Who'll pick up cause?

PAUL FRIESEN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:50 AM ET

Who will pick up the torch?

That's what I wonder in the wake of the death of Bob Ackles, the B.C. Lions president who's been sounding the alarm bells about the NFL coming to Canada.

It was in this space, last October, that Ackles first began beating the drum, warning anyone who'd listen that the four-down game's incursion into Toronto, if allowed to be full-time, would signal the death of the CFL.

But Ackles was usually a lone voice in the wilderness. A little man on his soap box, making too big a deal about something, too soon, they said.

He didn't care.

Every chance he got, Ackles talked to politicians, to fellow CFL execs, to corporate heads, to fans. One politician even introduced a bill protecting the CFL from a southern invasion.

People scoffed at that, too. But it got them talking.

Who will get them talking, now?

Ackles acknowledged his doomsday scenario might not happen in his lifetime, and he turned out to be far too right, silenced by a heart attack, at 69, last weekend.

He meant so much to the Lions, bringing the franchise credibility, bringing it professionalism -- bringing it together.

But he, potentially, meant more to the CFL.

His head coach and GM, Wally Buono, says Ackles represented many of the things we hold dear about this quaint little operation.

"The tradition, the dream, the hometown hero -- everything the CFL is, Bob was," Buono said. "At the end of the day, the guy that stood up for the CFL, while publicly not many people would have or did, was Bob."

Maybe it was because the league once stood up for him, the Lions hiring him as their waterboy, decades ago. He rewarded them with a Grey Cup in 1985, the franchise's first in 21 years.

Not even 15 years as an NFL executive could dull Ackles' sense of Canadiana. Truth is, it sharpened it.

Ackles was so well respected down south, he got the ear of the NFL commissioner's office, where he was always assured the league would never squash its northern neighbour.

A new NFL boss, a restless, struggling franchise in Buffalo and big money men in Toronto have changed everything.

Rather than kick up his feet on his yacht and contemplate retirement, Ackles took up the fight.

"He didn't have to stick his neck on the line," Buono said. "But what he believed, he was willing to stick up for."

Buono, so shaken by his friend's death that he could barely speak early in the week, knows exactly how he wants to honour Ackles. At least, in the short term.

"The best thing I could do for Bob is hopefully, at the end of the year, present his family with the Grey Cup," he said. "If that gives me extra motivation or extra drive, or if one day maybe I don't feel like going to work and I wake up and say, 'Hey, maybe I should do this for Bob,' so be it."

I didn't know Bob Ackles that well. But I took heed of his warning.

If a man with that amount of experience and that many connections on both sides of the border says the NFL is coming and we need to do something about it, we should listen.

But now that he's gone, who will pick up the torch?

"Bob's left a legacy that can run itself," Buono said. "When Terry Fox passed, who picked up the torch? Usually, the greatest legacy you leave is after you die. Because if there's a cause to fight, the cause lives on a lot longer than you do."

Then Buono looked me in the eye and issued a challenge.

"Who picks up the cause?" he began. "Well, you've got the pen. You pick up the cause. And you keep Bob's spirit alive and keep his dream alive."

That's a tall order.

But Ackles always believed in simply doing your best.

So I'll start with this column, and see where it goes.

If the waterboy proved one thing, it's that anything is possible.


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