No more feature-length docs on Canadian TV? Here’s a surprise

TSN was at the Hot Docs fest Friday to tub-thump for an upcoming eight-part series of original docs by award-winning directors like Barry Greenwald, John Walker, Shelley Saywell and Larry Weinstein about the CFL and Grey Cup.

U.S. college football player Chuck Ealey in 1972 had over three years as a starting quarterback at the University of Toledo posted a perfect record of 35 wins.

An unbeaten NCAA record like that would today earn a young football star a Nike endorsement deal and a contract as a rookie National Football League quarterback.

But Ealey in 1972 was undefeated, and he was African-American.

And the NFL in 1972 wasn’t making African-Americans quarterbacks.

“When they asked me to run a 40-yard dash, and they didn’t ask a quarterback to do that, I kind of got the idea, that was it,” Ealey told Playback Daily about an NFL Kansas City Chiefs tryout as he attended a TSN press conference at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto.

So not wanting to become a defensive back in the NFL, Ealey, who had a college degree from the University of Toledo and felt he had destiny in his hands, in early 1972 accepted an invitation from Ralph Sazio, general manager of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, to consider playing in a Canadian Football League he knew little about.

“Ralph’s scout told me, if I was to come up to Canada, we could talk contracts,” Ealey remembered.

And before long, Ealey as a CFL rookie for the Tiger-Cats in the summer and fall of 1972 led his team to a 11-3 season, before the team won the Grey Cup championship game.

Ealey’s story, of helping break the colour barrier in the NFL by achieving the American dream in Canada, is the subject of Charles Officer’s The Chuck Ealey Story, one of eight original documentaries commissioned by TSN to celebrate the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup game.

TSN president Stewart Johnston told the Hot Docs presser that Engraved on a Nation, an umbrella title for the doc series to air on TSN, CTV and in French on the RDS channel, will use human stories to probe how a simple game can move a nation, and reflect its culture and character.

“Their names are on the Grey Cup, but beyond the inscription are stories that captured a nation,” Johnston said Friday.

The TSN doc series follows the example of ESPN’s 30 for 30 film series, which feature thirty sports-themed films by top story-tellers.

Other award-winning doc makers to turn their cameras on the historic Grey Cup game include Paul Cowan, whose film The Crash of Flight 810 portrays Calgary Stampeders rookie lineman Edwin Harrison on an emotional journey to discover the life of a grandfather he never knew, Cal Jones, who died in a 1956 plane crash that also claimed the lives of four other Canadian football players.

“It’s a complicated story, but it does end up in football,” Cowan insisted Friday while helping promote the TSN doc series at Hot Docs.

Elsewhere, Shelley Saywell directed The Anthony Calvillo Story, an against-all-odds tale of a poor Hispanic boy from east Los Angeles that set a passing record for a professional quarterback with the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL.

“He’s (Calvillo) the real deal. He fights through everything in his career, and wins three Grey Cups for this country,” Saywell said of her film’s subject, who even briefly quit the game a few years back when his wife endured a cancer scare.

Other doc directors that use their story-telling tools to deal with the issues, people, teams, or events behind the CFL and the Grey Cup game include Manfred Becker, Barry Greenwald, Christie Callan-Jones, John Walker and Larry Weinstein, whose film, The 13th Fan, examines the epic bonds between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and their fans.

For CFL commissioner Mark Cohon, the doc series is perfect for celebrating the 100th anniversary of the fabled Grey Cup game.

“We want those stories to be told and in a voice that these filmmakers do well,” Cohon told the TSN presser.

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