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Stampeders’ great Ezzrett ‘Sugarfoot’ Anderson gave football fans a show

Ezzrett Anderson Jr., in his Calgary home in 2005, said his fondest memory was returning to Calgary after losing the 1949 Grey Cup in Toronto and seeing 60,000 fans gathered at the train station to welcome the team home.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

If he liked you, really liked you, he would take you for a ride in his prized 1955 Oldsmobile and show you the sights. See that office building? He was on the construction crew that made it happen. See that street corner? That was where he ran his Royalite gas station and wore a tie and a service jacket with his name on it.

And over there, that was where Mewata Stadium stood its ground as home field to the Calgary Stampeders, the place where Ezzrett Anderson lived up to his nickname Sugarfoot with some of the sweetest moves local football fans had ever seen.

And those weren't the only things Mr. Anderson did for Calgary. The son of Arkansas plantation workers, Sugarfoot Anderson represented his adopted home with dignity and kindness. He was a football player and yet so much more than that. He held down many roles as a labourer, a jazz drummer with a group called the Bluenotes, a Hollywood actor and a good friend of Jackie Robinson. He was a man of the people, black and white, and his death on March 8 of heart failure was met with sadness and appreciation for all he did in his 97 years.

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"When [his wife] Anne [English] and son Barry called me that day, I said, 'I don't want to hear it,'" former Stampeders' personnel director Roy Shivers said from his Las Vegas home. "Sugarfoot was the most interesting, knowledgeable man I've ever known. He reminded me of my dad. I cried like a baby when I heard [Mr. Anderson had died]."

Mr. Shivers got plenty of car rides with Sugar behind the wheel and, as always, Mr. Anderson would point out buildings he had helped construct as an employee of Consolidated Concrete.

One time, Mr. Anderson slipped in a cassette tape and the two men listened to some cool jazz introduced by a smooth-talking DJ.

"He told me it was him," Mr. Shivers recalled. "He called himself the Mayor of Melody." And the Mayor's sign-off summed up how Sugarfoot lived and loved: "A smile is worth a million dollars, but it doesn't cost a cent."

Ezzrett Anderson Jr. could remember back to the penniless days of his childhood. Born in February, 1920, in Nashville, Ark., he grew up on a plantation where his father and mother Florence both worked picking cotton. Mr. Anderson Sr. was a talented baseball player. He was a member of the barn-storming Negro League Kansas City Monarchs, featuring legendary pitcher Satchel Paige. As part of the Monarchs' show, Mr. Paige would pitch and Mr. Anderson Sr. would catch while sitting in a rocking chair behind home plate. (For extra fun, Mr. Anderson Sr. would throw out runners trying to steal second base while he comfortably sat in his rocker.)

The first big moment in young Mr. Anderson Jr.'s life occurred when he saw a book floating down a river. He plucked it from the water and learned to read. Years later he said the book's pictures had filled him with possibilities, that there was a whole other world out there waiting to be explored. Before leaving home, he learned from watching his father, a tolerant man who would bear the brunt of taunts and name calling without so much as raising an eyebrow. Mr. Anderson Sr. said he was fine as long as no one laid a hand on him.

Mr. Anderson Jr. attended Langston High School in nearby Hot Springs and was a star football player. That helped him enroll at Kentucky State University, where he honed his skills as a fierce two-way player, a receiver on offence, a sure tackler on defence and the punter on special teams.

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His family was part of what is called the Second Great Migration, an event in which an estimated five million African-Americans left the South during the start of the Second World War in 1941 and relocated north and west. In the Andersons' case, they went all the way to California. (The first Great Migration began decades earlier when six million blacks left their rural roots and moved into urban centres to the north and west.)

In California, Mr. Anderson Jr. came of age. He stood 6-foot-4 and weighed 210 pounds. He played the tight-end position where he could put his speed and size-15 feet to good use, which first earned him the name Sugarfoot. In the mid-1940s, Sugarfoot played in the All-America Football Conference, a minor pro circuit just a notch below the National Football League.

He was a member of the Los Angeles Dons, who were owned by actor Don Ameche, entertainers Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and movie producer Louis B. Mayer. Before that, Sugarfoot was a Hollywood Bulldog in the Pacific Coast Football League. One of his teammates was a man destined for fame in another sport – Jackie Robinson.

