Peter Dalla Riva arrived in Hamilton from Italy with his family in 1953 as a wide eyed eight-year-old. While few immigrants have a concrete idea of what their future will look like in a new country, Dalla Riva’s journey proved to be a unique one.
It began with an immersion in a new culture, learning a new language and trying to catch up academically with the kids in the first-grade class he’d landed in. The oldest of five children, his education went on hiatus at 16, when he took a job in a Hamilton steel mill after his father lost his job. That might have been where he worked the rest of his life, had he not been such a promising athlete.
Dalla Riva played a bit of everything (baseball, basketball, hockey, to name a few) as a kid and usually ended up playing at a high level. And while he was good at those sports, he loved football more than anything else. The only problem was that he didn’t have a school to play for.
“I got into football when I was 20 years old. Played one year of junior football in Burlington, and Bernie Custis was our coach,” Dalla Riva says.
“Great guy, great coach, great person. He just taught you about life in general. I was 20 years old. I never played. I’d played in the street, the sandlot. I was one tight end and Tony Gabriel was the other tight end. Bernie got (Gabriel) a scholarship to Syracuse University.
“I went to the senior bowl in Oakville and then four of us there on that team got invited to Montreal’s camp. The four of us went up there and it got me out of the mills.”
It got Dalla Riva out of the mills and on the path to what turned out to be a 14-year career with the Alouettes. As a tight end and receiver, he won three Grey Cups in Montreal and was a three-time all-star that retired with 450 receptions for 6,413 yards. He went into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1993 and has enjoyed working in the hall of fame’s selection committee since 1994.
He says he was honoured to be chosen by the Alouettes to have his name on the team’s t-shirts this weekend when the team plays in Edmonton on Friday against the Eskimos.
Now 71, Dalla Riva looks back fondly on being a part of not only a successful era in Alouettes history, but during a peak time in Montreal sports history. The Canadiens won eight Stanley Cups while Dalla Riva was an Alouette. The Expos joined MLB in 1969 and moved to Olympic Stadium in 1977 and of course the Olympics took place in Montreal in 1976.
“After we’d practice (the Expos would) be playing a game. We’d have the practice field outside the stadium, so we’d come off the field, we’d have a meeting and we’d shower and everything and then we’d go up in the stands, have a couple of beers and watch a few innings,” he recalls.
Dalla Riva enjoyed getting to know the Expos, and since he shared an agent later in his career with some of the Canadiens, he got to know them as well.
“It was a fun era, the ’70s. It was really, really good. And we had the Olympics of course back then in ’76, there was the Grand Prix, everything else. It’s a long way from Hamilton.
“I’m just lucky to get out of the mills and to have made a career out of (football). I just tried to play hard all the time and tried to be a team man all the time, which I know I was.”
His approach to sports sounds a little old school, but it’s a simple and effective one and he still believes in it today.
“There were three things I learned,” he said. “You play the game hard, you play within the rules and you play to win.”
Picture courtesy of the Montreal Alouettes