The word fan often conjures up images of team paraphernalia, passion and volume – usually lots of it.
As someone with cerebral palsy, Andrew Nielsen is unable to communicate verbally. So he uses an iPad-like computer that tracks his eye movements to spell out words, or to activate preprogrammed sentences to play out loud. But while Nielsen’s computer speaker is not about to perforate ear drums, no one could accuse the 51-year-old Brantford, Ont., native of lacking passion.
“He’s passionate and in this world, you need a lot of passionate people like him. … He’s always talking about what he can do, you know?” Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ star linebacker Simoni Lawrence said. “And I think that’s very important in everyday life, because a lot of times people are like, ‘Well, I can’t do this. I can’t do that.’ And all you see is what he is doing right.”
Unfortunately for the pair, the Ticats’ quest to end their 24-year Grey Cup drought will have to wait at least one more year after the Montreal Alouettes eliminated the Tabbies in the East Division semi-final earlier this month. But Nielsen still found something to celebrate in the buildup to Sunday’s big game, when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers play the Alouettes at Tim Hortons Field, as Lawrence paid a surprise visit to his friend.
And the way Nielsen’s eyes and face lit up as the Ticats’ star pulled up in his pickup negated the need for words as the feelings of joy just radiated from him.
“Hey Simoni, you can’t fool the city,” chimed Nielsen’s computer voice, as Lawrence beamed with pride, adding his autograph – maybe not for the first time – to the bevy of Ticats signatures adorning the team flag covering his wheelchair.
It’s meaningful relationships such as these that continue to motivate Lawrence, fresh off his 11th season in Hamilton, to chase the ultimate prize in the Canadian Football League.
“It boosts you because you look at somebody like Andrew that wants to do everything,” Lawrence said. “You’re like, ‘Man, I’ve got to do it for Andrew,’ you know what I’m saying, because he believes he’s No. 21 making tackles, so now you got to do what you got to do for Andrew because he feels all of it, this is his joy, this is his love.”
Nielsen and his best friend Todd Stephens – both season-ticket holders at Tim Hortons Field – will be in the crowd as usual on Sunday as the Grey Cup returns to Hamilton for the second time in three years. Unlike the first time though, there will be no home team to cheer on – the Ticats lost 33-25 to the Blue Bombers in 2021.
As one of the more well-known personalities in the Hamilton fan base, Nielsen was actually offered the opportunity to drink out of the Grey Cup by the Blue Bombers that night two years ago. But team loyalty is important to Nielsen, and he passed on what could have been a significant personal memory for him.
“They were quite surprised at that,” Stephens said of the Winnipeg players’ reaction.
“That’s my guy!” Lawrence replied.
“That’s something he’s always wanted to do with Simoni and the guys, right?” Stephens added. “It’s the Grey Cup and what a great experience that would have been. … But it didn’t mean anything because it wasn’t with the team.”
That team-first attitude speaks volumes about Nielsen.
“The Ticats are like family to me,” he says through his computer. He’s certainly made to feel like one of the team by the organization, having participated in a coin toss and a game-ball delivery, while Hamilton special-teams coach Jeff Reinebold routinely brings him on to the field before games.
“Everybody loves him,” said former Ticats offensive lineman Brian Simmons. “There’s no part of the stadium that he wouldn’t feel welcome and comfortable in.”
And Nielsen’s commitment to the team doesn’t end with the final whistle, either. With Stephens alongside him, they will travel down from their season seats in the club level to the main lobby, and wait there to greet the players as they leave for the night. It can turn a three-hour game into a six-hour-plus excursion.
“It’s a real work day for Andrew,” Lawrence says.
And he hardly ever takes a shift off, either, even when he had all his teeth pulled owing to complications with abscesses. With a game two days later, Stephens gave his friend the option of just grabbing some beers and watching the game at home.
But Nielsen was having none of it, and despite the pain and bleeding, he still stuck around to talk to the players after the game. One Ticat in particular – Stephens can’t remember exactly who – was taken aback by the level of dedication.
“He said, ‘What the hell happened to you?’” Stephens said. “I told him about how he had his teeth removed and he said, ‘And he’s here? Like, this guy’s a warrior, right?’”
Nielsen’s passions run deep, far beyond the field of play. As a proud alumnus of the Easter Seals, a well-known provider of programs and support for Canadians with disabilities, Nielsen has spent much of the past few years trying to generate as much financial support for the organization as possible. Nielsen and Stephens met 36 years ago at an Easter Seals camp, when Nielsen was a participant and Stephens was a counsellor.
That advocacy has turned into annual participation in the Easter Seals Drop Zone, a 17-storey rappel down the side of a building in downtown Toronto – with a Ticats flag proudly flying from the back of his wheelchair, of course.
He also collects and auctions off memorabilia and equipment from all nine CFL teams, and even paints greeting cards – using a specially adapted paintbrush that attaches to his head – in a painstaking process that can sometimes take as long as two days, depending on the complexity of the painting.
He’s currently raising money for the Toronto Maple Leafs Skate For Easter Seals Kids campaign, in which participants get to skate with the Maple Leafs players next March.
In total, Nielsen has raised more than $125,000 for the Easter Seals.
“Andrew, is a true mentor for people with physical disabilities,” Easter Seals president and CEO Kevin Collins said. “His ability to stay focused and continue to want to give back has truly made a significant difference for all the years that he’s done this and he’s a true warrior – there’s no quit in Andrew.”
That attitude has spilled over into his personal campaign to improve accessibility for fans at sporting events. As someone who first started going to watch the Leafs when they played at Maple Leaf Gardens – which had just four disabled spots out of a capacity of 16,000 – Nielsen has seen great improvements to the fan experience at sports venues.
As you might expect, the arrival of Tim Hortons Field in 2014 was a marked improvement over its predecessor, Ivor Wynne Stadium. And while the current Scotiabank Arena is far better than the Gardens, Nielsen and Stephens are only too happy to point out some of the drawbacks with the experience, and recently met with a facilities manager at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to discuss ways in which they might improve the overall experience.
He was recognized for that work earlier this year, receiving a David C. Onley Award for Leadership in Accessibility, in the role-model category, for his drive to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities.
While that work will continue – part of which will involve the publication of a book on his life story – so will Nielsen’s continued quest to push his boundaries. One of the ultimate goals is to go sky diving, but the more sedate option is to complete a tour of all the CFL stadiums next year, beginning with the East Division.
Along for the ride, as always, will be his best friend.
“I’m so proud of Andrew,” Stephens said. “I’m the guy behind him, definitely, but he’s the show. … Andrew likes to find things and then I help him make them happen. … That’s kind of his mantra, I guess, is he’ll find a way, because he does. He always does.”