Casualty of gridiron warfare

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:36 AM ET

Danny Nykoluk sat in his wheelchair, with cigar in hand, wearing his Balmy Beach reunion shirt, trying to count just how many times he has had surgery and when.

Yesterday was another day in hospital, another hip replacement for the former Argo great. Depending on who's doing the counting, Nykoluk or his wife, Lois, this is surgery No. 15 or 16, give or take a procedure, over the past eight years.

There were at least three right hip operations, four on the left hip, four on his knee, two on his back, one on his elbow: Both hips have been replaced several times; his disfigured right knee is also new.

This is what is left after 204 games and 16 seasons in the trenches of professional football, what it can do to a well conditioned man.

How much of this came from football, Nykoluk is asked?

"All of it," he said, sitting outside the Rouge Valley Regional Medical Centre in Scarborough.

"And you know what scares me? Jim Otto just had his left leg cut off. Remember Jim Otto? Played centre for the Oakland Raiders for years and years. And they had to take his leg."

He stops, nibbles on his cigar, and pauses as if to provide his own personal moment of silence to a fellow offensive lineman.

"I only had one operation when I played," Nykoluk said. "In 1970, I had my knee fixed by Dr. John Palmer. After a few weeks, I gave my crutches away. I went to see the Doc and he told me Bobby Orr had the same operation and I kept him on crutches for three months. I said his must have been more severe. He said no, yours was.

"So I asked him: 'Why was he on crutches for three months and how come you didn't ask me to do the same?' He said the way he looked at it, you're finishing your career and he's just starting his. That was my Bobby Orr story.

"You know, I used to get my knee drained when I played and the Doc would say to me: 'You'd better not practise tonight' and I'd say: 'Doc, I have to practise.' And he'd shoot my shoulder up with cortisone and say to me: 'You'd better not practise' and I'd say: 'Doc, don't even mention it.' "

It was the football way. Thirty-six years after Nykoluk's last game, the payback is found on gnarled knees and twisted hands and cement in his hips.

There is no pension plan for former Canadian Football League players of that era.

There are no retirement benefits.

"There's never been money for that,'' Nykoluk said. "This isn't the National Football League."

So Nykoluk endures this oxymoronic combination of pain and memories.

The memories are wonderful: The pain can be bitter.

"By the same token, if I had to do it all over again, I'd do it in a heartbeat," he said. "Even with being all banged up. You know, I loved it. I loved practising. I loved training camp. I was always in shape. You could run me to death in training camp. I might fall down but I'd just get up and run some more.

"I wouldn't have traded that life for anything."

What an era it was to be an Argo, living and playing in three decades, with Danny the Argonaut, his brother Mike, a pro hockey player who coached the Leafs for three seasons: What an era it was to play through the years of Tobin Rote and Cookie Gilcrist, Dick Shatto and Bob Shaw, Leo Cahill and Dick Thornton, Leon McQuay and Joe Theismann.

"I can remember going to Montreal for one of our first games," said Nykoluk, who retired after the 1971 Grey Cup.

"I was with Gil Mains, who was a professional wrestler in the off-season called The Wild Horse. He ended up in this bar in Montreal owned by wrestling promoter Eddie Quinn. Quinn says: 'Give these boys what they want and put it on my tab.' I'm thinking, man, this is the big time.

"Well, I was sick all the way back to Toronto. I get to Toronto and say, that's not the way to do it. Since then, I'd probably had three beers in my life.

"If had a drink, Jackie Parker always said: 'You've hit your limit.' Then Jackie would drink a bottle of Beefeater Gin all by himself and a quart of buttermilk in the morning just to straight himself out."

In October, the Argos will name the latest version of their all-time team.

Nykoluk should be one of the offensive tackles honoured.

Hopefully, he will be in the kind of condition to enjoy the moment. The way he did at his last Argo game.

"I took my grandson to a game last year and we seated in the handicapped seats, great comfortable seats, middle of the field. And these two older guys are looking at me and one of the guys says: 'You're Danny Nykoluk, aren't you?' And I said: 'I was, 40 years ago.'

"And the guy says: 'You're the best tackle we've ever had.' Afterwards, my grandson said to me: 'Poppa, you made that guy's day.'

"And I said to him: 'No, he made my day, too.' "


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