'Friends of Jay' rally

EARL MCRAE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:17 AM ET

The letter came to me, signed "Friends Of Jay."

It said: "Because of Earl McRae's moving profile of Jay Roberts (July 13/10), hundreds of signatures of best wishes and many dozens of caring, hand-written, snail-mail letters recalling fondly the fun that everybody had in the Golden Age of Ottawa Rough Rider football, were received at Jay's bedside.

"The loving messages have entertained and sustained him beyond measure. He thanks all of you."

Love can sometimes be the best of all medicines, and I, too, thank all of those who responded to my solicitation in the piece to let the magnificent Riders tight end from the 1960s know how much you care for him as he lies in a hospital bed in the last months, if not weeks, of the terminal cancer ravaging his body.

As he waits on a long list to be moved to a palliative care facility, he's thinner now from when I visited him, less cognizant, and sleeps most of the time in his new room: 4213, fourth floor, Ottawa General Hospital, 501 Smyth Rd., K1H 8L6.

Brian Doyle, a great friend of Jay who visits him frequently, chuckles: "The staff on his floor loved your story on him. The quality of the care for him was excellent, but when they read the piece and realized who they had, a former football star, his quality of care doubled. Jay loved it."

Although Roberts, says Doyle, is "in the moment only about 20% of the time now," he is -- within it -- aware and appreciative of the outpouring of compassion through all the visits and cards and letters and gifts. "They changed his attitude completely."

The 67-year old Roberts, long-estranged from his wife, and with no immediate family in Ottawa, knows the end game of his illness is certain death, but as he told me in July he doesn't worry about death because "I don't know what it is, I haven't been there before."

Brian Doyle: "Talking to Jay about death is like talking to him about the weather."

Many past teammates, and even Riders who didn't play with Roberts, have visited him including, recently, Russ Jackson and his wife Lois who live in Burlington. Roberts caught a touchdown pass from Jackson in Ottawa's 1969 Grey Cup win over Saskatchewan.

"I talked to him about it," says Jackson. "But he couldn't remember any of it."

Others who've visited Roberts are Rider fans, or people who simply care and know what a visit can mean. It is the same with the cards and letters that Doyle and Roberts' friends read to him.

"One woman, who didn't know him, writes him long, caring letters every week that are religious," says Doyle. "Quite a few are like that. He also gets religious beads and crosses from people. He's received gifts such as Rough Rider pennants -- 'I kept this from 1968, I thought I'd send it to you.' "

A significant percentage of the mail is from women; strangers and those who knew him. "Jay was never one to hit on women," says Doyle, "but he was the kind of big friendly guy with a personality that women just loved.

"One of the letters said 'You won't remember me. I was with my husband at the time, but wishing I was with you.' Another one said, 'Maybe you don't remember me, but I remember how great a football player you were. We met at a party one time.' "

Jay Roberts has terminal cancer, but Brian Doyle remembers his friend's concern over something else, starting several years ago.

"He was having trouble with his memory. It bothered him. He was having trouble doing crossword puzzles. He loved crossword puzzles, he'd do five in an hour.

"But he could barely get through one. He couldn't concentrate anymore, his mind wouldn't process like it used to. He said he thought his confusion was maybe caused by concussions. The concussions he got in football."

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Contact McRae at earl.mcrae@sunmedia.ca or leave a message at 613-739-5133, ext. 469.


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