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J.I. was one of a kind

Alex J. Walling
3/13/2008 1:40:01 PM
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By now those who read the sports pages know of the passing earlier this week of J.I. Albrecht. He was 77. 

Just about every piece I've read in the last day or so talks about his contacts with people in the game of football from the NFL, CFL and other pro and minor leagues. The man had more connections than Bell Canada. 

While he is known for his works in football, he also had a footprint in Atlantic Canada.

My first football memories as a nine-year old growing up in Quebec City were of the Montreal Alouettes.

The Als came into our house - then on Saturday afternoons - through our small black and white television and the broadcast was in French.

Somewhere in those early years, I first heard of the name J.I Albrecht. I heard that he was a brilliant mastermind who had the ability to bring players to the Als and lead them to the Grey Cup.

I first met him while covering the 1970 Grey Cup between the Als and Calgary. Working at a tiny Woodstock, Ontario radio station, I ventured into Toronto and with my trusty Sony 110 tape machine asked Albrecht as to why he thought the Als would prevail in the upcoming Grey Cup game.

How can one forget his answer? 

"Moses will lead us," is what he told me. "And when you have Moses, how can you go wrong?" 

He smiled and walked away to another interview.

The Moses he was talking about was running back Moses Denson. Early in that game, the Als drove inside the Stamps five-yard line and quarterback Sonny Wade tossed the ball to Denson, who started running down the sideline. The defender who had him by the legs couldn't bring him down and when another defender came to help, Denson took the ball and like a shot putter heaved a 10 yard TD pass and the Als were on the board. The Als took that game 23-10.

They never trailed after Moses 'led them' with his first and only throw in his CFL career.

After the game, I briefly brushed by Albrecht, who amazingly remembered our brief conversation. He looked at me and said, "Didn't I tell you that Moses would lead us?" 

He smiled and left.

It was another 18 years before I ran into him again.  

This time is was early September in 1988.  A new TV station had been launched on Labour Day of that year as MITV came on the air in Atlantic Canada. I was the sports director and was at Huskies Stadium to get my first view of Chris Flynn, the SMU quarterback.

At the very end of the press row, all by himself, was a guy who looked like Kojak. It was J.I.  

 I sat down next to him, looked at him as he glanced to see who in the heck I was, and I took the first salvo.

 "I know who Tony Passander is, what number he wore, and where you dug him up from?"

I think he was a little surprised.  But he played on, saying "all right, fill in the blanks." He sounded like a cross between John Wayne and Howard Cosell.

 "He is the QB that you found playing for the London Lords, wore No. 15 like Bart Starr, and he played a few meaningful games with the Montreal Alouettes."

 "And just how would you know this?"  he gruffly echoed.

I introduced myself and told him that I grew up with the Als and had followed them for 21 years, and while I could in no way even match him on football players in general I could remember a lot about the one team that I watched so long ago.

From that point we got along and football was our bond. He even through out a few names at me to see if I still remembered. 

Who was the Als field goal kicker in the late 50's and early 60's?  Bill Bewley, who played for them from 1955-64.  He was a Canadian who played for the Varsity Blues.  He nodded his head as if to say that I may know a small thing or two about a sport he loved.

I got to realize that football was a very big part of his life, the biggest part.  He also became a media person, or sorts, by doing radio comments on the station that I had worked years before, CHNS. And, he had a weekly column with the Halifax Daily News.

Some would accuse him of name dropping, writing such things as, "Marv Levy called me and so did Al Davis of the Raiders." I never looked at it as name dropping because that was his life. He did live and associate with these people. One could argue that Marv Levy would never be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame had not J.I. given him his first shot with the Montreal Alouettes.

In fact, J.I. spent over a decade in Nova Scotia and came very close to getting a pro franchise in Halifax.

In the early 1980's he led a group of investors who paid the $25,000 application fee for a franchise. He had the name picked out; it was to be called the Atlantic Schooners and had the sight for the stadium which was in Dartmouth right across from the Murray Mackay Bridge.

One of the best rumours in this city is that he bought the old scoreboard from the New England Patriots and that today it is still stored in a warehouse in Burnside Industrial Park in Dartmouth.

J.I. really, truly, honestly believed that the CFL was coming to Halifax that he set up an office in Scotia Square right in the heart of downtown Halifax and had talked to several people about joining his organization. One was the leading sports columnists of the day, Hugh Townsend of the Herald, who would be the community development and media coordinator.

