The Magic of Milt

PAUL FRIESEN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:18 AM ET

Driven. Fit. Disciplined. Loyal. Intense. Ultra-competitive. And, yes, talented.

All words that fit Milt Stegall like a tailored suit.

Now you can stitch the word retired on, too. And hall-of-famer.

But the CFL's all-time touchdown and receiving yardage king was much more than the athlete who pulled jersey No. 85 over his well-groomed head for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers the last 14 years.

Stegall was as complex as he was gifted, which made him stand out from the usual video-game-playing, junk-food-eating jocks that pass through town.

He was a businessman, as protective of his finances as he was of the ball in traffic.

He was sensitive, obstinate, God-fearing and fun-loving, a racially sensitive man who grew up in racially sensitive times.

What I'll remember of Milt Stegall as he becomes but a memory is not so much the catches and the long touchdown runs but the personal glimpses he gave me into his life over the last decade.

* * *

Nobody I knew had ever been to Stegall's home when I approached the door at his Assiniboine Avenue home in Westwood a little more than seven years ago.

Then-Bomber GM Brendan Taman didn't even have Stegall's home phone number. He didn't need it: Stegall would always show up when and where he was supposed to.

Intensely private, Stegall allowed me into his rented house for an up-close-and-personal, an interview that revealed his deep religious convictions. This was a man who read the Bible more than the play book, a man who didn't smoke, drink or swear, but also didn't preach.

"I just try to make the world a better place," he said that day. "This world is a cruel place. And that's not the way it should be."

Stegall could be cruel, too. Ask some of the defensive backs he turned into scorched pretzels as he ran around and away from them, not hesitating to rub it in with a touchdown dance or a spike at the poor guy's feet.

Get him away from the competition, though, and those around him say you won't find a more decent teammate.

"He's not the A-hole that he is on the field," former receiver Robert Gordon once said. "On the field, they don't like him. Off the field, he'll give you the shirt off his back."

Stegall would use his connections to get jackets for the equipment guys, or gloves for the rookie receivers. He'd give his time, too, for a teammate that needed someone to watch his kid.

I never saw him turn down a kid's autograph request, either.

The other thing Stegall would never turn down is a chance to save money.

His frugality was already legendary with his teammates -- stories of taking leftovers back to his hotel room on the road to save on meals later -- but we found out it went way back to his days at Roger Bacon High School in Cincinnati.

It was September, 2007, and Stegall was on the verge of becoming the CFL's all-time touchdown leader, Canadian football's version of Barry Bonds, only clean.

Stegall allowed me to call some old friends in his hometown to get "the dirt" on him, see where he came from, what made him tick as a teenager.

Not surprisingly, the first thing his lifelong buddy, Jerry Wilkerson, came up with was a story about Stegall, the penny-pincher. About how he'd loan money to fellow students, then charge them 35%-40% interest.

"I used to call him Milburn Drysdale, like on the Beverly Hillbillies, the TV show -- the banker," Wilkerson cracked.

Stegall's parents -- his mom was a nurse, his dad a chemical engineer -- obviously taught him the value of an honest day's work. Before he became No. 85, beginning in Grade 8, he worked in the convenience store his parents operated on the side, despising the work but loving the pay.

He really made a name for himself as an athlete in high school, a two-way player who rarely left the field, scored a ton of touchdowns and made everybody think he was destined for big things.

Oh, and there was another trait he was already cultivating. Seems the self-proclaimed best-looking man in the CFL got an early start.

"He always thought he was some kind of pretty boy," a chuckling Wilkerson said. "The girls always liked him. They loved them some Milt."

A star in football and track, Stegall went on to the University of Miami at Ohio, then to the NFL as an undrafted free agent, sticking for three years until fate brought him to Canada.

I got another glimpse into Stegall's heart last summer, when talking to him about then-U.S. presidential hopeful Barack Obama, and what it would mean to African Americans if he were to win the presidency.

Stegall talked about the discrimination his father faced, about the Ku Klux Klan marching at his high school after some kids had been suspended for wearing hoods at Halloween.

He talked about the race riots that have plagued Cincinnati at different times, about how there are still places in the U.S. -- he and his family live in Atlanta now -- where black men aren't welcome.

It explained why Stegall was always sensitive about race, aware of things like white reporters making jokes at the expense of, say, a troubled black man like Mike Tyson.

* * *

What set Stegall apart as a player wasn't his speed, or his hands -- it was his competitive fire, a fire that was sparked way back in his childhood, maybe even one he entered this world with.

"He doesn't like losing at anything," Wilkerson, who's known Stegall since they were both six years old, recalled. "You'd have to keep playing until he won."

For a time, it looked like that's exactly what he'd do.

Regrettably, the best receiver I've seen up here never won a championship.

Like Stegall said that day in his home, eight years ago, the world is a cruel place.

That's certainly not the way it should be.

---

MILT STEGALL HIGHLIGHTS

CFL Records

Most receiving TDs in a season, 23 ('02)

Highest average gain/reception in a season, 26.5 ('97)

Most career games with a TD reception, 105

Most career receiving TDs, 144

Most overall career TDs, 147

Most career receiving yards, 15,153

Individual Honours

CFL Outstanding Player Award ('02)

CFL all-star, six times

Division all-star, eight times

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HE COULD GO ALL THE WAY

Stegall touchdowns against each CFL franchise:

Saskatchewan 24

Calgary 22

Toronto 22

Montreal 19

Hamilton 19

B.C. 18

Edmonton 15

Ottawa 8

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MILTI-TALENTED

Three of Milt Stegall's career touchdowns didn't happen through the air.

A look at the other ways

No. 85 found the end zone:

1. Sept. 25/98 -- Stegall takes a lateral from teammate Eric Blount and completes an 80-yard punt return against Montreal.

2. July 15/'99 -- Stegall scoops up the loose ball from a Maurice Kelly punt block and scampers 52 yards against Toronto.

3. Sept. 12/'04 -- Stegall falls on a Charles Roberts fumble in the end zone in the first Banjo Bowl against Saskatchewan.

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TOUCHDOWN BEAGLE

Milt Stegall's multi-touchdown games:

Four touchdowns (twice)

Oct. 6/02 at Sask

Oct. 10/05 vs. B.C.

Three touchdowns (five times)

July 15/99 vs. Tor

Sept. 29/00 vs. Sask

Oct. 14/01 vs. Ham

July 23/02 at Tor

Oct. 18/02 at Cal

Two touchdowns (24 times)

Sept. 24/95 vs. Cal

Aug. 26/96 vs. B.C.

Aug. 1/97 at Cal

Oct. 19/97 at Mtl

Oct. 25/98 at Mtl

Oct. 30/98 vs. Tor

July 14/00 vs. Cal

Sept. 3/00 at Sask

Oct. 9/00 at B.C.

Oct. 27/00 at Tor

Aug. 24/01 vs. Mtl

June 28/02 vs Tor

July 27/02 at Mtl

Sept. 20/02 vs Mtl

June 27/03 at Ott

Aug. 2/03 at Ham

Oct. 17/03 at Edm

Oct. 24/03 vs. Edm

Oct. 24/04 at Edm

Aug. 26/05 at Ham

Sept. 4/05 at Sask

July 1/06 vs. Edm

July 27/07 vs. Ham

Sept. 12/08 at Tor


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