Coasting but no cigar

DAN TOTH -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:13 AM ET

Witnessing another Wally Buono return to McMahon Stadium is always an event, although these days there's considerably less to see.

The one-time fixture on the Calgary landscape hasn't completely wasted away but he has trimmed more than 25 lb. since undergoing heart bypass surgery last November. The life-altering experience is demanding a revamped lifestyle that touches on everything from exercise rituals to food restrictions, tough changes for the Italian icon whose love of pasta is almost as legendary as his CFL coaching exploits over the last two decades.

The slimmed-down head coach, now in his third season with the B.C. Lions, has even gone so far as to butt out his beloved cigar habit. Well, almost.

"I've modified that," Buono says with a smile, recognizing his penchant for still occasionally firing up a stogie, especially rewarding after his undefeated Lions post another of their many victories.

"I can have some that are special, let's put it that way."

Buono argues he's surrendered in so many other areas since facing the life-threatening surgery just eight months ago that he's hanging onto those little hand-rolled tastes of heaven, despite the mild protests of wife Sande.

"She cares that I do it but she understands that I'm being much more moderate," says Buono, 55. "I know it's a health issue but a lot of things are health issues. I'm not advocating cigars and I try to limit it but there are certain things I enjoy doing. I've given up a lot, OK, and I don't feel I have to give up everything."

While confessing he still enjoys some of life's guilty pleasures, Buono notes he also occasionally indulges in a glass of wine, purely for the health benefits, of course.

"My wife gives me a glass, just one," he says. "She won't give me two but it's medicinal, right?

"The only other lifestyle changes I've made are changing my eating habits and I eliminated a lot of the white rice, pasta. Very seldom do I eat white bread, red meat or pork. Chicken, I eat once in a while and a lot more fish, salad and soups.

"And I walk a lot more at night as part of keeping my weight down. I don't look at it as stress management because I still run and do my weightlifting."

All four of Buono's children live in the Vancouver area now.

Daughter Christie gave her dad a 'Win With Jesus' wrist bracelet before the frightening operation, which he still wears.

She wasn't the only person thinking about the former Stamps head coach. Football players touched by Buono through more than decade in Calgary, including quarterback Henry Burris, were also pulling for their old boss.

"We definitely were praying for him during that whole battle he had to go through," Burris says.

"Wally's a strong person, strong in his faith, who works very hard. I know he's going to continue battling and I know his team has been feeding off the emotions of what he had to go through in the off-season.

"Knowing Wally, he puts his trust in God. And knowing him, he felt strongly he was going to make it but he had to stay strong not only for himself but for his family. He knew in his heart he'd pull through by keeping the faith and doing what the doctor says. That's enabled him to remain strong through the whole ordeal and even afterwards now."

The Buono-Burris relationship dates back to 1997, the quarterback's first season with the Stampeders, buried behind the likes of Jeff Garcia and Dave Dickenson.

"I think I took a special interest in Henry because he was like the forgotten guy, right?" Buono recalls of the pivot, re-signed this season by Calgary to lead the Stampeders renaissance.

"With his persona, he engulfs you a little bit and he was easy to like, to embrace and extend yourself to. I tried to make sure he knew we valued him and thought he was important but he had to work hard, too, knowing in time he would get his opportunity. He has done a great job of that."

But not too great tonight, Buono hopes. If the Lions lose their first game of the season, it would deny the coach the pleasure of drawing on one of his coveted smokes.


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