Tommy Joe Coffey, once the greatest pass receiver and the most prolific scorer in CFL history, is now a hobbled senior battling memory loss and the ravages of time.
He once complained he didn’t think much of his records, accumulated over a 14-year career with Edmonton, Hamilton and Toronto.
“They’re nice to have,” he said, “but they don’t put any bread on the table.”
His monthly CFL pension cheque of $244.01 hardly puts bread on the table now. Coffey, 79, and his wife, Joan, 72, subsist mostly on government pensions. “It’s tight, but we’re not hurting by any stretch of the imagination,” he says proudly.
In his final CFL year, with Toronto in 1973, he was making $21,000, when the average working man’s salary was around $8,400. He remembers his CFL days, when he could draw a crowd in bars across the country, as his golden years. These are not that golden.
He is struggling with memory loss brought on by dementia.
“It’s probably my biggest fear,” Coffey says in his Texas drawl. “Loss of memory.”
Joan says he went for a battery of tests a couple of years ago and doctors told her the dementia was related to head injuries associated with football. Coffey is among a host of former CFL players who, while giving so much to their sport, lost some of themselves. And in the wake of NFL and CFL lawsuits over concussions, Coffey’s story serves as another cautionary tale of the risks associated with collision sports.
“The NFL is going to do something about the guys with concussions,” Joan says. “My husband will probably be dead before they do anything with the CFL.”
In his day, the son of a Baptist minister from Amarillo, Texas, was called “the self-effacing superstar” by a Toronto Star writer.
In 1959 and 1960, he was an ordinary player with Edmonton. Then he quit the game in 1961, thinking he was going to be a wealthy businessman investing in an enriched diet supplement. He lost $50,000 and returned to the Eskimos in desperate shape with a wife and four kids in tow ready to kick-start his legend. He would top 1,000 yards in receiving four times in the 1960s, and be named a CFL all-star seven times over a nine-year stretch from 1962 to 1970.
“The greatest thing that ever happened to me was going broke,” he said years later. “Necessity can do a lot of things for you, and being hungry made me a better football player.”
He and Joan live today in a spartan two-bedroom rental unit in Burlington, where he cooks for his wife and helps care for their 14-year-old, cross-eyed cat. It’s a far cry from the spacious house in Burlington where he planted more than 100 rose bushes.
The only evidence that a CFL legend lives here is found in Coffey’s bedroom, where a small painting hangs on the wall showing him throwing a key block to spring running back Willie Bethea.
Recently, Coffey’s Ticat helmet, which was stolen more than 40 years ago, was returned to him. He wanted to sell it until Joan convinced him to give it to his son Ron. His daughter Conye has his 1967 Grey Cup ring and son Tommy Jr. has his 1972 ring.
Bad knees, a bad back and a belly that pushes over his belt make him waddle when he walks, and he has to stop to catch his breath. Coffey hasn’t worked in a few years. He drove a school bus in his last job, and stocked shelves at 5 a.m. in the one before that, work that today’s stars would likely never consider.
Coffey will be remembered for what he gave to the game and not for what he took from it.
He doesn’t want pity. “I’ve made my bed,” he says softly. “Have I been properly compensated in today’s world? No. Why? Because I’m too timid or too bashful or too dumb.”
But he has Joan, still at his side despite being diagnosed with breast cancer 12 years ago. “They give you five,” she says. “So I’m just lucky.”
They met in 1968. Tommy Joe had already had four children with his first wife, Verlene. Joan was working as a waitress at The Junction Tavern, a hangout once popular with Ticat players. She resisted his overtures for months.
Finally, feeling defeated, he said, “Excuse me, Miss, would you like me to stop bothering you?”
“And I said no,” Joan recalled. They will celebrate their 35th anniversary Feb. 20.