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OPINION: Norm Perry died young after succeeding at football and politics

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Phil Egan

When I heard ‘The Galloping Ghost of the Gridiron’ was dead I was 10 years old.

Only later did I learn the nickname belonged to one of Canada’s most celebrated football greats.

Halfback Norm Perry died on a Sunday in mid-November, 1957. He was just 53.

Today, Sarnians associate his name with the sports field located at Exmouth and Christina streets – the former and unimaginably named Athletic Park.

Naming a football field for Norm Perry seemed a natural honour when approved in the month after his death. He had emerged as a rare talent during the “rough and tumble, knock ‘em down and drag ‘em out” days before the advent of the forward pass.

Perry was a ball carrier with an uncanny ability to swivel-hip his way past tacklers. He displayed his remarkable talent over 17 seasons, beginning with junior rugby and moving up to the highest rank of Canadian football.

In 1933, he electrified a crowd of 5,000 at Sarnia’s Athletic Park by racing along the sidelines for what appeared to be the game-winning touchdown for the Sarnia Imperials – but a referee ruled he’d stepped out of bounds. The Toronto Argos won the Grey Cup that day by a 4-3 score.

But in 1934, Norm Perry led the Imperials to their first of two Grey Cup championships and was named the most valuable player in the Ontario Rugby Football Union.

A broken leg the next year took him out of active play, but not out of football. In 1953 he became league president – an honour attained by few players.

After Imperial Oil ended its association with senior football Perry went on to help organize the new Sarnia Golden Bears football team.

Nominated for city council in 1936, he was apprehensive about his chances, but ended up leading the polls. Three years later, in 1939, Norm Perry was acclaimed Sarnia’s mayor.

In that role, he led a large contingent to London for the Royal Visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

After leaving the office, Norm Perry became the safety supervisor at Imperial Oil and a member of the advisory board of the Industrial Accident Prevention Association.

When the sports field was renamed Norm Perry Park, one alderman predicted “the idea of commemorating Norman Perry would fizzle out in a couple of years, just as did the idea of a memorial to the dead of two world wars.”

He was wrong on both counts.

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