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George Radwanski and his son, Adam, at the 2012 Grey Cup in Toronto. (Photo courtesy of the Radwanski family)
George Radwanski and his son, Adam, at the 2012 Grey Cup in Toronto. (Photo courtesy of the Radwanski family)

Football, fathers and sons, and the rituals that bind us Add to ...

As Toronto Argonauts fans, we’re conditioned to accept empty seats as a part of life.

They’ll mock us, if we let them, reminding us that there are only so many others like us in our city – far fewer, it seems, than in other places in Canada where football is played. We do our best to ignore those vacant chairs, though, because we know that what we lack in numbers, we make up for with passion.

But some empty seats are harder to look past than others. As the Argos and the Hamilton Ticats took the field on an October night this fall, the one next to where I always sat was impossible to ignore. My dad had claimed that seat – Section 109A, Row 13, Seat 1 – about a dozen years ago, and never let it go. No matter what else was happening in his life, wherever else he could have or should have been, however much his lousy eyesight forced him to squint at the Jumbotron instead of the field, he’d be there in time for every kickoff.

Now, he was gone, suddenly and too young, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in the stadium myself. Even walking to the seat had been a reminder of what I was missing. No meeting outside the stadium with a hug, no buying beers together on the way in, no chat about why the Argos really needed to win this one.

And yet, there I was, three hours after the first snap, standing and pounding on the back of that empty seat as fans roared around me.

Two and a half weeks earlier, I had eulogized my dad in a church. But nothing brought him and me together, in the aftermath of his death, quite like the final minutes of that game.

He grew up in Montreal cheering for the Alouettes, went to a few games, played a little bit in high school. As far as I know, football was far from an essential part of my dad’s life before I was born. In the 35 years we had together, it became a shared bond – suitably and perhaps necessarily manly for two guys who wouldn’t last long as rugged outdoorsmen, and hardly knew their way around a tool shed.

It started with the Grey Cup. Each November, from the time I was about 4, he would roast chestnuts and sip cognac – a tradition, for reasons unknown – and explain the game as best he could. Before he took me to my first Argos game, back when they were still playing at Exhibition Stadium, the tutorials ramped up to include crudely drawn diagrams of what I should expect. We’d go to a game or two a year, watch a bunch more on TV – and at some point I guess it took.

I was the one, initially, who escalated our fandom. A teenager looking for adventure in the big city, I got a pair of cheap season tickets in the end zone so that I could go to games with my friends – a way to assert my independence, even if my dad helped pay. But within a couple of years, during the brief and glorious Doug Flutie era, my dad was coming with me to most of the games. I resisted at first, but the truth was that he was more into the Argos than my friends were. When the team made the Grey Cup in 1996, we took a bus to Hamilton to watch them beat the Edmonton Eskimos in the snow.

If there was any doubt this was our thing, that ended it.

We were in those cheap seats for a few of the darker years after Flutie headed south. And then, in the early 2000s, we finally upgraded, joining friends of mine down near the Argos’ bench. It was a pretty boisterous and beer-fuelled little group, and I was initially concerned about how my 50-something dad – bearded, bespectacled, accustomed to wearing nice clothes – would fit in.

I needn’t have worried. Before long, he was wearing a jersey, bantering with other section regulars, and making as much noise as the rest of us.

When we weren’t celebrating first downs with a stand-up-and-point ritual that kept landing us on the Jumbotron, or high-fiving the rows around us after touchdowns, or trying to make noise when the other team had the ball, he and I would just talk. Often it was about the game; sometimes the news, or what we’d each been up to that week. Almost always, it was with a tacit understanding that this was a place to escape our troubles, not to dwell on them.

In the last decade of his life, after a sudden career collapse that took a huge toll on him, my dad needed that kind of escape – the ritual, the sense of community, the shared investment we had in that team, and the chance to live its victories and defeats together.

I didn’t need those things as much, and in recent off-seasons I would sometimes wonder why I kept paying the rising ticket prices, even as my schedule made it harder to actually show up. But my dad’s excitement when I’d meet him for the opening game each year was usually enough to remind me.

The last game we went to together was this past July. He’d been in hospital with heart troubles in the spring, and it was a scorching afternoon. So, as the Argos walloped the Saskatchewan Roughriders, we moved to the shade – back to the end zone we used to know so well.

They really weren’t bad seats, he kept insisting. I wasn’t convinced, but that wasn’t the point. It never was.

I thought a lot about how I would act the first time I went to the stadium without my dad. I imagined making a grand skyward gesture after a first down. Instead, the first time the Argos got one, I was so rattled that I stood up and pointed in the wrong direction, as though the team were moving backward on the field.

That’s how it felt, all right. The Argos’ offence couldn’t get on track, and their defence wasn’t much better; the crowd was flat. By the third quarter, when they were trailing 30-to-13, I’d resigned myself to shuffling sadly out of the place. Part of me was relieved not to have to invest more emotion in the game. Besides, at least my dad wasn’t missing much.

But I also felt a creeping, frustrating kind of sadness. I had set aside my reservations and come to the game because I’d hoped I could enjoy it in his honour, and share it with him in spirit. And the Argos had let us both down, by making the game as forgettable as possible.

And then, as the fourth quarter ticked down, it was as though the team had been saving everything up for one enormous burst of energy.

The Argos scored a touchdown, making it a 10-point game. Faint hope. Hamilton pushed it to 13 with five minutes left, but Toronto drove for another touchdown, pulling to within six points with 2:07 left. They quickly got the ball back. I was putting emotion into it now. This could happen.

And then, somehow, the Argos’ best receiver was left wide open. Chad Owens caught the ball downfield near the sideline, had a clear path to the end zone, streaked in untouched for a 69-yard touchdown. It was about as close as football comes to miracles.

In those pregame images in my head, I might have collapsed onto my dad’s seat in a fit of emotion. But I’ve never been that melodramatic, and I don’t think my dad would have wanted me to be. Instead, I just put my hand on the seat. That was enough.

For a few seconds, I could picture him, grinning and cheering and high-fiving. I was a bit dazed, and could have gotten lost in that moment.

But there was a game to be won for him, even if the players didn’t know that. So I stood with the rest of the crowd, our little tribe, cheering as loudly as we could for the Argos’ final defensive stand. And as I reached back and banged that empty seat as hard as I could, it made a hell of a noise.

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