This isn't how a legend should end

EARL McRAE

, Last Updated: 5:12 AM ET

Montreal Alouettes, and later Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy was of the same sentiment. In 1993, when the CFL Alumni Association voted Albrecht the all-time general manager of the Alouettes, Levy said publicly: "I wouldn't be where I am today if J.I. hadn't seen something in me and given me my first head coaching break back then with Montreal. Let me tell you, he's highly respected in this business and as solid a football man as there is."

There were similar comments from other CFL and NFL coaches and players who credited Albrecht with giving them their starts, most recently in February from Wally Buono of the B.C. Lions in his speech after being named CFL coach of the year. Ten CFL players he is singularly responsible for recruiting and signing -- among many other of his notables -- are in the Canadian Football Hall Of Fame. He belongs there, too. As a builder. It is an enduring disgrace that he is not. Contemptuously, he says: "There are people on the selection committee who hate me, Earl. I have a reputation for telling it like it is. I've never grovelled at the expense of my principles."

His father taught him that. Born 76 years ago into a life of wealth and privilege in St. James, New York, Albrecht was an only child, his strict German-descent father an architect and land developer, his Jewish mother a housewife. Albrecht is a Jew, but non-practising, having chosen instead an informal Christianity. His parents had a severe intolerance for disrespect and self pity. Two examples formative of his tao: One time at dinner when 10-year-old J.I. said to the maid, "Pass the potatoes," a knife slammed quiveringly between his fingers and into the table. "Say please," said his father. "What if you'd stabbed my hand?" said J.I. "If I'd wanted to stab your hand," said his father, "I would have."

When Albrecht was U.S. college and pro football's most famed bird dog with several teams before serving in executive capacities with some half dozen NFL clubs, he travelled the continent alone by bus, staying in cheap motels. He has never learned to drive. I ask him why. He motions to the dead, sightless eye he lost at the age 18 while boxing for Georgia Military Academy. He says he was afraid that if he lost his good eye while driving, he'd be killed. "When I lost my eye, my mother told me I'd be ugly for the rest of my life, but that at least I'd be fascinatingly ugly."

For more than 30 years Albrecht has been writing his autobiography, never finishing it because his eclectic life was always creating a new chapter. It's now complete, ready for publishing offers. Prominent among its adventuresome chroniclings, his Canadian years: Player personnel director of the Alouettes, GM of the 1970 Grey Cup winning team. Managing director of the Argonauts in the mid-'70s, again in 2000, appointing Pinball Clemons head coach against strong internal opposition. Player personnel director of the Ottawa Rough Riders, GM of the Shreveport Pirates.

GM of the Toronto Metros-Croatia of the North American Soccer League, sole spearhead of the failed attempt to put a CFL expansion team in Halifax called the Atlantic Schooners, director of athletics at University College of Cape Breton where he formed its very first football team in the CIAU named the Capers after his beloved bulldog that accompanied him everywhere.

His book is titled Just J.I. -- A Fisher Of Men. Just J.I. Therein lies the most confounding mystery in all of football. Since coming to Canada in 1960, he has steadfastly maintained the initials stand for nothing. Many over the years have gone to great lengths to prove otherwise and failed.

"It's just J.I.," he once told me when I pleaded for the truth. "Some say it means Justifiably Incognito, others Jesus Incarnate. Both are appropriate, but wrong. My real name is J.I. Just J.I."

Just J.I. The Prince Of Darkness, I once labelled him for his black suits and black turtleneck sweaters on the hottest of days as he lordly strutted the practice sidelines, for his mysterious and loner ways, his strange eccentricities, his personality that spanned cantankerous to temper tantrum, his intimidation conveyed by the hawk-like nose, the jutting jaw, the opaque dead eye, the squinty good eye, the wispy brushcut, the unlit cigar between clenched teeth, the voice that was sandpaper on a cinder block, the barrel chest, the ramrod-erect military posture, the cursing of reporters he was convinced were out to get him, the spouting of war quotes from such of his heroes as Gen. Robert Neyland, Gen. George Patton, Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

This is the figure of physical power, of dominating presence, I remember. I am not prepared for the J.I. Albrecht before my eyes. His sunken body covered in a white sheet from his neck to his toes. His unshaven face thin and pale. His good eye red and hurting. His left arm and hand immobilized from the stroke. His toothless mouth misshapen by the stroke. His aching legs unable to walk. The catheter so that he can urinate. The diaper for his uncontrollable bowel movements. The oozing bedsore on his buttocks. The medication he's on since the heart attack. The pain killing drugs for the damaged prostate, the pain of which makes him scream out to God during the day and in the middle of the long, dark night.

