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B.C. Lions head coach Wally Buono purses his lips as he troughs the ball during a walk through Saturday November 26, 2011 in Vancouver. The B.C. Lions will face the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the 99th Grey Cup CFL football final Sunday. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

B.C. Lions head coach Wally Buono purses his lips as he troughs the ball during a walk through Saturday November 26, 2011 in Vancouver. The B.C. Lions will face the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the 99th Grey Cup CFL football final Sunday.

(Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

CFL

Wally Buono shuns the forefront Add to ...

Wally Buono walks through the empty B.C. Lions locker room to the adjacent showers. It’s 9:35 a.m., midweek, and a contractor awaits.

“It’s not good to see you, buddy,” Buono says.

There’s a leak somewhere. The floor bubbles up in places. The showers and bathroom at the Lions’ practice facility in the Vancouver suburb have recently been renovated, but each afternoon, after players shower, a small lake emerges in the bathroom, pooling into the hall.

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“If it keeps going through the wall, it’s going to rot,” Buono says. He is 62, and on one bended knee, peers under the sink.

This is one scene in a man’s life, after he lets go.

Buono, the son of poor Italian immigrants, has won more Canadian Football League games as a head coach, 254, than anyone else. After last year’s Grey Cup victory, he decided it was time. He retired from coaching after more than two decades, 13 years at the helm of the Calgary Stampeders and then nine in B.C. He remains the Lions’ general manager, in the same office he’s always had, but the days are different. Calmer.

“Somehow, some way,” Buono says, as if it’s a problem at his own home, “there’s water coming through.”

The contractor promises it will get fixed.

LETTING GO

Buono sits in his fairly spartan office, overlooking the practice field, waiting for his 10 a.m. appointment.

He watches tape of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, who beat the Lions 23-20 in mid-July in Regina.

The Riders visit Vancouver on Sunday at B.C. Place. The Lions have declared it Wally Buono Day, a celebration of his career. The retired coach reels through the tape, back and forth. The Riders attack the Lions with quick passes. He highlights an obvious but uncalled hold by a Riders offensive tackle.

Buono still comes to work early but not quite as early.

He used to be here at 5 every morning. With the tremendous stress and demands of coaching gone, he pulls in at 6:30, maybe 7.

He had mulled retirement the past five years. He almost made the move two years ago. After the Grey Cup, it was right.

“I didn’t want to be, any more, in the forefront all the time, in the hot seat all the time,” Buono says. “The 22 years that you do it, you don’t realize the wear and tear, both physically and emotionally. It takes its toll.”

It isn’t easy for a man to let go.

Buono, grounded in a quiet but intense Christian evangelical faith, believes this step is part of God’s plan. He nearly died eight years ago, saved by triple-bypass heart surgery.

“God spared me,” Buono says.

He could loom as a harrowing shadow over his new coach and long-time protégé, Mike Benevides. Buono does not.

Buono’s always around, on the edges of the practice field. But he doesn’t interfere.

“Wally is so meticulous,” says Dennis Skulsky, team president and former media executive. “He clearly understands the space he needs to give his new head coach, and he’s doing that.”

Buono has been Benevides’s boss for a dozen years, so in a way, little has changed. Benevides attests Buono does not loom.

“He’s continually reinforcing ‘do as you see fit,’” Benevides says.

The star quarterback attests the same. “It’s important for it to be Mike’s team,” Travis Lulay says, “and it really feels like Mike’s team.”

FOOTBALL AND FAITH

It’s mid-morning, 10:20, and his 10 a.m. appointment arrives after getting lost.

Brian Norton runs the Christian Advocacy Society of Greater Vancouver, a charity to help women in crisis, pregnancy or violence. He’s here to seal Buono’s tentative yes to speak at a fundraiser in September.

Buono speaks elliptically, like a wise teacher, like a philosopher teasing out a truth. He says the simple fact of his faith and fame in football does not make him the right fit.

Disappointment ripples across Norton’s face. Buono goes on.

He talks about the birth of his first grandchild, Jonah, and his daughter’s difficult pregnancy, one that may have ended if the family had gone with a doctor’s advice. Buono confirms he’ll do the talk. He doesn’t love speaking – when he coached, he never spoke to groups during the season – but it’s part of his new role. And this one is closer to his heart.

“I don’t want to preach to anybody, I’m not a preacher,” Buono tells Norton. “That’s not what I feel that I should be doing. My biggest motive is to look at something like this, and say, ‘If you don’t stand up for them, who will? If you don’t support them, who will?’”

FATHERLY FIGURE

There’s a rumble below Buono’s office, which is above the team’s locker room. The clock has ticked past 11 and the players hit the field for practice.

Wally Buono was born Pasquale, but the kids in Montreal couldn’t manage his foreign first name, so “Pas-qually” became Wally. His dad died when he was 8, and he and his brother spent 31/2 years at a home for boys north of the city as their mother, with no education, speaking neither English nor French, worked to establish herself. Buono found solace in sports, scored a football scholarship to university in Idaho, then played a decade for his hometown Alouettes. He moved on to coaching. He has won seven Grey Cups, two as a player and five as a coach.

A Lions staffer pops his head in the open door. “The league just called Khalif.”

Buono says, “Two?”

A nod.

Buono utters a soft curse.

Khalif Mitchell, a fearsome defensive tackle, brutally yanked the arm of an Edmonton Eskimo on July 20. The CFL suspended Mitchell for two games. Mitchell appealed. The news from the team staffer reveals an arbitrator has upheld the league’s ruling.

Buono is not surprised. “C’est la vie, monsieur.”

A reporter says that, despite Mitchell’s positive reputation, it was a thuggish play.

“Football’s a thug game,” Buono says, not in defence of Mitchell, but simply as a fact. “This is the point. It’s a thug game. It’s like I keep saying, we get these guys to a point of frenzy, of insanity, emotionally, and then they snap for” – he pauses – “three seconds.”

Buono lowers his voice. “And then we’re all surprised, we’re all shocked. ‘Oh, I can’t believe that could ever happen.’”

Practice is in full flight outside. Buono would normally head down. He waits for Mitchell, who at 6 foot 5 and 315 pounds is the biggest player on the Lions defence.

Mitchell is not just a warrior. He is a smart man, and a self-taught pianist. Mitchell plays a violent position in a violent game. Buono was a linebacker. He knows.

“Two seconds, you do something stupid,” Buono says. “If you’ve played at a high, high level, you’ve done things that you regret doing. I’ve been there.”

Just before Mitchell arrives, Buono says, “I just want to give him a big hug.”

The CFL all-star appears. Buono welcomes Mitchell into his office, and closes the door.

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