'Water Boy' will be missed

TERRY JONES -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:59 AM ET

Bobby Ackles was arguably the best non-player story in the history of the Canadian Football League.

Those of us who have been around the CFL pressboxes for years have written the story in so many different forms over the years - how he worked his way through the organization to the top and then returned to save the franchise in the new millennium.

But this is definitely a day when we didn't want to write it again.

Ackles died yesterday, at age 69, of an apparent heart attack.

He was The Water Boy. Hated being called that. But he eventually wrote a book with that title.

He was the guy who started at the very bottom and worked his way to the top with the B.C. Lions.

He went away to become a success story as an executive with the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins in the National Football League and then returned to be the CFLs champion, firing the first and loudest shots in the new cold war with the NFL over the move into the Toronto market by the Buffalo Bills.

Many of my favourite memories of Ackles were fun times from B.C. Lions training camps in Penticton, and his highly social pre-game press conferences in Vancouver in the '70s with GM Jackie Parker holding court and coach Eagle Keys playing the spoons.

And it was always a great night at the Lions suite at the Grey Cup as Ackles played host, serving drinks and slicing the smoked salmon.

But the most vivid memory might be the year he came back from retirement.

It was 2002 and the Lions started the season 0-3 and drew 14,218 for that third game and you had to wonder how much interest Bobby was going to have in making it to his 50th year in pro football.

That was his 49th. And it was the last time I forced him to retell the water boy story.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," he said that day. "It was April, 1953. Heather Park in Vancouver. It was the year before the Lions were in the league, but they already had the franchise. I wrote a letter to Annis Stukus asking if I could be water boy, but he didn't answer it.

"I heard when the team's first practice was going to be held and I showed up. Tiger Kozak was the trainer and equipment man, and he hired me."

Ackles went from water boy to equipment manager to minor football co-ordinator to assistant GM to GM. It was Parker who made him assistant GM, and it was Parker's firing as GM that gave Ackles that job.

"He was one of Jack's favourites," said former Eskimos GM Norm Kimball when I called him yesterday and, as so often happens in this business, was the one who told him of the death of his old mate.

"I just saw Kay last week," Kimball said of Bobby's wife, who flew to Calgary to watch her husband's team play her son's team in the league opener. Scott Ackles became the president of the Stampeders this year.

"Bobby was a nice man, very quiet and very capable," said Kimball. "And Jackie thought the world of him, that's for sure. Just thought the world of him."

Ackles was here for Parker's funeral and spoke of the way life works.

"When I got the GM job, it was Black Monday," he recalled. "They fired Eagle and Jackie. I got Parker's job. It wasn't a nice way to get it. If he hadn't been fired during the season, it would've gone to somebody else."

The Water Boy made the most of it. And he came back to do it again, turning the Lions around to become Grey Cup champions again two years ago.

Tributes will be coming in from throughout the entire football world in the next few days. But the comments of another former Eskimos GM, Hugh Campbell, yesterday, might say it for everyone.

"Forty-seven football seasons ago, I met Bobby Ackles at my first CFL game when B.C. played Ottawa at Empire Stadium. His enthusiasm for the game and knowledge of the league were huge factors in me eventually joining the CFL," said Campbell, who came up from Washington State and was shown around by the guy who was then equipment manager.

"His influence on football in Vancouver has been monumental and he's been a CFL standard bearer for the last half century. All CFL fans should know that our league would not be here today were it not for the work of Bob and the foundation he helped build. I will miss my friend."

Bobby Ackles never played a down. But he'll be remembered as one of the all-time greats of the Canadian game.


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