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Engraved on a Nation: A family united through tragedy

Shane McNeil, TSN.ca staff

11/2/2012 7:47:24 PM

To celebrate the 100th Grey Cup, TSN presents 'Engraved on a Nation,' a series of documentaries highlighting eight indelible moments in the history of the CFL's ultimate prize. TSN.ca producer Shane McNeil presents a feature story on how each of these stories was brought to the screen.

On Dec. 9, 1956, the Canadian Football League lost five of its brightest stars when Trans-Canada Air Lines Flight 810 crashed into the Canadian Rockies.

Gone from that ill-fated flight were five players on their way home from the annual East-West All-Star Game - Defensive end Gordon Sturtridge, centre/tight end Mel Becket, guard Mario DeMarco and offensive lineman Ray Syrnyk of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, as well as Winnipeg Blue Bombers offensive guard Calvin Jones.

The Roughriders would lose a former Western Most Outstanding Canadian in Sturtridge, while the names DeMarco and Becket – both All-Stars as well - currently adorn the CFL's trophy for Best West Division Lineman. The team would also lose a native Saskatoon son in Syrnyk.

While the crash would send an immediate shockwave through the CFL - especially in Saskatchewan - the loss of Jones is still a matter of heartfelt remembrance for many across the football world.

Jones, meanwhile, was such a standout with the University of Iowa that he became the first African-American athlete to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. While he would only play one season in the CFL, he would represent the West in the annual All-Star festivities.

One current CFLer in particular has an emotional connection to Jones' death: Calgary Stampeders guard Edwin "Boomer" Harrison, Jones' grandson. Harrison's search to learn more about his grandfather and repair his family in memory of the College Football Hall-of-Famer is the focus of Paul Cowan's 'The Crash of Flight 810,' the latest in TSN's Engraved on a Nation documentary series.

Born of a brief College romance, Edwin Harrison Sr. never knew his father before his death. In light of this, the search into the truth behind Jones's death was a voyage of reparation and reconciliation for the younger Harrison - as well as his entire family.

Cowan, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, followed Harrison's search and soon witnessed the reunification of a passionate football family. "To this day, family is No. 1, but football is No. 2," Cowan said of the Harrisons, "and yet there was this one huge black hole which sort of belied the fact that football was so important to them and that hole was Calvin Jones."

An Outland Trophy winner as the best offensive lineman in U.S. college football, Jones started his pro career north of the 49th after falling to the fifth round of the 1956 NFL Draft. From there, his talent would outshine the opinions of NFL scouts.

"Calvin was no more a fifth-round [pick] than I am a rocket scientist," Jones' high school friend Frank Gilliam said in the documentary.

The on-field fraternity of football is a parallel current throughout Harrison's journey in 'The Crash of Flight 810.'

Cowan spoke of Gilliam's memories and inability to speak about Jones without remembering the crash. "There was a lot of pain and there was a lot of – I think – catharsis as a result of going through this," he said. "But again you realize what a family a football team is."

"For Frank, I don't know if he could have been any closer to Calvin Jones if Calvin had been his biological brother."

The immediate impact of the crash unified the league and its fans in grief. Again, it's a relationship that Cowan recognizes as familial.

"In a sense I would say it was even more devastating on the towns that had CFL teams, because back then – from everything I've learned and everything I've read – your CFL team in your town was part of your family," he said.

Harrison's story enabled Cowan to discover the lasting impact the crash had on one family and to use it as a mirror to the journey towards acceptance and recovery from a terrible tragedy that affected so many CFL fans in the winter of 1956.

Enabling his father to finally meet Jones' family after a lifetime of not knowing them allowed Harrison to close his own quest for knowledge in both his family's past as well as the football legacy that allowed him to thrive as a CFL player.

Harrison's journey took him from the sidelines of McMahon Stadium to Houston, where a finally reunified Jones-Harrison clan would sit down to dinner to discuss the past and finally get to know one another.

The journey would continue for Harrison to Jones' final resting place at the base of Mt. Slesse.

The pilgrimage helped Harrison heal the wounds left from not knowing half his family that his father had nursed for decades.

"I think that was the biggest catharsis for Boomer: to watch his Dad finally get this skeleton out of the closet," Cowan said. "I think going up the mountain was kind of a fitting end to it all, but really the catharsis came when Boomer realized: 'My Dad has found his family.'"

The tragic loss of five players is a wound from which the family that is the CFL has taken many years to recover.

Few could have imagined that 56 years after the crash, there was still more healing to be done.