The brothers are in a debate, one of who knows how many over the years. Joe Forzani is telling a story from the 1970 West Division final and how it was so thumb-numbingly cold one of the Calgary Stampeders’ import receivers refused to play in the second half.
“It was Leo Taylor,” John Forzani interjects.
“No, it wasn’t,” corrects Joe, who can’t come up with the player’s name.
“Yes it was,” counters John, who goes off searching on his desktop computer.
This is how it is when a family life, a sporting life and a business life are spliced together: you get brothers who can finish each other’s stories, poke fun at one another and still come out laughing. It’s been this way for Calgary’s first family of football ever since their dad, John Sr., emigrated from Italy and began raising his Alberta brood. And on this particular autumn day, the two oldest Forzani brothers are lounging in a second-floor office at McMahon Stadium letting the memories flow and the eyes roll.
The office belongs to John, the former Calgary offensive lineman turned business tycoon turned team co-chairman, a position he shares with Ken King, president of the Calgary Flames, the NHL team that owns a majority share of the Stampeders. Joe Forzani is the former Calgary linebacker/businessman who spends his retirement in search of warmer climes. Youngest brother Tom, a former Stampeders receiver, is a realtor and busy at work. He connects later to explain how the Forzanis got along as kids.
“Joe and John were so much bigger than I was,” says Tom. “I was smart enough to know I didn’t want to mess with that.”
You can’t talk about one Forzani without mentioning the others because it simply isn’t done. Rarely in the CFL do three brothers play for the same team at the same time. Rarer still do they do it for three years playing three different positions after all three attended the same university (Utah State). That’s how linked the brothers are, and to hear them talk about their playing careers is to be reminded of how much Canadian football history they witnessed or were part of – like the 1971 Grey Cup.
To this day, the 1971 Cup remains a touchstone for a generation of fans. It featured the hard-luck Stampeders, losers in the 1968 and 1970 championship finale, against the Toronto Argonauts and their cavalcade of stars – quarterback Joe Theismann, running back Leon McQuay, tight end Mel Profit, defensive aces Jim Corrigall and Jim Stillwagon. It was supposed to be an Argo coronation, with beating Calgary the crowning achievement.
But the Stampeders and a rain-slick turf at Empire Stadium foiled those plans.
“The McQuay fumble,” says Joe, who was the right-side man in a Calgary linebacking trio that included Jim Furlong and the legendary Wayne Harris. “The play was coming right at me. Bill Symons was the lead blocker and I took him straight on then Leon slipped and fumbled and we recovered.”
The game wasn’t quite over at that moment. Toronto forced Calgary to punt on third down and Argos return man Harry Abofs chased the bouncing ball before kicking it out of bounds. John Forzani was chasing Abofs when he heard the referee shouting, “Stampeder football!”
“The players didn’t know the rule but a player on the return team can’t direct the ball out of bounds with his lower body,” says John. “We got possession and we pretty much ran out the clock [for a 14-11 Calgary win, its first Grey Cup in 23 years].”
Joe Forzani, who had endured the two previous Cup losses, chuckles over another recollection from the 1971 triumph. At one point, he stuck out his forearm and clotheslined Theismann, breaking his nose. Decades later, Theismann was the guest speaker at a Calgary Italian Club sportsman’s dinner. An organizer said to Theismann, “I’d like you to meet someone. This is Joe Forzani, the guy who broke your nose.”
“He said, ‘You did that?’” Joe recalls. “He told me, ‘You should have gotten a penalty on that play.’”
The 1971 Grey Cup, the one Tom Forzani left Utah State to watch on television at his Calgary home, was the only Grey Cup the Forzanis celebrated. Joe lasted four more seasons; John six. Neither got another sniff at the title. Tom played 11 seasons and never got past the West Final. All three, though, were present for one of the CFL’s darkest days, the death of Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ linebacker Tom Pate.
It happened at McMahon during the 1975 season, on Forzani Day, a tribute to the brothers’ mom and hard-working dad. On a Calgary running play, Pate moved in to make the tackle. The lead blocker hit him straight on and Pate collapsed immediately. John had been at guard; Tom at slotback. John says he knew something was horribly wrong when “they took off [Pate’s] helmet and there was fluid coming out his ears.” Days later, Pate passed away as Joe readied for his final game. “It was time,” Joe says. “You look at [Pate] and you think, ‘It could have been me.’ We played the same position.”
When Tom retired in 1983, it was the end of the line for the football-playing Forzani brothers, but not the end of their legacy. John started the Forzani Group, building a chain of sporting goods stores into a national success before selling it to Canadian Tire last year. He also became a CFL owner when a collection of local businessmen bought the Stampeders from California cardboard box maker Michael Feterik. (The Calgary Flames now own a majority stake in the Stampeders.) Tom’s jersey No. 22 was retired by the team and his son Johnny now starts at receiver for the Red and White.
As the brothers acknowledge, they made the best of their opportunities by learning from their mistakes and from each other. The learning apparently never ends.
“It’s Leo Taylor,” John says of the receiver who hated the cold.
“No, it’s not,” Joe replies. “I can’t think of the guy’s name, only that he refused to come out for the second half. He said we were crazy playing in that weather. He was probably right.”