The following is a true story. It hasn’t been embellished in any manner and/or ripped from the pages of a Hollywood screenplay deemed too outlandish to be put into production.
Experienced Winnipeg Blue Bombers fans know all about the tale of Gerry James. But for those of you haven’t been introduced, meet one of this country’s greatest athletes; a two-sport star who wowed fans on the gridiron and on the ice, and later became a highly successful coach.
Here is a fascinating story of a kid from Kelvin High School who was wearing a Bomber uniform at age 17 and, four years later (and just months removed from being named the Canadian Football League’s Most Outstanding Canadian in 1954 and a Memorial Cup champion in 1955), was making his National Hockey League debut at the Montreal Forum as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
If you can take a moment, re-read that last paragraph just to let the magnitude of it all sink in for a moment.
“My goal growing up was to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers,” James, the latest addition to the Winnipeg Football Club’s Ring of Honour, told bluebombers.com. “I used to listen to all the football and hockey broadcasts and so when it happened I was in fantasy land.
“I can remember standing in the Montreal Forum for my first game after being called up from junior and thought, ‘I made it to the NHL. I don’t care what they do after this, I’ve played a game in the NHL.’”
James was born in Regina in 1931 before moving to Winnipeg as a youngster. His father, Eddie ‘Dynamite’ James, is a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame, and the Blue Bombers Hall of Fame. He played for the Regina Pats, Regina Roughriders, St. John’s College, and the Winnipeg ‘Pegs.
But it was the accomplishments of his son Gerry – nicknamed ‘Kid Dynamite’ – who made him, as his Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame bio indicates, one of this province’s ‘most versatile athletes.’
James was a member of the Winnipeg Monarchs who competed in the 1952 Memorial Cup, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, who owned his hockey rights, had him move to Toronto to play with their junior team, the Marlboros, that fall. But by then James was already a member of the Blue Bombers, having attended training camp that summer as a 17 year-old.
“I got invited to Bombers training camp and they offered me $50 a week to go to practice and I thought, ‘Boy, what a deal this is,’” recalled James with a chuckle. “I would have paid them $50 a week to go practice with all my idols, especially Tom Casey.
“I learned by watching the guy ahead of me in practice running the play. So if we ran a play three times, I’d be the third guy running the play and do exactly what the guy before me did because I didn’t know what all these things meant. I didn’t know the terminology in (head coach) George Trafton’s system. If the guy in front of me had run forward, tripped, and fallen down I would have done the exact same thing.
“I ran a play in the area where Casey was playing defensive back,” James added. “I kind of danced around and he tackled me. Trafton gave me hell and said to run the play again and let’s try and get some yards. I ran the play again and ran Tom over. We became friends after that. He was a great man.
“That first year with the Bombers in 1952, my mother, who was my agent, made me go back to Toronto and I never got to play in the playoffs. They flew me back for one game in 1952 to play in the playoffs but they said I was missing too much school so I had to go back to Toronto. I played a full season plus the playoffs the next year. I guess by then I was old enough to make up my own mind.”
A running back and kicker, James would play 11 seasons for the Bombers and was the team’s leading scorer in 1960, 1961 and 1962. He led the club in rushing in 1954, 1955 and 1957, still ranks fourth on the all-time touchdown list with 63, behind Milt Stegall (147), Charles Roberts (79) and Leo Lewis (75), is still fifth in rushing with 5,541 yards behind Roberts (9,987), Lewis (8,861), Willard Reaves (5,923) and Jim Washington (5,736), and fifth in scoring with 601 points, behind Troy Westwood (2,748), Trevor Kennerd (1,840), Stegall (890) and Bernie Ruoff (673).
He appeared in six Grey Cups, winning four – 1958, 1959, 1961 and 1962 – was the first winner of the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian Award in 1954, an honour he captured again in 1957. That year, he led the CFL in scoring and set a record with 18 rushing touchdowns.
James made his NHL debut in 1955 after a Memorial Cup win with the Marlboros, getting called up to play on the Leafs’ top line with Ted Kennedy and Sid Smith with Eric Nesterenko hurt. He would play in 149 NHL games in his career and is the only player to suit up for both the Grey Cup and the Stanley Cup final in the same season.
Not bad for a kid who grew up on Beaverbrook Street and cut his teeth at Sir John Franklin Community Centre.
“I used to ride my bike year round. In the winter time, in the summer time, it didn’t matter,” James, now 81, recalled. “That led to my biggest strength… I could run and run because of the strength in my lower body. I’ve had both knees replaced and a hip, but I’m still doing all right.”
James stayed in the game after retiring from football following the 1964 season, playing senior hockey before turning to coaching. He coached in Switzerland when he was 30 – he and a bunch of other Canadian coaches in Europe tied Team Canada in a pre-Olympic tournament in 1964 – and then owned, coached, and managed the Yorkton Terriers before coaching in Melville and Estevan of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and Moose Jaw of the Western Hockey League.
Among those he helped en route to NHL careers were Theo Fleury, Brian Propp, Alan May, Lyle Odelein and Joey Kocur.
James and his father were separated for many years – his parents divorced in 1948 when he was 14 – but made peace before his death in 1958.
“My dad was over in the war for six years and when he came back he wasn’t the same guy,” said James. “He was an alcoholic and he really had a hard life. But I finally got happy with our relationship near the end, before he passed away. He had remarried to a lovely lady and was doing well for himself. We were able to make peace.”
James has five children and his son Kelly – “his name is Kelly Charles James and we call him K.C. after Tom Casey” – will be in town for Thursday’s Ring of Honour ceremony.
“It’s a great honour in the fact that I’ve been away from the game for so long. To be thought of for this new Ring of Honour so early in its inception is just a wonderful feeling, knowing that people feel I made some sort of a small impact on the football club. I’ve been reflecting in the last week or so of the teammates I played with and my mentor, Tom Casey, and it makes me happy for all of them, too.”