But the Schooners never sailed and when it came time to pay the big expansion fee of $250,000, the cash never came and the dream evaporated. It did so because the stadium deal through the federal government fell. He's been bitter about it since.

I've been told my so many that J.I., while well intentioned, went over the head of the man who could have helped him.  That man was none other than Gerald Regan, who was minister of sport in the Trudeau cabinet.  In other words, J.I. backed the wrong horse. It cost him dearly.

"I have no doubt Regan, who delivered the Metro Centre in 1978 as premier of Nova Scotia, would have delivered again as a federal minister," said Pat Connolly who first met J.I. in 1950. Connolly was 22 years old and working at a Sidney radio station when he first met Albrecht in 1950.

J.I. was also the front man for the Harlem Globetrotters and that team was coming to Sydney for a Sunday game.

But there was a problem. Back then, the Blue Laws prevailed and it seemed only churches were open on Sunday and one municipal councilor raised hell and didn't want the game played. It was a sold out affair and the councilor wanted the money refunded.

"J.I. was not about to refund a full house so he scheduled the game for 12:01 AM Monday morning. The arena was jammed, J.I. got his money, the people got their game and the politician didn't get his way," said Connolly. 

Apparently many people didn't go to work that day.

Forty years later, Albrecht showed up in Cape Breton this time as the athletic director of University College of Cape Breton.

University president Peter Hill wanted Albrecht to do for his school what Bob Hayes had done in the 1970's for Saint Mary's and that was build a national reputation via sports. The first expenditure by J.I. was to get a football team.

He went out, spent a lot of money (over half a million) and got a football team and an old friend to coach it. That old friend was none other than George Brancato, a former CFL coach of the year and Grey Cup winner who was delighted to join J.I.

The expansion college football team won their last game of the season and as it turned out their last game ever. To J.I., the season had been worth it.

"To have nothing a few months ago and to win one game in our first season is one of my biggest thrills in football," he said to me.
 
But J.I. rubbed some of the administration the wrong way and after a year he left the University. The president who brought him in, Peter Hill, didn't last much longer.

But as athletic director he hired some top notch coaches that have been instrumental in making UCCB a respected sports force in Atlantic University Sports over the past 18 years.

"He had a heart of gold and was so misunderstood," said TSN's Atlantic reporter Paul Hollingsworth.

Hollingsworth got to know Albrecht as Paul's dad, a long time media veteran, would bring J.I. home often for supper.

"J.I. took an immediate liking to me when I was a young teenager," Paul said. "He tried to give me confidence, told me to believe in myself and he was one of two or three great mentors that I have been fortunate to have in my life."

Hollingsworth says J.I. provided a lot of encouragement and used to come to see him at football practice when he played for St. Pat's High school in Halifax.

"Once, he came up to see me play and to encourage me in Truro," he said.  "This is a guy who didn't drive but on this day he took the bus and showed up at this field, an hour or so away from Halifax. I didn't have a clue he would do that. I think we got him to come back with us on the team bus.  I can't say enough good things about him and underneath that gruff attitude, and growl was a very soft interior. He was a very kind man and was a very positive influence on my life."
 
He was also a man of contradiction.  Time and time again he would appear on radio, write in the papers and talk about the fact that the CFL had blown it and not given Chris Flynn, the only player to win the Hec Crichton award three times, a decent shot at becoming a Canadian quarterback.

"They tried to make him a defensive back but the kid was a quarterback," he said. "He could have been a smaller version of Doug Flutie. Flynn deserves to be in the CFL."

Yet when he had a chance in Ottawa and again in Shreveport, he did not give Flynn a look. He did call Larry Jusdanis, the former Acadia pivot who had a few games with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and invited him to a camp.

But my last impression of him was when I invited him as a guest on a 30-minute weekly sports show called, "The Locker Room".  The taping was at 1pm and he came in the lobby and asked if the show was to be taped on time.

I told him it was, but inquired if he was in a rush.

"Sort of," he said. "I'm getting married at 3pm today and don't want to be late."

Without a doubt he was one-of-a-kind.

For TSN.ca, I'm Alex J. Walling.

Alex J. can be reached via email at: ajw@eastlink.ca

 




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