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David Braley: Pigskin Patriarch

Senator David Braley, philanthropist, as well as owner of both the Toronto Argonauts and BC Lions, poses for a photo on the football field at McMaster Univerisity. While the football stadium proper bears Ron Joyce's name, the adjoining Athletic Facility bears his, one of many buildings in the Hamilton area he's helped create.

Sheryl Nadler/The Globe and Mail

David Braley grew up in the 1940s, sharing a Hamilton house with his mother, sister, brother and grandparents. Their next-door neighbour, a Mr. Richardson, invited the young boy to join him at Ivor Wynne Stadium for a Tiger-Cats game one day and from that moment, football became central to Braley's life.

Today Braley is a multimillionaire owner of multiple businesses, a senator in Parliament, and in an unusual situation, the owner of two CFL franchises. Neither is his beloved Ticats; his Toronto Argonauts will play host to his B.C. Lions Friday at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.

"I'm looking to see great football, I want to see great plays," Braley said this week. "We'll have the president of the Lions in one box and the president of the Argos in the other and I'll move between them and shake hands with all the people we have invited. I'm playing it right down the middle. I'm going to wear a neutral colour, maybe I'll wear white."

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Braley played in high school and at McMaster University, and shared his passion for CFL football with his mother, Helen Raby, who missed exactly four Tiger-Cat home games between 1950 and her death in 2003.

"The Ticats will tell you," Braley said. "She was there."

Braley, 69, remains a Tiger-Cat season ticket holder. Most games he can be found sitting on the press-box side of Ivor Wynne near midfield.

In his community, he is known as a dedicated philanthropist, having donated tens of millions of dollars to various institutions, including McMaster University, Hamilton Health Sciences Hospital and the Art Gallery of Hamilton. Braley has also propped up the CFL financially at its most perilous junctures over the last 30 years as a largely unseen benefactor.

To most CFL fans today, Braley is simply the man who owns two teams.

The CFL is known for its quirks and wrinkles - Rough Riders and Roughriders, the single point, Western teams in the Eastern Division playoffs. Last off-season, it added another by allowing Braley to take over the Toronto Argonauts, putting him in control of one-quarter of the league's franchises.

Braley likely has no equal in professional sports. Aside from his ownership, he is former chairman of the CFL board and its interim commissioner.

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Generosity, he learned from his grandfather, Herbert Osborn.

His mother and siblings moved into a house with his maternal grandparents after David Braley Sr. walked out just hours after his daughter came home from the hospital, in 1947, when Braley was six. Braley saw his father only twice more in his life. His grandfather, who worked as a manufacturer's agent, became like a father to him.

"He was my mentor, it was a terrific relationship," Braley said.

Braley excelled at subjects related to math and science, but struggled with English composition at McMaster and left school after three years without a degree.

After working with GM Acceptance Corp. and London Life, Braley called on a former neighbour named William Orlick, who owned a small industrial distributing company. Orlick worried about what would happen to his company after he was gone.

"I thought about it and went over to him and said, 'Would you consider selling the business to me?'" Braley said. "Life is strange because you touch a lot of people every day, but you have to see the opportunity and do something about it."

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Braley took a small loan from his grandfather to complete his purchase of William Orlick Limited. A few months later, Herbert Osborn died at 77.

Braley expanded the company by shifting focus to auto parts manufacturing and by the mid-1980s he was well established. When then Ticats owner Harold Ballard, in failing health, couldn't find a buyer, Braley offered $500,000, to be financed with proceeds from the team's five-year sponsorship agreement with Players Tobacco.

But after three seasons, Braley became dismayed by the league's U.S. expansion ambitions.

"I voted in the meeting against it. I said, 'You're out of your mind,'" he says.

Braley gave the club to a local not-for-profit corporation but continued to finance the club periodically, and quietly.

"When they couldn't make the payroll, [then commissioner Larry Smith]would drop by and ask me to write another $100,000 cheque," Braley said. "And I would say yes."

By 1995, the U.S. expansion dream had crashed and a year later the Lions, Ottawa Rough Riders and Montreal Alouettes went into receivership. The run-up to the 1996 Grey Cup in Hamilton is generally regarded as the closest the CFL has come to extinction, so close, an unnamed cabinet minister visited Braley and warned him that the CBC would bail as a television partner if the league could not field a team in Vancouver.

And that is why, in November of 1996, Braley bought the B.C. Lions.

By 2003, the CFL was in trouble again, this time with both the Tiger-Cats and Argonauts in midseason bankruptcy.

Braley offered to help secure new ownership for both clubs and a few months later the Ticats were sold to Bob Young, a former Hamiltonian living in North Carolina. But prospective Argo owners Howard Sokolowski and David Cynamon wanted some financial protection due to the losses incurred by the previous owner.

"They came to me and asked me if I would be involved," Braley said. "I thought about it and they sold me on being part of what they were doing."

Over the next six seasons, Braley helped to finance the Argos without the knowledge of almost everyone in the league, including commissioner Mark Cohon, who had been hired in 2007. Braley characterizes the arrangement as loans, not dissimilar to those he'd made to other clubs.

After The Globe and Mail unveiled Braley's financial relationship with the Argo owners last June, the league immediately passed bylaws requiring internal disclosure of all financial arrangements between teams. Eight months later, Braley became the Argos' new owner. Over the next two seasons, the Lions and Argos will host the Grey Cup, enabling Braley to earn a tidy profit that could be in the range of $10-million.

When Braley took over the Lions, they had a season ticket base of 3,500 and a string of previous owners had walked away in despair. By last season the Lions had a healthy season-ticket base of almost 20,000 and next season will move into B.C. Place following a taxpayer funded $458-million renovation that includes a retractable roof.

No wonder Braley can claim to have several potential owners interested in buying the team from him. So what's the secret to Braley's success? Well, he insists he didn't turn it around at all. He gives credit to the  people he hired, specifically the late Bob Ackles, and now hopes he can repeat the same thing under Bob Nicholson and his staff in Toronto.

"I don't know if I can or not, but when I first went to Vancouver, I had the same question in my mind," Braley said. "I believe a strong Toronto franchise will take the league to a new place. The reason I took this on is because I believe it can be done. In the back of my mind I'm not always sure. But I'll know."

"He's smarter than anyone else in the room, and because of that we all tend to listen to him," Young said of Braley. "And now that Hugh Campbell has retired, David is very much the guy who knows where all the skeletons are buried … and that makes his role as a senior leader of the league important.

"We all get enthusiastic for great ideas, and on a regular basis David will say, 'I like that idea, but when we tried it in 1992, this happened. How can we approach it differently so we don't get the same result?'"

Like most owners in sports, Braley is a fan.

But Friday night, when his Lions visit his Argonauts, he will have a perspective like no one else at Rogers Centre.

"I win regardless of who wins," he said with a smile. "And I lose regardless of who loses."

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