Tony Golab was called the Golden Boy for his blond hair, sunny disposition and youthful success on the football field. A big-boned runner and kicker, he won a Grey Cup championship in 1940 at the age of 21, soon after trading his football jersey for an air-force uniform.
A Spitfire pilot who engaged in reconnaissance and harassing attacks, Mr. Golab survived being shot down twice during the war, once by his own side. He suffered serious arm and leg injuries, yet revived his professional football career with the Ottawa Rough Riders after the war. On his return, he was dubbed the Golden Bomber by sportswriters.
Mr. Golab, who has died in Ottawa at 97, was named Canada's male athlete of the year in 1941. He would later be inducted into five sports halls of fame, despite having spent two of his prime playing years battling the Nazis.
Anthony Charles Golab was born in Windsor, Ont., on Jan. 16, 1919, to Polish immigrants Marcella (née Nowosielska) and Michael Golab. His father worked as a labourer in the auto industry.
At Kennedy Collegiate, young Tony was keen to follow the example set by his older sister Genevieve, who starred at track, softball and basketball. Tony Golab was a regional discus and shot-put champion, who also helped the school's Clippers football team to a 19-game unbeaten streak and two regional titles. In basketball, he played right guard for the school's boy's team, which won the Ontario title in 1938 by one point with a last-minute basket against Glebe Collegiate of Ottawa. The guard scored six of his team's 24 points, with centre Joe Krol recording 14. The basketball teammates would be professional rivals on the football field, as Mr. Krol became a star with the Toronto Argonauts.
After leaving school, Mr. Golab joined the Sarnia Imperials of the Ontario Rugby Football Union. The rookie was expected to be eased into action, but wound up replacing popular Ormond Beach, an Oklahoman who died at the age of 27 a week before the start of the season in an explosion at the refinery where he worked.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Mr. Golab quickly earned a reputation for ferocious, bone-jarring tackles, as well as fearless plunges into the opposing line while carrying the ball. He also handled punting duties. Both the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Ottawa Rough Riders tried to lure him during the off-season, while the Imperials sought to keep their new-found star. In the end, he opted for the nation's capital.
The "pile-driving Pole," as the Ottawa Journal described him, earned his first of five all-star selections in 1939, when he was named the top fullback in the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union, known as the Big Four. His playing helped take the Rough Riders to the Grey Cup championship game against the visiting Blue Bombers, who surprised the favoured Ottawa team to eke out an 8-7 victory.
The following season, Mr. Golab suffered a severe back injury after a hard tackle. His season was at first thought to be over, but he recovered to help the Rough Riders defeat Toronto's Balmy Beach team in the only two-game, total-points Grey Cup showdown ever played. The Rough Riders claimed the Dominion football championship with an 8-2 victory in Toronto followed a week later by a solid 12-5 win in Ottawa. Nursing two injured ribs and wearing a special brace, Mr. Golab made a key interception of a Balmy Beach pass in the second game, evading a half-dozen tacklers to return the ball 25 yards.
With war raging overseas, Mr. Golab enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was posted to Ottawa, so continued playing for the Rough Riders, enjoying the best campaign of his short career, winning the coveted Jeff Russel Memorial Trophy as the league's outstanding player.
"What can a fellow say, except that I'm thrilled to death about it," the athlete said.
Asked for reaction, his coach, Ross Trimble, said, "Just say that Golab is not only the greatest football player I've ever seen, but the finest boy a coach ever had to handle."
The Rough Riders again defeated all Eastern teams to qualify for a Grey Cup showdown against the Blue Bombers. Ottawa took an early lead when Mr. Golab kicked the ball high in the air, dashing downfield to grab it in on the bounce. He eluded a tackler before running into the end zone for the game's first touchdown. Ottawa lost the title, by 18-16, when a last-minute place-kick failed to go through the uprights.
Days after the game, Mr. Golab left for pilot training. He spent the 1942 season playing for the Uplands Flyers, an air-force team, which won the Ottawa Senior City title with a 9-0 victory over his former team, the Rough Riders. Mr. Golab accounted for eight points on a 65-yard gallop for a touchdown (worth five in those days) and a 23-yard field goal (worth three).
By January, 1943, the pilot officer was posted overseas. On a reconnaissance mission over the Egyptian desert, his Spitfire was damaged by aerial fire from behind. He bailed out, later learning he had been shot down by an inexperienced American pilot.
Later, he flew missions over Sicily from a base on Malta. He followed the Allied forces north up the Italian boot. In January, 1944, he failed to return from a mission, the news about his being missing in action garnering headlines in the newspapers back home. Days later, his wife, the former Frances Audrey Ryan, who worked as a wartime typist in the federal-transportation department, got word that her injured husband had made it back to his unit.
His aircraft had been struck behind the cockpit by German anti-aircraft fire and he was once again forced to parachute to safety, this time with shrapnel wounds in his arms and legs. He landed behind enemy lines, further injuring a knee when he landed in a ditch, as he told the Ottawa Citizen in 2004. He soon after encountered a civilian.
"I had my revolver ready to shoot my way out of the place like it was the Wild West," he told the Citizen. Instead, the man guided him past a German outpost and safely through the front lines to rejoin Allied forces. "They got me back to the hospital and I was there for three weeks recovering and driving all the nurses and doctors nuts because I could see the war was going on."
(Meanwhile, a brother, Frank Marion Golab, was in a Japanese prison camp after being captured in the fall of Hong Kong. He survived four years of captivity.)
The recuperating pilot was posted as an instructor in Egypt, returning home after the war to rejoin the Rough Riders in time for the 1945 campaign.
"Anthony Golab looked as terrific as ever," the columnist Jim Coleman wrote about his comeback game against the Argos. "It was unfortunate that he chose the Air Force as his service, because the Army certainly could have used him as a high-speed tank."
Mr. Golab scored a career-high nine touchdowns in the 1948 season, earning all-star honours as a flying wing (flanker). The Rough Riders lost the Grey Cup game to the Calgary Stampeders by 12-7. It was his fourth and final Canadian championship game.
He retired as a player following the 1950 season, though he remained on the sidelines as a coach, first with the intermediate Hamilton Panthers and, later, the school team at Royal Military College at Kingston, Ont. A two-season stint as general manager of the Montreal Alouettes in the late 1960s brought him back to professional football, though he resigned after the team failed to make the playoffs during his brief tenure.
Mr. Golab re-enlisted in the RCAF after the war, juggling gridiron duties with military responsibilities. He retired as a wing commander.
After leaving the air force, he worked as a vice-principal and sold insurance.
Mr. Golab was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame (1964), Canada's Sports Hall of Fame (1975), the Windsor/Essex County Sports Hall of Fame (1981), the Canadian Armed Forces Sports Hall of Fame (1994) and the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame (1997). He was invested as a member of the Order of Canada in 1986 for his "valour, sportsmanship and sterling example to Canada's youth."
He died on Oct. 16 at the Perley and Rideau Veterans' Health Centre in Ottawa. He leaves a son, a daughter, four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife, who died in 1970.
A testament to Mr. Golab's importance to Ottawa sports fans can be found on the pages of the defunct Ottawa Journal. In 1947, he returned home to Windsor to bury his father, whose funeral took place on the morning of a day when the Rough Riders were scheduled to play in Toronto. The star player's plan to bid farewell to his father and to take to the football field had been in the news all week. On game day, the front page of the late edition of the evening paper carried a large banner headline reading: BAD WEATHER GROUNDS GOLAB AT WINDSOR.
It was as if the world had ended.
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