Biography a son’s tribute to incredible Canadian athlete
Books: Pappy’ a life story of hall-of-famer Paul Rowe
By: John Barlow
| Posted: Wednesday, Jan 16, 2013 05:43 pm
When discussing Canada’s greatest athletes one name is rarely mentioned despite the fact he is the only one honoured in five different halls-of-fame and participated in one of the most significant events of World War II.
Few Canadians may recognize the name Paul Rowe, but his son Robert “Grey” Rowe’s book “Pappy” will help put his father’s name among this country’s most storied athletes.
“Pappy: The Life Story of Canadian Hall of Fame Great Paul Rowe” is a biography written by his son in an effort to not only honour his father’s incredible achievements, but also ensure Canadians remember a formidable man.
“He is the only Canadian athlete in five sports halls-of-fame,” said Robert. “His is a story of triumph and tragedy. He reached the pinnacle of performance, but he hit the skids too.”
Robert, who lives on the family ranch near DeWinton, said few people experienced what his father endured or achieved in his lifetime, but he certainly had regrets.
“I have nothing but empathy and admiration for him,” Robert said of his father. “After football he had a troubled life.”
Rowe had difficulty adjusting to life after sports, but in his youth was truly one of Canada’s best athletes excelling not only in football, but track and field, cricket and rugby. As a result of his prowess on the playing fields Rowe has been inducted in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, Alberta Sports Hall of Fame, British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame, Victoria Sports Hall of Fame and Calgary’s McMahon Stadium Wall of Fame.
While Rowe was usually victorious in sports during his lifetime off the playing field his life was one of much disappointment and failure which makes his story so compelling.
Robert wrote in his book, “Paul Rowe’s life was a story of gallantry and tragedy, of exploits and honours, of highs and lows, of joys and sorrows; finally a kind of irrational madness. Rowe was a prodigy, visceral, bold and amazing as an athlete. As time passed, his life became not so pretty . . . spiraled in dizzying decent to a kind of non-coping madness.”
Before struggling in business and with his family Rowe was a star on the gridiron. He is most well known among Canadian Football League fans as Rowe starred for the Calgary Bronks and Stampeders in the 1930s and 40s winning a Grey Cup title in 1948.
In fact, Robert’s middle name was given to him because he was born on the day the Stampeders won the 1948 Grey Cup.
The Stampeders went undefeated during the 1948 regular season and beat the Regina Roughriders in the Western Final to advance to the Grey Cup in Toronto against the Ottawa Rough Riders.
Of course the 1948 Grey Cup is infamous for an unknown Stampeder fan riding a horse into the lobby of the Royal York Hotel to literally saddle up to the bar for a beer. Stampeder fans gave birth to Grey Cup festivities in 1948 with a horse in a hotel and an enthusiastic contingent at the parade which featured a Chuckwagon, First Nations chiefs in full regalia and cowboys from Alberta ranches riding in the parade.
The Stampeders won a hard fought Grey Cup 12-7 at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, but back in Calgary Rowe’s wife Viv was in labour at the Holy Cross Hospital.
When word at reached Rowe his wife had given birth to a baby boy, the players on the Calgary Stampeders demanded the lad be named Grey in honour of their football championship. Rowe found a compromise and agreed to Robert Grey Rowe.
According to Robert his father was unable to get to the hospital as soon as he arrived in Calgary as he had to participate in a victory parade and reception despite painful, throbbing knees and a new baby at the hospital.
When Rowe finally arrived at the Holy Cross his first words when he saw his wife were, “Move over darling. I need that bed more than you do.”
Calgary returned to the Grey Cup in 1949, but could not repeat losing to the Montreal Allouettes and Rowe retired from football as one of the greatest fullbacks in the game’s history.
However, before plowing to stardom in Calgary Rowe was a star athlete in British Columbia especially in track and rugby.
Rowe then went to play football at the University of Oregon from 1936-1938 before heading to Calgary to play professionally with the Bronks.
“In the 1930s if you were offered a job you jumped,” said Robert.
While in Calgary Rowe met and married Vivian, but before they had even opened their wedding gifts he enlisted in the army and was sent over seas in 1940 as Europe was engulfed in war.
Robert’s book includes gripping letters from Rowe he wrote to family about his experiences during the war including narrowly escaping an air raid in London and surviving the ill-fated landing at Dieppe.
However, one of his most incredible tales from the war was a victory on the battlefield, but not what one would think during wartime.
In the months leading up to the D-Day invasion moral among the allied soldiers was low as they were lethargic from monotonous training and repetitive drills.
However, all that changed when an exhibition football game, dubbed The Tea Bowl, was planned between the Canadian and American soldiers at White City Stadium in England.
“Moral had really diminished and they were looking for a way to boost moral,” said Robert. “They decided to have an exhibition football game and it was really a big deal. They had 30,000 fans.
“The Americans were handed their (butts) by the Canadians.”
Rowe played in the game, a 16-9 win by the Canadians, but more importantly the game “spawned a new fresh spirit of unity and purpose and proved to be a strategic moral booster for both sides.”
After being wounded in 1945 Rowe was shipped home and started playing football again this time with the Calgary Stampeders.
However, after football Rowe’s life fell apart as a result of heavy drinking and bad business investments.
“He was a heck of an athlete, but a bit of a train wreck afterwards,” said Robert.
Divorced and estranged from his friends and family Rowe had a troubled final chapter. However, Robert said he made peace with “Pappy” before he passed away.
Robert said he blames a lot of his father’s struggles on the concussions he received while playing football. However, in the 1940s nothing was known about concussions of the ramifications later in life.
As a result, Robert said it is imperative sports medicine continue to research concussions and the impact they have on an athlete’s mental health because it had a disastrous impact on his father.
“Addictions, depression, dissipation, isolation and loss of purpose follow like a pack of ravenous wolves,” wrote Robert. “Sadly, that is what happened to Paul Rowe. He lost his ability to cope. The demise of this once noble life was unbearably sad. The strength that had made him great abandoned him.
“He died a broken man.”
“Pappy: The Life Story of Canadian Hall of Fame Great Paul Rowe” is available at The Stampeders Store at McMahon Stadium or by contacting Robert Rowe at firstname.lastname@example.org