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Saturday, January 9, 2010


      Many men would give their souls to play just one game in the National Football League, but it was the heart of Toronto Tiger legend John "Hook" Comer that gave him that single opportunity.
      During the first quarter of the 20th Century, football players participated for the love of a game with crude equipment and often with equally crude treatment.  Those playing for semi-professional teams, such as the Toronto Tigers, supplemented their primary jobs at the local clay works with a few extra bucks against such notable teams as the Akron Silents, Bradley Eagles, Dusquesne Apprentice and various Ohio Valley clubs.
      "Those were rough and tough days the way they dressed and talked," said Tom McKelvey, who watched many semi-pro games during their heyday in the Gem City.  "I remember before one game the Toronto coach had his players diving into a mud puddle by the old home plate to practice recovering fumbles."
      Out of the most physical and punishing era of football emerged one athlete, John S. "Hook" Comer, standing 6'3" and weighing 180 pounds.
      "My father told me Hook Comer could kick the ball almost the length of the football field," John Petras Jr. said.
      "They said he could throw the football 100 yards," McKelvey said.  "Of course, that's probably exaggeration."
      What isn't hyperbole was Comer's athleticism.  Some old timers said he was equally gifted at running, kicking and passing.
      In his "Era of Elegance," author Walter M. Kestner gives this account of Comer: "As I recall the football of that era was much larger in diameter that that used today and consequently was much harder to throw.  However, John Comer or Big Hook as he was called could grasp the ball and throw it with extreme accuracy.   On one play particularly called the Formation A, Dave Ferris would lateral the ball to Hook, who would then throw a pass down field to Goose Mundy or Jim Condrim with a touchdown usually resulting from the play."
      Accounts by both Kestner and McKelvey attest that the early Toronto Tiger teams consisted of local talent, but around 1920 Doc Kilgus, club owner, wanted to increase the talent pool in the Gem City.
      "Doc Kilgus brought in guys from out of town to build up the team," McKelvey said.
      Often these athletes were collegians playing under aliases for money to maintain their amateur status  One such athlete was Pete "Fats" Henry, an All American tackle from Washington & Jefferson who played on the same side of Kaul Field with ringers and the few remaining legitimate locals, such as Hook Comer.
       Henry would go on to play with the Canton Bulldogs in 1920 and, as player-coach in 1926, he brought up fullback John "Hook" Comer, now 36 years of age and well past his prime.  Wearing number 3, Comer played but one NFL game, carrying the ball once for one yard alongside 38-year-old Jim Thorpe.
      The Bulldogs that year finished with one win, nine losses and three ties--the worst record in the fledgling National Football League.
      In 1963, Henry was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, one year before Toronto and Green Bay legend Clarke Hinkle was enshrined, arguably giving the Gem City two members in Canton.
       Comer went on to become a well respected policeman in Toronto, serving with Hinkle's brother Les.  He died in 1950 and is buried in Toronto Union Cemetery, not far from other Gem City legends, such as Clarke Hinkle and Pick Nalley.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


        During the 60s, when I was growing up, I thought Toronto was nicknamed the Gem City because it had so many colorful characters like Nick Yanick, Singing Kate, Johnny Wasco, Chief, George Tarr, Joe Hitchcock, George Peckins, Naughty Dotty and many others.  None, however, was more memorable than the man himself who said "the town's full of nuts"--Bill Jaco.
      My first recollection of Bill came at the old A & P where the abandoned Save-a-Lot now stands.  My father was pushing a cartful of groceries to the family Ford while my mother was trying to herd her four children safely across the parking lot.  "Push cart, push cart," Bill said, knowing this courtesy usually amounted to tips of dimes and quarters.
      "That's all right," my father replied, "I can handle it."
      Bill trailed us to our car, anyhow.  As my father began stowing grocery sacks inside the trunk, Bill said, "Ford junk.  Ford junk.  Hit a bump and the seat falls down."
      I would later learn every model of car made was junk in Bill's estimation, except for funeral cars, not many of them being drove those days other than by Clarkie, of whom Bill said was goosey.
      To me, back then, Bill appeared as tall as Wilt Chamberlain, but in truth, during his prime, he stood, at tallest, six-foot, three-inches.  He was naturally big-boned and broad shouldered and had a Santa Clause-like belly.  Legends abounded about his strength, including being able to lift the rear end of a Volkswagen Beetle off the ground.
       When I was first married, my wife Debbie and I lived across the empty lot from Bill and his sister May at the top of Daniels Street.  Many people were afraid to let their children go near Bill, but he was a gentle giant who would hold the hand of our daughter Sevy and walk her up and down the block.
      Bill did not know Monday from Tuesday or a weekday from the weekend, but he did know garbage day and took out the trash faithfully the evening before garbage day, and, on cue, the following morning, regaled the truck crew with his Jaconian philosophy, usually always referring to junk Fords and that Clarkie was goosey.
      Whenever I saw Bill toting an umbrella, I knew rain was probably coming sometime soon.  The weather, however, never stopped Bill from taking his daily and evening strolls.  Wherever Johnny's Pizza Shop was located, Bill would walk in that direction, or toward whoever was passing out free goodies to Bill--nearly everybody.  I could always determine what Bill had eaten because half of it was smeared on the front of his shirt.
      Back then, Johnny's was the only pizza shop around, and it frequently moved.  For a while it stood at  the corner of Federal and Franklin, later next to the Manos Theater and still later in the heart of downtown Toronto.  No matter the location and the change of pizza cooks, Bill would always be there, one minute calling my date "skinny girl," the next minute telling me, "Man marries girl something's loose."
      Bill almost always repeated his statements as though his diaphragm had a built-in echo chamber.  He would sneak up behind you, poking his finger in your back, and in that signature flutey nasal voice, utter, "Whoops.  Goosey.  Goosey.  Clarkie's goosey."
       The Dairy Aisle was another regular stop for Bill, who held an equal affection of free ice cream, courtesy of the Henry family.  One evening, a young man coasted his car onto the Dairy Aisle parking lot, stopped by Bill and asked him directions for Kuhn's Hardware Store.
       Naturally, Bill assessed the man's car first and called it "a piece of junk."  Then Bill said, "Turn up bay.  Turn up bay.  Drive junk by Clarkie's--by Clarkie's.  Clarkie goosey.  Clarkie goosey.  Turn up bay."
        Frustrated the man crisscrossed his arms and yelled, "Just stop now; you're nuts!"
        Bill casually replied, "Ain't lost."
        Another signature quote of his was "push daddy."  I could never quite determine what that one meant, but maybe it bore some reference to his old A & P days when pushing grocery carts was in vogue.  Or just maybe he used such phrase to fill in conversation gaps.  Bill was certainly not quiet or one for a loss of words.
       The seats of my cars have never fallen down, sometimes I agree with Bill that the town was full of nuts.  About his assessment of marriage, I am going to have to plead the Fifth.
        "Push Daddy."