Zeke O’Connor sits down in a quiet suburban restaurant with a handful of football buddies, who all want their old pal’s autograph.
Various former Toronto Argonauts players, many now in their mid-80s, have been lunching together monthly for decades. This time, the 86-year-old O’Connor is humbly scribbling inside fresh copies of a new autobiography chronicling his fascinating life, Journey with the Sherpas: The Story of Zeke O’Connor and the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation.
O’Connor, once a big-framed tight end, caught the winning touchdown pass for the underdog Argos in the 1952 Grey Cup, beating the Edmonton Eskimos 21-11 at Varsity Stadium in Toronto – the last championship the Argos would win until 1983.
After football, he had a successful career as a businessman in Canada, became a Grey Cup radio broadcaster (doing colour commentary on the CBC from 1956 to 1981) and found a passion for philanthropy, particularly in Nepal. His efforts there alongside famous explorer Sir Edmund Hillary have dramatically improved the lives of Sherpa people in the remote high-altitude villages of Mount Everest.
Sitting together in the restaurant is a who’s-who of Argos Grey Cup champs from the 1940s and ’50s – Arnie Stocks and Bud Fowler, who played in the storied 1950 Mud Bowl, and quarterback Fred (Scooter) Doty, winner of three Grey Cups in the late 1940s. A handful of men from that ’52 offence are there, including offensive lineman Jack Roberts and quarterback Norbert (Nobby) Wirkowski.
Also 86, Wirkowski scribbles on a cocktail napkin the play that had O’Connor hauling in that famous pass and sailing some 30 yards into the end zone during the first televised Grey Cup. “It wasn’t supposed to go to Zeke, he was the No. 2 read on that play,” recalled Wirkowski, who had faked a handoff to his running back before throwing the ball. “Al Bruno was the first read, and he went deep, and the defensive back thought because I looked at Bruno, he should go with Bruno. So Zeke was open. If that defender had stayed, there never would have been a touchdown.”
The gregarious O’Connor has been asked to relive that play many times over the years.
“Some people used to joke with me that they never saw a guy get such mileage out of a touchdown,” he said. “I didn’t realize at the time what it would mean and how many times they would keep replaying that thing over the next 30-some years.”
O’Connor was the son of a New York police officer and raised in a big catholic family in the Bronx during the Great Depression. The broad-shouldered, 6-foot-4 teen with size 14 feet garnered 50 football scholarship offers from U.S colleges. He chose the University of Notre Dame, starring as a pass-catching end.
The big man with speed and soft hands played three years as a pro in the U.S. with the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and New York Yanks before joining the Argonauts. Football brought him to Canada, which would be the jumping-off point for so many more experiences.
As his playing days ended in the mid 1950s, he coached Toronto’s Balmy Beach football franchise and took an entry-level job with the Sears department store chain, where he climbed the ladder over the next 30 years. He eventually ran sporting goods, where he mingled with many famous outdoorsmen who advised the company on products.
He went fly fishing with baseball legend Ted Williams and camped with New Zealand explorer Sir Edmund Hillary, who, in 1953, along with a Sherpa mountaineer, had become the first to summit Mount Everest.
Hillary befriended O’Connor and insisted he come along to Everest in 1973 – not for a climbing expedition, although there would be some trekking involved. Mostly, he wanted O’Connor to meet the Sherpas.
O’Connor suffered serious altitude sickness on that first trip. He was laid up in a tent for several days, shaking and weak, nauseous and unable to sleep, eat, move around or think clearly. When he recovered from the illness and saw the splendour of the mountain landscape and its people, he was overtaken by their friendship and way of life and the uniquely unassuming way in which they expressed gratitude.
“I’m not a lover of mountains or climbing. I often went across the bridges on all fours because I was a little chicken,” O’Connor recalled. “But I so loved the flowers and the trees and the people that lived there. Even though they have so little, there is something about them – they are heartwarming, and so appreciative of everything we do for them.”
At that time in the Solu-Khumbu region of Nepal, the Sherpas had no running water or electricity. O’Connor and Hillary, both tall men, towered like giants over the smaller-of-stature Nepalese, but became ingrained in the communities there as they returned year after year.
Together, they founded the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation of Canada and raised money through donations via galas, auctions and help from Sears and the Canadian International Development Agency. The funds have built schools and hospitals, bridges, trails and reforestation projects.
(O’Connor also introduced the region to the Special Olympics, a passion of his in Canada as well, among other charitable causes.)
“I remember dad and Sir Edmund going off to various Rotary Clubs with their slide projector and would come back so excited that they had raised $200 – and that was so significant to them back then” said his daughter, Karen O’Connor, who took over as foundation president a few years ago.
“It kept growing, and a whole new generation of Sherpas has been educated, and the foundation has funded scholarships to get Sherpas educated as doctors. Dad often Skypes with the hospital there to see how things are going. He felt very empowered and rewarded that he could make a difference. He has his big hands in it there today – that’s what keeps him so vibrant at 86.”
O’Connor now lives in a Toronto condo and still visits the Sherpas yearly – often helicoptered in for trips he can no longer make on foot. He is active in the foundation’s galas and fundraisers. Hillary died in 2008 at 88, but the foundation lives on, having raised approximately $5-million for the Sherpas since 1974.
“Everything has happened so nicely in my life, from football to Special Olympics to my spectacular experiences around the world in business and with the Sherpas, and I have three amazing children – a whole life so many people would just love to have,” O’Connor said. “Through Sir Ed, I even got to have coffee with the Dali Lama and with [astronaut] Neil Armstrong.
“I don’t know why this one guy has had so much luck.”