By Tom Hunter
When people talk about the origin story of their sports fandom, oftentimes it goes back to a memory of attending a sporting event with a parent, or following the game you started playing as a child.
While both of those scenarios resonate with me to an extent, though, the genesis of my passion for sports comes from a more unlikely source; my maternal grandmother.
This weekend is the seventh anniversary of her death – and unfortunately, it took until after her passing for me to truly understand the impact she had on my life.
In the spring of 2009, my grandmother passed away after a two-year battle with lung cancer. I had gone through my first 25 years on earth without losing anyone significant in my life and didn’t really know how to deal with it. Sad? Upset? Grateful that she wasn’t suffering anymore? I could recognize how her death had made me feel, but I had never really taken the time to reflect on the impact she had on my life.
The funeral was held in Montreal, where she and my grandfather moved after the war to build a family.
That five-hour drive gave me the chance to reflect. What did I remember about my grandmother, and what was going to stick with me?
That’s when it dawned on me; she was the only real hardcore sports fan in the family. Sure, my dad likes to watch hockey and baseball, but does he really follow? Does he care about anything beyond the Leafs and Blue Jays? Nope. My grandmother, on the other hand, was all in – the way I am now.
From an early age I think she recognized it – even if I didn’t. She was the only one that would let me stay up to watch hockey games with her, although now I’m certain it was her attempt to counter my Toronto upbringing and turn me into a Canadiens fan (she never gave up that quest).
With her in Montreal and my family growing up in Toronto, there weren’t necessarily as many memories as I would have liked. We’d be lucky if we saw my grandparents more than two or three times a year – but even though the visits were few and far between, she and I had a connection.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that connection came from a mutual love of sports. Every single memory I had of her was talking about sports, or watching a game – and I wasn’t the instigator, she was. At family functions, she would often leave the conversation with my mother and her siblings to seek me out and ask about my own hockey games, or rag on me about the last time the Habs beat the Leafs.
The most vivid and impressive story I carry with me about my grandmother is the one about how she used to skip class in the late 1940s to go watch Jackie Robinson play at Jarry Park.
She would drag her friends to Montreal Royals games, not necessarily only because she knew Robinson was in the process of becoming an iconic figure that changed the landscape of sports (and society) in North America, but because she really wanted to go see a ball game.
The idea of skipping out on school or work is one every sports fan has at one time or another. Many here in Toronto took part in the ritual last October during the Blue Jays playoff run, but few will ever have the opportunity to witness the kind of monumental and impactful moments my grandmother did when she went to see Robinson play. I am both envious of her experience and grateful that she was able to share the memory with me.
My grandmother was a strong woman. She was a traditional Irish-Catholic woman that really didn’t take any shit from anyone. In an era that women with children were encouraged to stay at home, she worked in a management role at the bank and didn’t care if she was judged for it. She was a stern woman. Any and all manners or tact my brother and I have are from her. She was the true matriarch of the family and the one that my brother and cousins were always slightly afraid of. I had a bit of a different relationship with her than the other grandchildren. While she was alive, I always assumed it stemmed from me being the eldest. When she passed and I started reflecting on it I’m sure the reason has a lot more to do with the fact that I was the one she was most able to bond with, and that bond was rooted in out sports fandom.
I had a bit of a different relationship with her than the other grandchildren. While she was alive, I always assumed it stemmed from me being the eldest. When she passed and I started reflecting on it, I’m sure the reason has a lot more to do with the fact that I was the one she was most able to bond with, and that bond was rooted in our sports fandom. I had a short-lived love of Formula-1 racing, that came from on every visit, seeing her being up at 7am (or earlier) Sunday mornings to watch the race live from Europe before she had to get ready for Church. I used to care about CFL football that came from her overwhelming joy when the Montreal Alouettes returned to the league in 1998 and her insistence that I pay attention. To this day, I care more about the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team than any other sports team save for the Maple Leafs. That passion for The Irish comes from one place and one place alone, my grandmother.
**I think she was honestly slightly disappointed when I was graduating from high school and didn’t apply to Notre Dame
The only time I remember her showing genuine emotion aside from adoration of her grandchildren was the day she found out the Montreal Expos would be relocating to Washington. She loved baseball, the Expos were her team and she’s the only one who ever took me to a game at The Big O. She knew the move was coming, but when it was made official that Montreal was losing their team she called me. The one and only time she called me directly while I was in university. Should wouldn’t admit it, but you could tell it hurt and that’s the moment I look back on to realize that there is no possible other influence that my passion for sports could have come from.
I remember my grandmother for being the strongest woman I’ve ever known. Even through her cancer treatment, she would never complain or look for anyone’s pity. She did a lot of reading, both fictional literature, and sports biographies. When she was finished with them, the literature went to my mom and the sports ones came to me. There are so many, and one day I hope to get through as many as she did. The fact that her death happened near Mother’s Day has always been hard on my mom, but it’s easy enough for us to remember my grandmother and her best because that’s the way she carried herself until the end.
Still today, there has been no one in my life with that has shared this same sports passion the way she and I did, my only regret is that I didn’t learn and mature early enough to recognize it while she was around. As corny as it sounds, I’ve never had an issue with spending my Saturday afternoons alone watching Notre Dame Football because that’s the team I’ve only ever shared with her. Knowing now what I do, the only advice I have is to try not to overlook those connections in your life. There may be some that are more impactful than you realize.
**I want to thank the one and only Catherine Silverman (@) for being a wonderful friend, copy editor and sounding board