When Joe Pistilli returned to his Rockland home from picking up his copy of the Ottawa Sun on Jan. 20, there was a message waiting for him.
A message that would forever elevate him to the status of CFL greats — legends like Russ Jackson, Doug Flutie and Sam Etcheverry.
“Jan. 20, it would have been my mother’s birthday if she had been alive,” says Pistilli. “When I got home, my wife (Stella) said a man named Mark had called.
“I called the number he had left and the secretary answered the phone, ‘CFL commissioner’s office.’
“I said I had gotten a call and she said, ‘Are you Joe Pistilli?’
“Within a minute, Mark called back. It was Mark Cohon, the CFL commissioner. He congratulated me and said I’d been inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. I was stunned. He swore me to secrecy until they had a press conference three weeks later.”
When Pistilli, who has given so much time and so much blood, sweat and tears into various levels of football in Canada for 47 years, finally got to the induction ceremony on Aug. 14 in Regina, he was relieved and overcome by the generosity and magnitude of the celebration.
“We were treated like royalty,” he says. “I wouldn’t be lying if I said I signed 1,000 autographs and shook 1,000 hands. From the time I put my foot on the ground in Saskatchewan, it was something else.
“To be inducted as a builder, when you think of Jake Gaudaur, the Earl of Grey, Sam Berger, who was a great gentleman, Ralph Sazio ... those are great people. They were great, great men. And then they’ve put in Little Joe The Wop. It was a hell of an honour, something I’ll never forget. I don’t think I’ve changed just because I have a ring and a jacket.”
For a man who has contributed so much from his beginnings as an announcer with Chateauguay’s Quebec senior football league team, Pistilli, who will turn 69 on Sept. 7, is remarkably humble.
He remembers trying out for the football team at Cardinal Newman High School in Montreal.
“I was on the track team, so they asked me to come out,” he says. “Then I looked at the size of those guys. They were big. I went to one practice and got hit so I had to have my knees drained. The doctor said I would have to get them drained after every game, so I quit.”
It was Cardinal Newman’s loss and a huge gain for the football scene in Quebec, then later Ontario and the rest of the country. Pistilli’s impact has been huge and far-reaching.
As president of the Quebec Junior Football League, he gained the respect of those around him and those watching from afar. He became president of Football Canada in 1992 and stayed in that capacity until 1998.
The honours have piled up over the years — awards, thank yous, things like the CFL Football Canada Award in 1986 and a gold medal from the mayor of Chateauguay. He was honoured before Sunday’s Jr. Riders game at Minto Field. The Montreal Alouettes will pay tribute to him on Friday.
He’s still QJFL president, a job he proudly works hard at despite failing eyesight, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Why does he keep doing it?
“It’s the people, the volunteers,” he says. “I can’t think of nicer, better people. Taking credit for all of this, that’s not my schtick. I’ve met so many famous people. But I’ve always had my feet on the earth. When I think about them putting me in the Hall of Fame, there are so many others who are deserving. If I’m not doing this tomorrow, I’ll really miss it. I retired at 53 so I could spend more time to do football. I’ve offered to step down for three years. I’m afraid of becoming blase, of taking things for granted.”
There’s one person who Pistilli especially credits for his success.
“My wife, Stella. I owe it all to her,” he says. “She brought up three kids — two football players and a daughter. We’ve been married for 47 years. She’s been with me the whole way. She knew when I wasn’t home I wasn’t sitting in a bar drinking with the boys. In my speech at the Hall of Fame, I accepted the award on behalf of all the volunteers ... and my wife. You don’t know how many suppers she had on the table and I couldn’t eat right away because I was on the phone.”