-yard game-winning field goal by Ian Sunter.
Hamilton won the Cup with a 13-10 victory while Ealey would claim the game’s Most Outstanding Player Award.
It marked Ealey’s first foray into the Canadian game and his most successful season as a professional and the accomplishment wasn’t lost on him, nor is it lost on Officer.
“He got 35 (straight) wins (in College), that’s not easy. To carry that in and not be swayed and be thinking about: ‘man I should be playing in the NFL’. The guy came in and he fought and, the Grey Cup,” Officer said, “to win that as a rookie, it’s incredible. You can’t write that stuff better.”
Ealey’s CFL career would last just seven years, ending with a collapsed lung in 1978.
To Ealey and his family, however, there was no question as to where they would settle after his football days were done.
“After Chuck finished football, it wasn’t like ‘should we go back to the States?’ We wanted to stay here,” Sherri Ealey, Chuck’s wife said in the film. “We’re Americans by birth. We’re Canadians by choice.”
Ealey’s journey that started in the segregationist United States made its way to Canada and in the end, provided him with the opportunity he’d been looking for all along.
“I think it’s pretty clear for Chuck that Canada is a place where the American dream can be accomplished,” Officer jokes.
But he comes back around to Canada as a place where opportunities can be realized. Canada has been affording opportunity for generations, from freed slaves to professional athletes to everyone in between.
“We don’t talk about a ‘Canadian dream,'” Officer said. “We don’t boast about this place.”
But he points to a nation that let Ealey fulfill his professional dream, the same way it embraced a young Jackie Robinson in the 1940s. “It was a place where he could raise his family, it was a place where he had the opportunity to play the game that he loved, ultimately, and because of his success as a quarterback led him to prosper,” Officer said.
Ealey remains active in the Greater Toronto Area where he works as a motivational speaker and devotes his time to numerous community initiatives.