Former Stampeders star Ezzrett Anderson dies at age 97

A Calgary Stampeders helmet. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

CALGARY — Ezzrett (Sugarfoot) Anderson, one of the first African-Americans to play professional football in North America, died Wednesday. He was 97.

The Calgary Stampeders, who Anderson played with for six seasons, made the announcement on their Twitter account.

“It is with great sadness that we learn of the death of Stamps legend Ezzrett (Sugarfoot) Anderson today at the age of 97 RIPSuagrfoot,” the club tweeted.

The six-foot-four Anderson played with Calgary from 1949 until 1955. After his playing days, Anderson remained with the organization as a ticket-account representative and ambassador.

Anderson registered 142 receptions for 2,020 yards and 10 TDs with Calgary. He was added to the Stampeders’ Wall of Fame in 1990 and inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame in 2010.

“Sugarfoot is an iconic figure in Stampeders history,” president and general manager John Hufnagel said in a statement. “He was a link to the early days of the franchise and he was a frequent and welcome presence at McMahon Stadium and Stampeders functions for many years.

“He will be sorely missed and we offer our condolences to his family and his many, many friends.”

Eric Fraser, a defensive back with the B.C. Lions who spent his first four CFL seasons with Calgary (2010-13) paid tribute to Anderson on Twitter.

“RIP. True Legend,” Fraser tweeted.

CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge offered his condolences to Anderson’s family and friends in a statement.

“Some of our fans remember the tremendous on-field quickness that earned him his nickname. Many more remember how quick he was to share a story, a smile or a helping hand,” Orridge said. “All of us at the CFL are sad at the news of his passing and extend our sympathies to his family and countless friends.”

In 1949, it appeared Anderson’s football career was over.

The former Kentucky State star — who had earned the nickname Sugarfoot for his deft skills and speed — had played semi-pro football in the Los Angeles area during the mid-1940s. But by ’49, Anderson had embarked on an acting career.

It was in between takes on a movie set when Anderson met up with Woody Strode — a former teammate also turned actor — who was accompanied by then Stampeders head coach Les Lear.

“Woody told Les Lear I was the greatest tight end in the world,” Anderson recalled in a story on the Stampeders’ website. “So they talked me into coming to Calgary.

“That is how I became a Stampeder.”

At the time of the meeting, Anderson had never heard of Calgary. But ultimately, it’s where the native of Nashville, Ark., called home, settling there after his playing days were over.

Ironically, Strode and former UCLA teammate Kenny Washington made history when they signed with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946. Prior to that, there had not been a black player in the NFL since the 1933 season.

Strode spent one season with the Rams before landing in Calgary in 1948, helping the Stampeders win the first Grey Cup in franchise history.

Anderson earned all-star honours in his first CFL season. He also had no problem speaking up, especially after Lear — a player-coach at the time — jumped offside in a game against the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

“I was the captain of the team,” Anderson said. “And I walked up to him and I said, `If you ever jump offside like that again, I’m going to choke you.’

“He looked at me and he said, ‘I’ll never do it again, Sugar.'”

Calgary reached the Grey Cup that year, only to lose to the Montreal Alouettes. But a surprise awaited Anderson and his teammates upon their return home.

“What impressed me about the people in this city is that 60,000 people were waiting for us at the station,” he said. “And we lost.

“I was wondering if we had won the game. The population at that time was 125,000. I wonder what would have happened if we had won the game. That was one of my favourite memories.”

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