Sporting a red-and-white apron, Mike Eben plunges a sturdy wooden ladle about the size of a cricket bat into a simmering 40-litre vat of porridge, needing both hands to churn the glutinous mass.
At the Church of the Redeemer’s drop-in centre in downtown Toronto, none of the 100 or so homeless people who have assembled for the free breakfast appears to know of Eben’s athletic past. And he doesn’t let on, preferring instead a unique brand of self-effacing humour.
The crowd includes the self-proclaimed “Warbler,” who announces his arrival in song that he continues to drone while loading his plate with biscuits to go with a helping of Eben’s porridge. Eben, 66, a volunteer at the centre, is known to accompany Warbler in song on occasion. The former Toronto Argonauts receiver contributes his bass voice to a 50-member Welsh choir.
“That so sounds like Mike, helping somebody,” says Super Bowl champion quarterback Joe Theismann, a CFL teammate of Eben’s in the early 1970s.
Eben laughs upon hearing of Theismann’s perspective.
“I think he always thought of me as a hippy, a lefty sort,” Eben says. “And I guess I was, always pushing things a little bit my own way.
“The regimen and the rigour of a football team, I had to be equipped to deal with a totalitarian kind of leadership. Well, that doesn’t fall that easily with me.”
Eben played in the 1971 Grey Cup, where Leon McQuay’s infamous fumble on a miserably wet, cold afternoon at Vancouver’s Empire Stadium sealed the Argos’ fate in a 14-11 victory for the Calgary Stampeders.
The Argonauts of the early ’70s, full of character and characters, fully embodied the so-called “hippy era” with long hair and beads. Eben’s swath of long blond hair cascaded from the back of his helmet, and he was known for a bushy handlebar mustache.
“Mel Profit and I wore the same kind of clothing – tie-dyed jeans and dashikis from North Africa,” Eben says of his old teammate. “I still have these wooly sheepskins vests I used to wear with beads and chains and everything. The hippy thing was in full swing. I was up in [Toronto neighbourhood] Yorkville every night after practice at the Riverboat.”
Long after his playing career was over, former teacher Eben became popular with students who would borrow the clothing for retro parties. “I just can’t part with the stuff,” he says.
Coming from where he does, volunteering in the soup kitchen seems a natural thing to do.
“I’ve always loved talking with people from all walks of life,” he says. “And I can remember a little bit of what it was like when I was an immigrant kid and not having a whole lot. And these people just don’t have a lot.”
Born into a secular Jewish family in Zatec, in the old Czechoslovakia, Eben was 3 when his family fled to Canada in 1948 as the Communist Party was seizing power.
They first settled in Vineland, Ont., and later in St. Catharines, Ont., where his father, Peter, found work as a food picker before landing a job working nights stocking shelves at a grocery store. In the late 1950s, the family moved to Toronto, after his father helped found Active Surplus on Queen Street West, which is still in operation today.
Eben played college football for the University of Toronto Varsity Blues and participated in the first Vanier Cup in 1965 – a 14-7 victory over the University of Alberta. In 1967, Eben was awarded the first Hec Crighton Trophy as the country’s top university player before moving on to the CFL.
For 10 seasons – nine with the Argos – Eben carved out a career as a sure-handed receiver. He was named an all-star three times – once in the West in 1970, when he played for the Edmonton Eskimos, and twice in the East with the Argonauts in 1972 and 1976.
During his one season in Edmonton, Eben roomed with defensive back Mike Law and Dave Cutler, considered by many to be one of the best field-goal kickers in CFL history.
“He’s an extremely bright guy and I know about nine words of English, so I just ended up listening most of the time,” Cutler jokingly says of his relationship with Eben. “He’s one of those real neat blends of intellect and fun along with being a really, really good football player.
“At a time when Canadians were just starting to make themselves known in the league in terms of people starting to recognize their ability, he was a receiver that was every bit as good as any American that we were bringing in.”
Early in his career, Eben would be invited to appear on television between periods at a Toronto Maple Leafs game with Stan Mikita, the Chicago Blackhawks great whose family had also fled Czechoslovakia.
Eben’s passions run well beyond his former exploits on the football field.
He was a professor at York University up until 1987, before moving to Toronto’s Upper Canada College, an upscale Toronto high school where he taught German for more than 20 years. In 2009, Eben moved on to teach French at Stirling Hall, an independent boys’ school, and retired last spring.
On the side, he’s done numerous commercials and voice-over work, including one gig as a German translator on The History Channel show Greatest Tank Battles. Eben is also able to teach Latin and “muddle along” in Spanish and Italian, not to mention Yiddish.
“On one hand, my life has been surrounded by jocks,” says Eben, who earned his doctorate in German literature from the University of Toronto. “On the other hand, it’s been surrounded by academia. The academics never really knew a whole lot about what I was doing.”
Since retiring from teaching, Eben has more time on his hand for activities such as his volunteer work at the Redeemer drop-in centre.
“I enjoy doing it, I’m giving back a little bit and it needs to be done,” he responds when asked what he gets out of it. “We cook a great meal and the people will come in, either from a shelter or just from the streets, and you get to know them.
“I’m not a cook by nature, but I’ve learned how to make porridge. I like porridge.”
Inevitably, someone asks him about the only Grey Cup game he appeared in.
“I know the Calgary guys will hate me for this,” Eben says. “But I do think we were the better team, the more talented team. But the crappy day just inhibited our throwing skills. It was a shame.”