Tom Barbeau fought back tears as he accepted his induction into the McGill University Sports Hall of Fame, Thursday. The former football running back was among five honourees at a luncheon presided over by Dick Pound and John Cleghorn. Read on to find out why Barbeau was emotional, and then offer up your comment on University athletics. Who’s the best University athlete you ever saw? And why are University sports still relevant?
I still remember walking to high school in the NDG district of Montreal in the mid-70’s, and talking with friends about Tom Barbeau’s exploits on the football field. He was a local boy who was playing for the McGill Redmen football team, and for a few weeks every fall, his name would be splashed across the sports pages of The Gazette and The Montreal Star.
He was just 5’ 8’’, but boy was he strong, and could he run! Barbeau scored 25 touchdowns over four seasons at McGill. Among other distinctions, he smashed the school’s records for rushing yards (1,959) and carries (388). He was the team’s Most Valuable Player in 1976, and was an all-star three times.
So it was a thrill to meet him in person for the first time yesterday, as he was inducted into McGill’s Sports Hall Fame, an annual event where I have the privilege to act as Master of Ceremonies. In a short, but poignant acceptance speech, Barbeau wished that his parents were still alive to be part of the ceremony. He said they had a deep love for the school, which they passed onto him. The reference to his mother choked him up, as did his last thought, which was about his battle with cancer. This week marks the first anniversary of the end of his chemo treatments. Reflecting on having this opportunity to be surrounded by former teammates, his former coach Charlie Baillie, his “best friends” and his family, Barbeau was overcome with emotion. So was the rest of the room.
Though the long curly hair is long gone, Barbeau still looks fit enough to play football. And when he speaks with the conviction and ease that he possesses, he stands well over 6 feet tall. What we can ‘t see is the suffering that he must have endured in battling his illness. Yet, the connection with his roots and the reminders of the passage of time were strong enough to dent his armor on stage.
University sports, when played and organized at their best, can provide a life-transforming experience. Barbeau’s Hall of Fame moment, and many others that I have witnessed over the years, are testament to that.
On Thursday, we also heard former basketball star Ann Gildenhuys say that her strongest memories from Mcgill are from her time in the Currie Gym. Born in 1974, she’s one of the youngest inductees, recognized for being the 2nd highest scorer in McGill history (2,199 points) and for averaging 16.8 points per game. She made the Principal’s student-athlete Honour Roll as she earned a degree in mechanical engineering. In her first year, she tried out for the basketball team – expecting to be cut and to return to volleyball. But the coaching staff saw potential and a remarkable work ethic. On Thursday, she thanked them for being patient with her, and ultimately letting her blossom into the dominating player she became. Gildenhuys attended the ceremony with her children and her husband, a rugby player she met at the school.
Another inductee, hockey player Pierre Gendron also met his wife while at McGill. He still had another year of Junior hockey eligibility in 1994 when he decided to join the McGill team.
“It’s the best choice I ever made,” he said.
Despite only playing three seasons, Gendron graduated as the fourth highest scorer in school history. He also won the Guy Lafleur Trophy as the Quebec player who best combines hockey and academics.
But the statistics aren’t what he remembers most. He talked about the life-long friendships, and the values of integrity and determination he learned from his teammates.
Those same values were also brought to the school half a century earlier, when the late Vic Obeck arrived at McGill. Inducted posthumously as a Builder, the former football coach and athletic director transformed how football was played — both at the school and across Canada. He introduced the “open huddle”, breaking the closed circle that had been the norm. He also made significant changes to the seating capacity at Molson Stadium, planting the seeds for the success Montrealers see today with their football stadium on the hill. One of his former players, Shorty Fairhead, spoke to how Obeck “changed the attitude toward the game here’”, and introduced the notion that when players tackle, they should “hit without missing, and hit hard.”
And so, indeed, the luncheon is all about the transformative power of games like football, basketball, and hockey.