Tearful farewell at Francis' funeral

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:23 PM ET

One by one, the legends of a Canadian sporting era gone by made their way into the church on Mount Pleasant: Ben Johnson and Angella Issajenko; Milt Ottey and Mark McKoy; Desai Williams and France Gareau.

All of them there to say goodbye to Charlie.

Their Charlie.

Charlie Francis didnít need his last name. Around the world, around his world, everyone knew him simply by his first name.

The coach unlike any before him or since: Maybe the most successful, certainly the most vilified, probably the most controversial, definitely the brightest coach in the history of Canadian amateur sport.

As his brother, Barry pointed out in the first of three eulogies Monday, Charlie would have appreciated the sellout crowd at his funeral.

He would have appreciated who was there and who wanted to be there. The church was full of athletes, current and former. Many of them sharing stories, smiles and tears.

Charlie Francis lived a complicated life in a complicated time. There are those who can and will link him only to the steroid scandal of 1988, the Canadian sporting moment of that century.

And that is unfortunate.

Some will point to the Paul Henderson goal as the great Canadian moment or more recently the Sidney Crosby but for drama, intrigue, emotion, national celebration turned to angst and anger, those few days from Seoul in 1988 will never be duplicated:

Ben Johnson wins and Ben Johnson loses and after that you couldnít mention Charlieís name without some kind of reaction.

He was central to the story, the scorn, the shock, and for his part, he was sentenced to life from the coaching authorities in Canada, a punishment he never chose to challenge.

Only he never stopped coaching.

It was who he was and what he did.

He was so much more than the Charlie The Chemist nickname he was pegged with.

And as the Rev. Eleanor Clitheroe said he lived a life of significance, defined not by his own success, but by what he has given to others. What is apparent, was apparent, was Charlie didnít die from heart failure. His heart was too large, too giving. Cancer took him at age 61. But ask anyone about him Monday, and they will tell stories of how much he gave, even when he didnít have enough for himself.

Charlie didnít care if he was training me, or Mike Cammalleri or Tie Domi or a world champion sprinter, or the 15-year-old who wanted to get faster.

He took the same approach.

The human approach.

He cared about you. He gave of himself. He did what too many coaches canít do ó he always made you better, faster, smarter, stronger.

I first met Charlie in 1987 at the world track and field championships in Rome and took an immediate dislike to him. He was cocksure, arrogant, fast-talking, condescending, and defiantly defensive of Ben Johnson.

Clearly, when you looked around and saw all this Canadian talent at the worlds, so much of it local, so much of it coached by him, there was also the understanding of just how powerful a figure he was becoming.

The power didnít last long. Within a year came the disqualification in Seoul, followed by the hand-cleansing that was the Dubin Inquiry.

But over the years, with Charlie in the background, training people for a living, working with pro hockey players and NFL players like Priest Holmes (he worked for and with numerous NFL teams) and other sprinters from other countries, he didnít soften he just became easier to like.

We used to talk often on the phone, usually around the time of something happening in track, or something happening in the drug world.

Actually, we didnít talk, he did.

I listened.

The one-way conversations were never short, but always fascinating. There was always a conspiracy theory, many proven true over time.

There seemed little he didnít know about when it came to his sport or the sporting world of drugs. He was connected in a way he couldnít always explain.

When the story of the disappearing Greek sprinters broke on the opening day of Summer Olympics in 2004, I decided to call Charlie from Athens, looking for direction. It turned out, he knew about the sprinters, their backgrounds, their coaches, their connections. He walked me through a point by point verbal flowchart of how one of them was connected to the man who patented androstenedione, the Mark McGwire steroid.

I wrote what he told me, unattributed of course, because Charlie didnít like his name in the papers.

A few weeks later, a large American newspaper broke the story on the Greek sprinters, connecting them to the Chicago druggist.

Charlie smiled at the news break: As usual, he had it first.

At the funeral at Rosedale Presbyterian Church, there was no mention of performance-enhancing drugs, only about how strong Charlie was in rebuilding his life after the scandal.

But before Charlieís wife, Angie Coon, began her eulogy Monday she placed a can of Diet Coke and a bag of Starbucks coffee on the casket of her husband.

ďThese were his favourite drugs,Ē said Coon, the former track star.

As always with Charlie Francis, some laughed, some cried.


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