"I asked the doctor for stronger painkillers. He said I'm already on a ton. I said give me a ton and a half then. He said if he gave me a ton and a half, I wouldn't know me or anyone else. Good, I said. He wouldn't do it."

His sorrows are heightened by the death two years ago from cervical cancer of his second wife, Kathryn, and the suicide last Christmas of one of his three grown boys, Rod, a bachelor, a medicated schizophrenic, who ran a cleaning company that employs people with mental illness.

Before being put in the nursing home last fall, Albrecht lived in an apartment house with his first wife Anna, and Rod, but each in separate units. Until the police inexplicably waited until two weeks ago to show him Rod's suicide letter, J.I. blamed himself for his son's death.

"I thought I'd caused it," he says, his voice breaking. "I thought it was because Rod felt guilty that he could no longer look after me and had to put me in a nursing home. Of my three sons, Rod was always the sweetest and gentlest."

Rod Albrecht, a recent convert to Judaism, was 47 when the police found him in his cold, parked van, dead from an overdose of pills. "He had diabetes," says Albrecht. "Shortly before Christmas, he had to put his Rottweiler, Teddy Bear, down. That was very hard on him. But it was when he went to the hospital, the fast-track emergency, to have his hand checked out. It'd become painfully swollen and changed colour. His suicide letter said they made him wait and wait and did nothing. He was very upset at how he was treated. It all became too much for him. But at least his letter didn't blame himself for me."

Albrecht brings a corner of the sheet up to his tearful good eye. "Since Rod's death, a pigeon has been coming to my window sill. It comes and then flies away. I believe it's Rod." He glances over at a protruding section of his wall that, to him, resembles a cross. "I pray to that cross everyday. I say 'Oh Rod. Apologize to God. He didn't want you to do it. He had great things in store for you. You were so special, Rod. So special.' I tell him how much I miss him. How much I love him.

"I tell him he's with his grandmother and grandfather and Teddy Bear. I tell him to ask God to please have Satan stop hurting me. I don't want to die. I want to live so I can give. I pledge $25 to Sick Children's Hospital every month. It's all I can afford to give." He pauses. "If you love someone, Earl, don't ever put them in a nursing home."

The late afternoon sun caresses the side of his face. I tell him I have to go now. "Earl, no, please. Don't go yet. Sit down for a little while longer. Please. This has been good for me, you coming. I don't get many visitors. I'm lonely. Please, don't go yet." Visits from his sons have not been as frequent as he would like. Anna, however, visits once a week. And Rod's best friend Shawn, a hairdresser, every Wednesday to trim his hair and shave his face.

I sit down and we talk some more. I ask if he'd like me to give out the address of the nursing home, and his private phone number. Yes, he says. I write in my notebook: J.I. Albrecht, Room 515, Lincoln Place Nursing Home, 429 Walmer Rd., Toronto, M5P 2X9. Phone: 416-928-6506.

And then, turning as I leave: "J.I., surely now is the time to reveal it. You've always said it was just J.I., but I can't believe that's your real name. I mean, why the initials J.I. and not, say, R.K. or B.L. or T.M.? They must stand for something. Please, can't you just tell me?"

He stares at me for the longest time. Then his head nods slowly. And J.I. Albrecht reveals, at last, the greatest mystery and secret in football.

"My birth certificate says Baby Albrecht. You'll now know why I'm an only child. My mother didn't get pregnant until 10 years into the marriage. When she was in labour, the doctor gave my father terrible news. He said 'Who do you want to live -- the baby or the mother?' My father was stunned. He said: "BOTH." When the doctor later came out holding me and told him my mother had survived, too, my father was overwhelmed. He looked at me and over and over said: 'Just incredible.'"

I, too, am stunned. "So that's your real name -- Just Incredible?"

"That's my real name, Earl. That is the truth. That's what my parents named me. They weren't allowed to use it on a birth certificate, and they knew a name like that would cause me too many questions and explanations throughout my life. So they shortened it to J.I. Just J.I. For my real name. Just Incredible."


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