It was about an hour before I had to leave, but there was something I had to do first. It was mid-February, 2014. I was in Trail, BC to give a keynote address at a local dinner banquet. The short flight there had brought me to a final conclusion that I had been wrestling with for the past few months, I was going to retire from football. After playing 13 year professionally, it was finally time to move on. The something that I now had to do was tell my long time Head Coach and General Manager, Wally Buono. I needed to get my words right. I needed to write him a letter, so that’s what I did. I sat down in that hotel room and for the next hour before my event, I hand wrote Wally a letter. Telling him about my decision, but much more so, thanking him for over 11 years of football that has filled my life with friendships, memories, and lessons that I will carry forth with me for the rest of my life.
I had played for Wally for 11 of my 13 professional years. I’m not sure if that makes me the longest Wally had ever worked with a single player, but I know it puts me close to the top of that list. I wasn’t close to Wally like I was with Dan, my longtime Offensive line Coach. I always feared him a bit. He was the one ultimately responsible for my employment, the final say on if I would have a job or not. To do his job properly Wally had to keep a healthy distance between himself and his players. He needed to always stay objective, always keeping emotions and personal view points out of his evaluation. For that reason, building a tight personal bond with Wally was something that just didn’t happen.
I actually remember Wally telling us, after the 2011 Grey Cup, when he stepped down from coaching for the first time that he was starting to “like us too much” That was a dangerous place to be for a man who told us many times that his job was to “replace us,” our job was to “not give him a good enough reason to.” It must be very lonely at the top, a place I wouldn’t relish being. I remember Wally’s answer to me once on my questioning him about seeming distant to the players. His response went something like... “Do you need me to be your friend Angus? I’m your coach, why does it matter if I ‘like you’ or not? All you need to know is that if you are here, that means I think you can help us win. The day I don’t think you can help us win, you won’t be here anymore. Me liking you or not is irrelevant to that reality.” That little dialogue right there told me everything I needed to know about the reality of professional life – Focus on doing your job, helping the team win. That’s what matters. That’s how you keep your job. Worrying if the head coach ‘likes’ you or not is irrelevant to that reality.
I have so much to thank Wally for. My letter I wrote to him that cold dark evening in Trail expressed, as a much as I could, my thanks for his guiding leadership with not only our team but the example it set for my own life.
I’m sure I could write a book about everything I’ve taken with me, but for now a few key moments that are anchored firmly into my memory of gratitude.
HE GAVE ME MY OPPORTUNITY
Wally became the BC Lions Head Coach and General Manager in 2003. At that time, I was entering my third-year pro after being on somewhat of a rocky 2-year flight of a different kind. His arrival scared me. Here I was, I relative nobody who hadn’t impressed anybody in my first two years hoping to become the starting center for my hometown team. The future Hall of Famer Jamie Taras’s retirement had left a void at that crucial spot. I remember thinking, no way will Wally entrust the director of the Oline to some unproven nobody. I really thought his arrival may become my final departure.
That never happened. Wally gave me my shot. I was penciled in as his starting center that very first day of our first training camp together. Of course, he also brought in other competition and made sure I earned that spot. But it was the opportunity that mattered. You can do absolutely everything else right, but in the world of professional football, unless someone is willing to give you an opportunity to prove what you are worth, you can never succeed.
Wally took a chance. He gave me my opportunity. I am forever thankful for that.
HE STOOD UP FOR ME
June 28th, 2003. Week 2 of our first season together. We lost on the road to a Saskatchewan Roughrider team that physically got the better of us up front. That loss put us to 0-2. Not the best way for Wally to begin his tenure as our new leader. Fans weren’t happy. Back then, CKNW had the radio rights for the Lions and Wally had his weekly Coaches show that seemed to run mostly the night after each game. I distinctly remember this one because I was at my parents for dinner. Two things about being in my parent’s kitchen back in 2003.
- 1) The radio was ALWAYS on and always on LOUD
- 2) It was ALWAYS on CKNW – 24 hours a day
It was open call time. Time for fans to call-in and vent their frustration directly to the head coach via questions, comments, and of course, their suggestions for what should be done differently.
My name came up quickly during that call-in session. A few callers were questioning Wally’s choice of having me at center. I was far too small and susceptible to getting pushed around was the common theme. The Lions needed a much bigger presence at my spot. I will never forget Wally blasting right back that I was plenty big enough for my role. He expressed utmost confidence in me to the callers and reassured them that I will be just fine. It was funny, because right up until that moment, I was wondering if Wally himself was questioning my lack of size and ability to fulfill my role. I never mentioned that show to him, I guarantee you he has no memory of it, but I can’t tell you how much that moment of public backing did for me. It has never left. Wally was never big on compliments – I know he thought it made the recipient soft. I’m sure he had no idea that I would have heard that on the radio. But I did, and it meant the world to me.
HE SETTLED DISAGREEMENTS PROPERLY
July 14, 2006. We had just lost a heartbreaker at home to the dreaded Saskatchewan Roughriders. That loss dropped us to a very disappointing 2 – 3 record. At that moment it would have been hard to see us as the eventual dominating Grey Cup Champions that we eventually became.
I had been hauled down by the sideline radio crew for a quick post game comment before heading into our locker room. I can’t remember the actual wording of the question, but it revolved around our lack of run calls that game.
Wally somehow caught the tail end of my response that went something like “I don’t call the plays…” I know this because his post-game blowup regarding our performance became a directed fury at me in front of the whole team about our thoughts that we could call a better game. He was angry, we were angry, emotions were high and the answer that he heard me say was enough for him to use as exhibit A to express that anger. He had not heard the question asked of me, or my complete response, but that was irrelevant in that moment. I was wise enough to take the public lashing without debating its true merit. Sometimes you have to “take one for the team”. I decided to wait for a calmer time to discuss the context of the information he heard.
