VANCOUVER — Over the course of my career as a chronicler and a story-teller, I have come to appreciate that sometimes we are met by those moments when seemingly disparate elements quite suddenly become so harmonious that all we need to do is collectively close our eyes, take a deep breath and smile.
On Friday night, I had one of those perfect moments.
Just after 10 p.m. that evening, in the midst of making the final few additions to my weekly B.C. High School Football Report, an e-mail arrived from an old friend, Wilson Wong, who had sent a greeting along with four photographs.
It was when I clicked open the third one that I experienced one of those aforementioned perfect moments, and this early Sunday, as I begin to type well ahead of the morning dawn, literally all I need to write this story on my laptop computer is to have that photo visible on a nearby iPad screen as my trusted muse.
Oh, by the way, it’s the cover shot of this story, but I’m going to break tradition and include it a number of times within this story as much for reference as plain, old fun.
It’s all about a man our B.C. high school sports community all knows and loves so well.
Happy and belated 75th birthday, George Oswald!
Even if you’ve got nothing more than a passing interest in the tight-knit community of B.C. high school football, you may have become aware that on Friday, Notre Dame Secondary in East Vancouver finally checked off every box along its journey to christen it’s brand-new, first-ever on-campus football field.
We have written about it in some form or fashion over the last decade or so, yet its journey to fruition, through its various levels of government and neighbourhood approvals, had been so painstakingly slow that it, on so many levels, ceased to become the kind of story a sports fan cared about.
Yet when it’s opening day finally arrived, delayed by all things, the late delivery of padding which needed to be applied to part of a wall which surrounded the field, all those perfect ingredients had somehow come together.
Over the course of just under a week, it became known that the Jugglers’ Oct. 22 game against one of its traditional rivals, the New Westminster Hyacks, would serve as the opening.
And of course, it also just happened to coincide with the 75th birthday of the guy in that picture.
Yes, George Oswald.
And so right about now, as a bit of a history lesson for those who might not happen to know, Oswald has been a part of Notre Dame football since the day he first came to the school as a 14-year-old in the fall of 1960.
He not only played for the school, but upon graduation joined its coaching staff in time for the 1964 season… and he’s been there ever since.
And that’s why when I saw first saw Wong’s photograph, so perfectly cropped as to make time stand still, I could not help but think how incredibly poignant it actually was.
Notre Dame opened on its one-and-only location, within its proud East Vancouver neighbourhood, in the fall of 1953, and although it has won more B.C. high school championships than any other school — a feat it accomplished in Auerbachian fashion with nine finals appearances and seven titles from 1977-89 — it had most amazingly of all, in 68 years, never had a football field on its own property as a central gathering point for its campus community.
Instead, it built its character and legend by practicing on an uneven, dust- and mud-filled dirt field.
So on the day that its new field finally opened, the program’s most enduring face, just happened to be celebrating his milestone 75th birthday?
Wow. Just, wow.
So then I look at the picture again.
George Oswald, the man who led Notre Dame to a record eight B.C. high school football championship titles over his head coaching career, is seated on his haunches like a high schooler, just as he would have been had that photo been taken in his senior year back in the fall of 1963.
I look to the young man at the far right, Jugglers’ senior running back/linebacker Giancarlo Garcea, who with a clenched teenage fist, is staring so proudly back at his coach.
Any one of those players could have been George Oswald back in ’63, and anyone of them could be sitting where he is, on that very same field, on a cold, wet day in 2079 when those seniors all turn 75.
It’s a photograph that to me, when viewed through that prism, blankets me with a kind of comfort. It tells me why high school sports matter, and why high school sports need to be protected with everything we’ve got.
“I’ll use your phrase and tell you that it was an awesome day,” the old ball coach told me Friday night, borrowing the cel phone of the team’s head coach Denis Kelly, following the Jugglers’ win over the Hyacks.
“They recognized me before the game,” continued Oswald.
“And then they made sure I was included in the pictures before the game.”
Now, in case you are wondering, Oswald is a wonderfully sentimental family man, but he is also stoic, and over the years I have learned that he is not one to easily bite on a reporter’s blatant attempt to provide responses covered in honey-dew.
Yet you knew what the occasion on Friday meant to him because he was actually willing to talk about himself.
I could write the lengthiest piece of my entire career with absolutely no trouble with George Oswald as my topic, but I won’t because I know there is still more to come.
“Denis and I don’t have too much longer to go,” he says at the end of our call. “But it’s not like we’re going to retire.”
I think he meant to add “any time soon” but he didn’t, and I wasn’t about to push him on it.
After all, he retired from head coaching before the 2010 season, but he’s never, ever really left the sidelines in any meaningful way since.
Oh, one funny story Oswald told me over our most recent call: As an ever-active member of the B.C. Secondary Schools Football Association, he has actually volunteered as the provincial schedule maker.
Yet even with that ability to match-make an entire season’s worth of games, he had no way of predicting that the opening of the school’s new field and his 75th birthday would come to fall on the same day.
“All I knew was that my birthday fell on a Friday this year,” he said.
“So October 22, 1946?” I asked him for the purposes of absolute birth date confirmation.
Back on Sept. 16 of 2010, as I tapped out a lengthy piece in The Province to announce his ‘retirement’ from head coaching, I began with these two paragraphs:
“George Oswald laughs out loud at the question.
“How many coaching changes have the B.C. Lions made since Oswald first started his coaching career at East Vancouver’s Notre Dame Regional Secondary back in the fall of 1964?”
The answer that day was 19.
I went on-line to update that wonderful statistic this morning, and it’s up to 24.
It’s about 90 minutes after I started writing, the sun is rising and there will be plenty of football for us all to watch today.
But maybe before you do, look at that photograph one more time.
For both young and old and everyone in between, it symbolizes that thing inside of us which is indomitable.
Yes, in case we’ve forgotten, it’s in all of us, too.
So in a photograph which I hope you’ll agree captures that precise sentiment so perfectly, all I can do is say ‘Thanks George.’
Oh, and Happy Belated 75th Birthday.
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