"Tarzan comes swinging in on his vine, eh?” Tony Gabriel said to the indulgent smiles. “And he yells ‘Jane, pour me a double martini!’ So she gets him one and he slugs it back. ‘Jane,’ he shouts. ‘Another!’ ‘But Tarzan,’ she says, ‘you never drink—what’s wrong?’ ‘Jane,’ he says, ‘it’s a jungle out there.’ ”
Gabriel looked out over the Wednesday gathering of Ottawa’s Wild Carrot Quarterback Club, his broken-pattern face begging a reception. But there was only a groan, several moans, one short sympathetic titter from the senior citizens’ table near the front. The local radio broadcaster hosting the luncheon said dryly, “Nice try, Tony.” For 20 minutes the broadcaster had been flushing his own jokes through the crowd and he sensed it was now time to move from the sick to the serious. “Tell me, Tony,” he said to introduce the weekly question period, “why are you having such a crappy year?”
Gabriel sputtered into his coffee and tried to shift past the question. But he couldn’t shake it. Not then, not even this past Saturday when, early in the first quarter, Ottawa against Montreal, Gabriel shook clear of the Alouette secondary and wrapped his lobster’s hands around a Rough Rider pass for an insignificant six-yard gain. Insignificant only in terms of that particular game, however, as Montreal went on to win handily. “I wish it had been something more,” Gabriel said on the sideline. “Even a first down.” But the catch was important because this was the 106th consecutive game in which Gabriel has caught a football, a record not only for Canada but for all of North American pro football (the previous record, 105, was set by American Dan Abramowicz, who played for New Orleans and San Francisco between 1967 and 1973). Harold Carmichael of the Philadelphia Eagles was looking for his 105th consecutive game catch the next day.
Still, Gabriel would have to do much more to compare favorably with last season, when he won both best Canadian and Schenley Most Outstanding Player awards, or the three previous Most Outstanding Canadian awards, or
the Gabriel mark that is known simply as The Catch—the literally and figuratively frozen moment when Gabriel pulled in the pass that brought Ottawa from behind to beat Saskatchewan with only 19 seconds left in the 1976 Grey Cup game. His is an impressive legacy for a Canadian, one whose official football designation in his own country is “non-import”—believed by some to be the American short-form for non-important.
But Tony Gabriel’s most appreciated contribution would not even warrant an asterisk in the record books. Tarzan jokes and all, he has served as a constant reminder over this decade that football is simply a game, and that playing is supposed to be fun. He laughs at his abilities and he cries at his victories, showing up at last year’s Schenley awards with two losers’ speeches written out, one for each category. When he won both, he was unable to do anything but stand at the podium and bawl.
His is a rags-to-riches story, from the ninth of 12 children born, in Burlington, Ontario, to a poor janitor and his wife from Czechoslovakia, to a four-year contract in Ottawa, rumored to be worth $250,000. But the effect has been minimal.
His concept of team spirit is still as corny as it was back in Grade 9, when he tried out for his first football team. “With best wishes from all the Riders,” he insists on signing his autographs, “and especially from Tony Gabriel.” It is a naïveté that has somehow survived the limelight.
There are parts of that story that would shame even Knute Rockne. In an age when “blitzed” has become a football term both on and off the field, Gabriel proudly says he uses nothing but Coke—the kind that’s snapped, not snorted—to get up for a game. He says gay players have but one question to answer: “Can you play football?” And though his own team-mates have walked out on his inspirational speeches, he proudly told a captive press conference two years ago that: “If I have only one life to lead, let me live it as a Rider.”
Gabriel will likely get his wish, and he has no pathetic hope that his gift will last forever. “I’d like to quit football before football quits me,” he says, and to that end he has begun work selling stocks in Ottawa. “There are some guys who like the smell of the dressing room and there are those who don’t need to be there,” he says. “I think that I’ll be able to close the book on football.” £
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