Sugarfoot met Mr. Robinson through a mutual friend, Woody Strode, who would eventually join Kenny (Kingfish) Washington as the first two black players to sign with the post-Second World War NFL. Mr. Strode also played for the Stampeders and won the 1948 Grey Cup.

Mr. Anderson joined the Stampeders in 1949 and played until 1954. He never left Calgary and never played for another CFL team.

Sugarfoot said in a 2013 Globe and Mail interview that Mr. Robinson was a dynamo on the football field and would demand the ball if he felt others were getting too much attention.

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"If Kenny Washington threw Woody three passes, Jackie wanted five. [In baseball,] if Jackie wanted to steal second, with or without a signal, he stole it," Mr. Anderson said. "Off the field, he was hyper. He'd drive a car fast … He was a hopped-up guy and he'd tell you, too. You didn't say hello too hard for him."

Mr. Robinson went on to break baseball's colour barrier by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. After winning the World Series in 1955, he flew to Calgary where he was picked up in Sugarfoot's new Oldsmobile and driven to Lake Louise. Along the way, the two men talked of their experiences as black athletes in a white society.

"Jackie told me what really bothered him was how his teammates treated him," Mr. Anderson said. "They wouldn't throw him the ball [during practice]. He'd try to sit at the same table with the guys and they'd get up and leave. They treated him like he was an animal or something … In Calgary, some people called me 'darky' but they just didn't know better."

While he was playing football in L.A., Sugarfoot was also earning a living as a movie actor thanks to Mr. Strode, who had found steady employment portraying a slave or African warrior. Mr. Anderson appeared in more than 30 films, including The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Samson and Delilah and The Story of Seabiscuit with Shirley Temple and Barry Fitzgerald. He always kept his Screen Actors Guild card active in case an offer came in.

As for his career with the Stampeders, Mr. Anderson, with his jersey number 00, was an instant fan favourite. He could catch passes and gain critical yards at a time when the Canadian Football League wasn't as pass happy as it is today. His statistics over six seasons included 142 catches, 2,020 yards and 10 touchdowns.

His fondest memory was returning to Calgary after losing the 1949 Grey Cup in Toronto and seeing 60,000 fans, almost half the city's population, gathered at the train station to welcome the team home. It made Mr. Anderson wonder what the reaction would have been had the Stampeders won for the second year in a row.

When he retired from football, Sugarfoot's star lost none of its brilliance and his presence knew no boundaries. People liked him and he genuinely liked them back. As proof of his popularity, he once showed a reporter some of his prized possessions – birthday greetings from former Alberta premier Ralph Klein and former prime minister Jean Chrétien. A portrait that was presented to him by former prime minister Louis St. Laurent. A blue camel-hair hat signed by former heavyweight boxing champion, Joe Louis. And dozens of photographs of Sugarfoot with celebrities from the world of politics, sports and entertainment.

John Anderson, one of Sugarfoot's three sons, remembers the day Bob Hope came to the house. "He was the grand marshal of the Calgary Stampede parade [1963]. And he knew my dad [from Sugarfoot playing for Hope's L.A. Dons]," Mr. Anderson said.

It got to the point where most everyone in Calgary knew Sugarfoot. He couldn't go out for dinner without being recognized or asked for his autograph. Then the accolades started rolling in. He was added to the Stampeders' Wall of Fame at McMahon Stadium in 1990 and inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame in 2010.

Soon after Sugarfoot's death, CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge issued a statement that read: "Some of our fans remember the tremendous on-field quickness that earned him his nickname. Many more remember how quick he was to share a story, a smile or a helping hand."

Many others remembered him the same way.

"Every time I came to Calgary he'd pick me up at the airport," Mr. Shivers said. "I'd just sit back and listen to him talk about all kinds of stuff. They were life lessons."

Mr. Anderson leaves his sons John and Barry along with his wife Anne English. He was predeceased by his son Vaughn in 2015 and his first wife Virnetta (Nelson) Anderson in 2006. She was the first black woman to serve as a Calgary city councillor, 1974-77.

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About the Author
Sports writer

Allan Maki is a national news reporter and sports writer based in Calgary. He joined the Globe and Mail in 1997 with an extensive sports background having covered Stanley Cup finals, the Grey Cup, Summer and Winter Olympics, the 1980 Miracle on Ice, the 1989 Super Bowl riot and the 1989 earthquake World Series. More


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