I went in to the facility the following day. It was a day off for us so the facility was quiet. I went to see Wally in his office. We chatted for a long time about what went on post-game the night before. Wally had since gone back and heard the entire conversation and now had the full context of the answer he had only partially heard the night before. He actually apologized to me – I was shocked! I knew I hadn’t said anything that undermined our staff and I wanted to make sure that was clear, but an apology from Wally? – THAT I wasn’t anticipating. It was one of my very few one on one chats with him, and one I will never forget.
The next morning in team meetings, Wally took that apology one step further and announce it to the team. He addressed what had happened in the locker room post game and let the guys know that after further review, he was wrong to attack me for what he had heard. That takes a big man to do that. Again, I doubt Wally even remembers that event, I personally will never forget it, or the lesson he taught me that weekend.
HE REMINDED ME TO NEVER GIVE AWAY INTEL
Oct 2, 2004 We were facing a formidable Winnipeg Blue bombers team at home. I had rolled my right ankle pretty badly earlier that week in practice. It wasn’t going to be an issue, but did require a little more preventative attention. Bottom line, I had to get my ankle and my cleats taped up, something I didn’t normally do. I came out for warmups only to have Wally march straight over to me and send me back in the locker room. You see I had only gotten my right ankle taped, I saw no reason to tape my left ankle, there was nothing wrong with it. But Wally looks at things differently. All he saw was a big red sign telling the Bombers that I now had an injured right ankle. I was instructed to immediately go back in the locker room and get my left ankle taped. It sounded like such an insignificant thing, but to Wally, EVERYTHING mattered. The littlest thing could be all it took for the opposition to get that edge – never just GIVE them that ledge. Every little detail mattered, even the tape on your shoe. I will never forget that moment and that life lasting lesson. I doubt it had anything to do with the double foot tape job but I played a great game as we went on to beat the Bombers that night 42 – 31. I also decided to keep taping both of my feet for almost every game the remainder of my career.
HE REMINDED ME TO NEVER FEEL SORRY FOR MYSELF
The spring leading up to the 2010 season was a tough one for me. I was learning how to walk again, after getting my recently shattered football surgically put back together. I don’t remember ever verbally complaining about the awkwardness and discomfort that process was, but I will never forget the words Wally barked at me form a distance as I was entering the facility one day. “Quit limping!” That was it. Nothing else. He actually didn’t even break stride for whatever the heck it was he was doing. Sometimes simple phrases hit you hard. I hadn’t even realized that I was limping, and even so, I had just recently broken my foot – a little sympathy would have been nice! Nope. Wally would not tolerate any self-pity, especially through body language. I never limped again. I became much more aware of the message I was sending by how I carried myself.
HE CHALLENGED ME
A few weeks after the “quit limping!” comment, Wally called me in to chat about my future. My age and my foot had brought Wally to the conclusion that he needed to move forward with somebody new at my long help position. He didn’t cut me though. He challenged me with a role he needed me to fill. To mentor my replacement, be a team leader in the locker room and stay ready in case I was needed. That was a tough moment for me. Lots of pride to eat and emotions to deal with. It was a worthy challenged that Wally threw at me. Most coaches would have just cut me at that point to at the very least eliminate me from becoming a grumpy cancer in the locker room. Not Wally, he presented it as a challenge for me to rise up to. I had to accept the challenge yes, but he did not have to offer it to me. It would have been far easier for him to have simply released me. He didn’t, and I am forever grateful for that.
HE CHANGED HIS MIND
Circumstances played out and I made it back on the field that 2010 season. I played well enough for Wally to do something he had been previously labeled as never doing – he changed his mind. He made me his starting center once again. He once again gave me an opportunity. It had always been well known that once Wally thought a player was past their “best before” date, he moved on from them, period. He proved with me that it’s ok to change your mind. Every situation is different and needs to be addressed as such. I’m forever thankful that he did change his mind on me and decided to give me another chance.
HE TAUGHT ME WHAT MATTERED MOST ON A GREAT TEAM
My last few years Wally did start chatting with me more. He would even open up from time to time about his philosophy on football, and anything else that may have been on his mind. I will never forget his off-hand chat with me on what his job here really was to do – to keep the personality balance in the locker room just right. At the professional level talent is pretty equal across the league, what separated the champions from the rest was the HUMAN element of the players on the team. Their personality make-up. His job, as he relayed to me, was ensuring that personality balance was what it needed to be. In words more colorful than this, he needed to ensure we had the right balance of ‘nice guys’ and ‘nasty guys’. Wally had a great way of making complex things sound simple. But to him it really was that clear. The importance for both types of personalities and having that ratio be just right meant everything. Too many ‘nice guys’ and you lead the league in great community work but get your butts kicked on the field. Too many ‘nasty guys’ and you lead the league in penalties. You need both, but it’s finding the right balance that matters, and that, is a true artform. Thankfully I was on many teams that Wally got that ratio spot on, and I have the rings to prove it.
The lessons learned from 11 lucky years with him are countless. These were just a few that have always stood out for me. I know in the coming months more and more personal accounts of gratitude will be shared by people who had been fortunate enough to play for, or work with, a man who dedicated his life to pursuing excellence. The entire province of British Columbia owes Wally a tremendous amount of thanks for his commitment to leading a team that this whole province has had the privilege of cheering for. Let’s never forget, under his guidance, we once played in 5 consecutive Western Finals – that is BIGTIME. The entire CFL also owes Wally a tremendous amount of thanks for his example of what stability and real leadership of a winner looks like.
I’ve rambled a lot here as I usually do. I think it is best to get back to the point at hand, with a simple all-encompassing phrase – Thank You, Wally.