Matheson a true inspiration

Jack Matheson (left) with his good friend and colleague, the late Cactus Jack Wells during a...

Jack Matheson (left) with his good friend and colleague, the late Cactus Jack Wells during a Bombers practice at the Stadium. (PHOTO COURTESY PEGGY MATHESON)

PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:32 PM ET

He’s the single biggest reason I’m sitting at this keyboard right now, my early inspiration.

The man who brought the Canadian Football League, especially the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, to life like nobody else could, simply with words.

As a kid, every day I’d rush to get the newspaper, the Winnipeg Tribune, to gaze at the latest pictures Jack Matheson had painted.

In those days you were either a Tribune family or a Free Press family, and those of us lucky enough to be in a Tribune family knew we had something the other kids in town didn’t.

I’d read his words, often a few times over, and although I didn’t know it at the time, they’d stick with me, landing like seeds in a fertile spot in my brain, where occasionally they continue to sprout, decades later.

I also didn’t know at the time that Matty was, quite simply, as good as it got in Canadian sports writing. A master of the written word.

That’s why it’s so hard to hear he can no longer read or write. Time has snatched those gifts away.

At 86, the great sportswriter is confined to a hospital bed, his body and mind failing him.

“Every once in a while he’ll kiss my hand,” his wife, Peggy, told me. “Unless a miracle happens, he’s not going to come home.”

The LGIW, as Matty always called her — the luckiest girl in the world — doesn’t feel so lucky these days.

But while it doesn’t look good for her husband, when she and son Jim, the oldest of three kids, begin to reminisce about better days with Matty, you quickly realize how lucky they’ve been.

“The softest father in the world,” the LGIW called him.

While Matty could be hard as nails in print, he was apparently a marshmallow at home. She’d be busy doling out the discipline, but he’d prefer to dole out the ice cream, or take the kids out to toss the football around.

How many kids have a putting green on their front lawn?

Matty’s did.

And while he taught Jim how to play golf, he passed down a more precious gift to his No. 1 son.

The kid became a sportswriter.

“I’d have to write and my dad would be looking over my shoulder,” Jim recalled of his early days as a scribe-in-training. “That was more pressure than actually going to the game and figuring out what I had to ask to write the story.”

Of course, when you eventually get the stamp of approval from Matty, you know you’re on your way.

The man, simply, was never boring in print.

With Matty, a receiver didn’t make great catches, he made catches he had no business making. He wasn’t wide open, he had enough time to make a speech before the ball came down.

A player didn’t punch another, he played the tom-toms on him. A quarterback didn’t get good protection, he had enough time to scribble the recipe for meat loaf on the football.

I’d even eat up his annual Christmas column, which began with “Merry Christmas to...” and ended with a few hundred names.

And to think, after serving two years in the navy, it took Matty a few months to work up the nerve to go to the Trib to ask for a job in 1946.

“The job he had (before that), they fired him,” the LGIW said. “He worked in an office, pushing a pencil. And you know that wasn’t Jack.”

No, he wasn’t at home unless he was at a game, talking to players and coaches, then banging away at his manual typewriter, where that day’s clack-clack-clack would become the next day’s must-read.

As a sports editor, I imagine he could be intimidating to the young writers.

Word is he never chewed them out, though. At least, not so they heard it.

“But, boy, did he write nasty notes,” the LGIW said. “He was a writer right to his fingertips.”

As passionate as he was about the Bombers, curling was “the love of his life.”

“It was a tossup who he loved more — me or his job,” Peggy cracked. “Sometimes I thought it was his job. He got up in the morning wanting to go to work. He was the only person I knew who wanted his holiday to end so he could go back to work.”

Lucky for us. Because a day without Matty in the Trib was a day you should have hung onto your 25 cents.

It turns out Matty had his own inspiration as a kid, huddling around the radio for Hockey Night In Canada broadcasts. He’d listen to Foster Hewitt, then write the story — at nine or 10 years old.

Even then, it was all about the words.

“He didn’t read comic books,” the LGIW said. “He read the dictionary.”

Don’t kid yourself, though. Matty knew how to have fun. If it wasn’t singing around the piano, it was with a drink and a cigar in a smoky hotel room, preferably during Brier or Grey Cup week.

“Or the hospitality suite,” said Jim.

Usually with his wife at his side.

Peggy often travelled with her husband, making it to 39 Grey Cups. No wonder he called her the LGIW.

“We’ve had a good 63 years,” she said.

What she and the kids wouldn’t give, though, for one more hour of lucidity. One more chance to say a few words to the man whose life was words.

And if they got that chance, which ones would they choose?

“Just that I love him,” Jim managed.

If you feel compelled to contact the family, they ask you don’t call or visit.

Write some words down on paper, and send it their way, instead.

Matty, no doubt, would prefer it that way.


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