Friday, July 20, 2007
Like most pro sports, the CFL is measured by numbers: wins and losses; pass attempts and completions; carries/yards/touchdowns scored; ultimately the number of championships won.
Joe Paopao has spent almost 31 years in the CFL as a player, assistant coach, offensive co-ordinator and head coach, but he measures his success by a different set of numbers.
The Throwin' Samoan measures his success with the No. 1 (Dottie, his one and only wife) four (three sons and a daughter), nine (six brothers and three sisters) and finally, the several hundred teammates, guys he coached and fans who got to know and love him, as did some media members.
Paopao came full circle on Thursday night when the B.C. Lions honoured him, as well as tight end Lefty Hendrickson, who grew up in Squamish (and whose sons Craig and Scott played for the Lions), and the 1985 Grey Cup-winning team as the latest B.C. Lions Wall of Fame inductees.
Paopao wasn't the greatest quarterback and likely isn't the greatest coach, but he'd be on everybody's list as the greatest of guys and I'm betting that would be the list he'd cherish the most.
He started his career with the Lions when coach Vic Rapp rescued him from the stock room at a J.C. Penny store in southern California in 1978 when he emerged from a free agent camp at Golden West Junior College in Huntington Beach.
"I remember it was a two-day camp and there were about 200 players there ... a guy all the way from Michigan," said Paopao on Thursday, "[GM] Bob [Ackles] called me in after the first day and they signed me. It was the best day of my life.
"My father-in-law had been best friends in college with Sam Etcheverry and had written him to see how I could get a chance in Canada. Sam wrote back with the addresses of all the teams. We wrote them all and Vic wrote back inviting me to their camp. It was about 45 minutes from Oceanside [Joe's hometown].
"I was lucky, because they were looking for a quarterback. That's why I've had a soft spot for free agents."
He made the Lions as Jerry Tagge's backup and also played with Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Saskatchewan Roughriders and Ottawa Rough Riders. He coached in Edmonton, B.C., Ottawa and for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
He was head coach here, Winnipeg and Ottawa, and if the wins didn't square with the losses, there were usually reasons, such as shaky ownership and no money (Nelson Skalbania here and the Gliebermans in Ottawa). It's hard to go to war with no ammunition.
"When you realize getting let go is part of the business, then you can go on," said Paopao, who had more bad luck than good as a head coach. "You get fired in college and high school. It's a tough life. But, hey, it happens in everything."
He's an assistant coach for good friend Dennis McPhee at University of Waterloo now and pleased as punch about it. "I don't have to worry about anything but coaching kids," he said with a grin. And he meant it.
The memories came flooding back Thursday morning when he went for a run around False Creek. (Four of his brothers have already died because of health issues.)
Joe and Dottie spent 16 of their 31 years in this country in the Lower Mainland. When he played out his option in '83 and went to Saskatchewan, he took out display ads in both The Province and Sun to thank the fans. That hasn't been repeated by any pro athlete.
"I cut my teeth here as a player, my first coaching job was here, I became a co-ordinator with the Lions and my first head coaching job."
All three of the boys, Tyler, Andrew and Carson, were born in Vancouver. Kristen was born in Regina.
"The memories are priceless," said Paopao, "Outside of your immediate family, comes the team. It pulls on the heartstrings."
He wondered what was going on, however, when equipment man Creighton O'Malley picked him up at the airport for his first training camp wearing his sheriff's uniform, from his other job.
"I think '78 is my best memory, because it was the first. Even though we missed the playoffs, everything was new. I was activated after the second game..."
It took until 2000, when he was Lions offensive co-ordinator for Steve Buratto, who took over from Greg Mohns, to get a Grey Cup ring.
Going up on the wall at B.C. Place Stadium would rank as one-two with that. If you're keeping track of numbers.