The first time I met Rob Ford was at a football field. It was hours before the kick-off Toronto District Catholic School Board’s 2010 divisional championship game at Esther Shiner Stadium in North York, not far from where he grew up and played his own high school football.
He wore a melton and leather varsity jacket over his shirt-and-tie and dress pants with “Coach” scripted on the sleeve. Earlier in the week he’d won the Mayor’s office in landslide, completing his unlikely rise from rogue conservative councillor to leader of Canada’s biggest and most diverse city.
But for now he had a big game he wanted to focus on. He looked the part of any volunteer minor sports coach. A little harried. He was multi-tasking. We talked football and he was signing welcome letters to the 44 city councillors who would be taking office with him.
He was excited about the game and proud of the kids he’d coached in some capacity or another for years after starting the football program from scratch in 2001 or 2002, giving generously of his time and money to do so.
“Discipline, hard work, no nonsense,” was how he described his program to me. “They’re rough-and-ready kids. And you need to keep them on a short leash.”
This being 2010, well before the personal stumbles and scandals that made him one of the most famous figures on the planet, the irony was lost on me at the time.
Not surprisingly the former offensive lineman favoured “smash-mouth” football, a style an opposing coach described as “pretty predictable.”
Rob Ford the man and politician, was anything but as I was about to find out, along with just about everyone else on Earth. How and why he did the things he did, who could really claim to understand?
But Rob Ford the guy, the coach, the fan? He was easy to understand. Anyone who has ever spent any time around sports knows a guy like Rob Ford: A fan who liked a few too many drinks and loved his teams; a former player who sometimes preferred the simplicity of having it out, man-to-man, on the spot, rather than having to actually go through the effort of coming to an agreement.
He seemed to share the same values as Don Cherry, who was his natural choice to drape the chain of office on Ford at his inaugural council meeting.
Rob Ford, football coach, was central to the caring, everyman image he presented to the public when he ran for office. Those close to him would say if you knew him as a coach, you knew him as a person.
Even that was complicated, however. Ford once got himself in hot water when he told a newspaper that Jerome Miller, a former star running back at Don Bosco, would be “dead or in jail” if he hadn’t played football.
The only problem was that Miller was an honour student from a strong family who had never been in trouble with the law. But even Miller said he appreciated Ford as a coach whose heart was in the right place.
“He does do a whole lot, more than people see, behind closed doors for these kids,” Miller, who came back to coach at Don Bosco, told the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale. “Helps them out if they need any help, for any reason at all. He’s the first one that’ll be there for them.”
Ford went out a loser that afternoon as Don Bosco fell 28-7 to rival Chaminade. It was widely thought to be Ford’s farewell to coaching, as everyone presumed that as Mayor he wouldn’t be able to find the time.
He couldn’t let go, continuing to coach throughout the first two years of his term as mayor. He probably shouldn’t have. His routine absences from City Hall so he could attend practice was one of the first cracks that led reporters to dig even deeper into numerous inconsistencies in how he spent his time as Mayor.
Eventually, as things always seemed to with Ford, his misadventures caught up with him. The TDCSB dismissed him as a volunteer football coach after an investigation found Ford holding practices when he wasn’t permitted, threatening a teacher physically and showing up intoxicated at a practice.
But Ford was a huge sports fan too, and it’s where he seemed most comfortable. At the peak of his infamy he sat among the crowd at the Toronto Argonauts 2013 Eastern Conference semifinal and soaked in the attention as waves of fellow football fans made their way to have their picture taken. While other troubled politicians needed to manufacture a photo op in tough times, Ford just had to don a team jersey, grab his tickets and go to the game, the everyman personified.
He loved hockey too, and was a proud Toronto Maple Leafs season ticket holder. His behaviour at games gave one of the earliest insights that Ford might have some demons. He was asked to leave the ACC after being intoxicated at a game and verbally harassing a fellow ticket holder. Ford’s first response? Loudly claim he was never in the building, the kind of bold denial that became his trademark as events unraveled around. He eventually came clean and apologized, another tactic that became familiar.
“I reflected on it last night, and talked to my family. I came forward and admitted it. That’s all I can do. I mean, I’m not perfect,” Ford said.
The rest of the time he was a more conventional fan, though with a bigger audience. As the Leafs struggled he took to Twitter to urge the Leafs to hire Mike Babcock, one of his better calls.
Basketball? Hey, Rob Ford was on stage and in office when the Toronto Raptors were awarded the NBA All-Star game. He was seated, sweating profusely, beside Drake, who was announced as the Raptors global ambassador that day. It was perhaps one of the few moments the Toronto musician had to play second fiddle to anyone.
The last time I met Rob Ford he looked far more comfortable. It was at Rogers Centre where Ford took in the epic fifth game of the Blue Jays’ ALDS against the Texas Rangers. His scandals seemed distant. As he battled the cancer that claimed his turbulent, unforgettable life on Tuesday at just 46, he had slipped from the public eye. This was one of the few times he’d been seen out and about since the 2014 election, but he wasn’t there in any public capacity.
He was at the Rogers Centre early, like any true fan, the distinction being perhaps that he had somehow scored a front-row seat behind home plate for the biggest Blue Jays game in 22 years. But he wasn’t posing. He was standing up against the protective netting directly behind home plate, watching batting practice. We exchanged some pleasantries. He said he was feeling as well as could be expected. He was optimistic about the Blue Jays chances.
Removed from controversy, his illness momentarily forgotten, a big game to look forward to, Rob Ford looked happy.
May he rest in peace.