HAMILTON -- Ron Lancaster checked into hospital for a routine dye test in late March and woke up three days later.
Shortly after the dye was injected into the soon-to-be 66-year-old Hall of Famer, it triggered an allergic reaction which caused his body to swell uncontrollably.
"It's the 'die' test, all right," offered the Hamilton Tiger-Cats general manager of football operations as he watched Hamilton's walk-through at Ivor Wynne Stadium yesterday. "I just swelled up like the Michelin man.
"I've never been allergic to anything in my life. I went there and signed the thing that said I wasn't allergic to anything.
"They put the shot in my arm Monday at three in the afternoon and the next thing I knew, it was Thursday. I don't remember anything in between."
PLAQUE BROKE LOOSE
At the height of the crisis which left his body systems shutting down, a chunk of plaque broke loose inside an artery and Lancaster suffered a heart attack. That was news to the man who guided the Ticats to their last Grey Cup title.
"The cardiologist said I didn't have any heart damage because he was there to fix it," he recounted. "He said, 'You had it. I fixed it. You're fine.'
"That's lucky. Very, very fortunate. I still had to have some tests done but I couldn't do anything until I passed the stress test for the cardiologist."
Had the dye test not triggered the allergic reaction, it would have revealed Lancaster's cancerous bladder.
The CFL's second all-time leading passer entered hospital last month to have his bladder removed and remained there for 12 days.
A pack-a-day smoker for close to 40 years, the pivot who would light up at halftime when he was quarterbacking the Saskatchewan Roughriders has been smoke-free for six months.
"That fateful day in March kind of shot that down," he said. "I knew I had to do it. I quit smoking a thousand times, it's just I always started again. It's amazing what you can accomplish, one, if you want to and, two, if you have to."
The former Saskatchewan, Edmonton Eskimos and Ticats head coach also shed most of the excess weight which used to hang over his belt.
Lancaster was never a nine-to-five kind of guy. Anybody who ever signed his pay-cheque knew they were getting a big bang for their buck, given Lancaster's penchant for burning the midnight oil. Now, he's learning to pace himself and spending more time with his college sweetheart and wife of 46 years, Bev.
"I'm really not supposed to be here a long time," said Lancaster. "But the doctor said to me, 'You have to know when I've had enough and when you've had enough, go home.' "
A one-win season coupled with the Ticats former owners' failure to meet the payroll prompted the father of three and grandfather of four to pay lip service to the notion of retirement toward the end of the 2003 campaign.
Clearly, his brush with death and cancer surgery has Lancaster looking at life, and life after football, in an altogether different light.
"You've heard a lot of people say over the years that their wife was their best friend. There's no doubt about that," Lancaster said before his voice began to crack with emotion. "It's been a trying time.
"Maybe I was pushing things a little too hard for too many hours for too many days and too long a period. It's kind of nice to sleep in and come in around nine o'clock.
"I do a lot of walking now. I don't have a whole lot on my mind, so I can relax. It's kind of different and, hopefully, it can continue that way."
TOUGH TO BREAK
Although Lancaster put his biggest vice behind him and he's been making healthy choices since March, some habits are tough to break. Following his release from hospital last month, he made two stops on the way home. The first was at Ivor Wynne, where he chewed the fat with head coach Greg Marshall and a other staff members.
Then, after nearly two weeks of minimal food intake, Lancaster asked Bev to drive him to a fast-food restaurant where he ordered a hamburger.
"I was starting to hallucinate. I was driving the doctors crazy," he chuckled. "They said, 'You must be feeling better because you're starting to ask about food.' We went to Wendy's and I loaded up the plaque. I had to get started some how."