What Doesn’t Kill You

Have you ever noticed that something peculiar happens to us when it comes to our sports idols? We watch them on 46 inch plasma flat screens in the comfort of our homes or at neighbourhood sports bars while they sweat it out on the court, the field or the ice.

We spend hours scouring the headlines and looking for mentions about them either online or in the papers. We follow their Twitter feeds and Instagram accounts. We like their Facebook pages and add their highlight videos to our Favourites on YouTube.

Some people go even further by studying and memorizing their favourite player’s statistics in such depth that they can recite them easier than our own phone number. On rare occasions, we get the opportunity to shake their hand and possibly exchange a few words. And from all that, we presume to know them.

Take for example the legendary Winnipeg Blue Bomber, #59, Lyle Bauer, a charismatic leader and tenacious competitor well known for playing through injuries and leaving it all on the field. In a career spanning 10 years in the CFL, #59 was a sports icon in Winnipeg. He became a role model and a celebrity during a stretch of some of the best football years in Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ history.

Bauer was a divisional all-star and the club’s top lineman in 1988. He helped his team capture three Grey Cup Championships in 1984, 1988 and 1990, and was inducted into the Winnipeg Blue Bombers Hall of Fame in 1998.

He hung up his pads, helmet and knee braces after the 1991 season and moved into the Blue Bomber’s front office as the team’s assistant general manager.

Bauer left the Blue Bombers in 1995 to pursue business opportunities in the grain industry, working for AgPro in Calgary, where he served as the company’s General Manager.

In 2000, Bauer returned to the Winnipeg Football Club, taking over the management of the organization. As President and Chief Executive Officer, his innovative strategies in debt reduction and fundraising helped lift the Winnipeg Football Club out from under a $5-million debt and set the organization up to became a model example for the entire league.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers made the postseason seven of the ten seasons Bauer was at the helm and the team advanced to the Grey Cup in 2001 and 2007. The club hosted five playoff games and one Grey Cup during Bauer’s tenure.

He left the Winnipeg Football Club in 2010 with a record of 90-88-2, moving on to lead the Calgary Stampeders. He spent three years as President and COO of that club.

It’s evident that Lyle Bauer has made a significant impact both on and off the football field since being drafted in 1979. His resume is impressive. It’s interesting. It’s intriguing. But it means nothing.

Because the reality is that we never really know our sports heroes as much as we would like to think. We only see a façade, the parts that they allow us to see. When it comes to sports heroes and celebrities in general, what we really should be doing is trying to understand what makes that person tick and how they have become the people they are today. Sometimes it’s a classic “Glory Road” story while others tell a dark tale.

It was a cold Saturday afternoon in October 1991 at the old Winnipeg Stadium on Maroons Road. With the game still up for grabs, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers faced a second and long against their East Division rivals, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The sold-out crowd watched as David Black, Bob Molle, Steve Rodehutskors, Chris Walby and Lyle Bauer broke away from the huddle and set their positions at the line of scrimmage. In unison, Molle, Walby, Rodehutskors and Black bent into their three-point stances and dug their cleats into the turf. Bauer, the team’s center, scanned the entire Tiger-Cats defensive formation before setting himself in position above the ball.

Quarterback Tom Burgess stepped in behind him and viewed the field while running back Robert Mimbs and fullback Matt Pearce lined up behind him in what is called an “I” formation. Burgess barked the signals and, with precise timing, Bauer lifted the ball off the turf and into this quarterback’s hands. The legendary O-Line stood their ground ready for battle. But before Burgess could hand the ball off to his running back, he was lying face down in the cold turf.

Walby, angry, but mostly embarrassed, pulled himself off the field, ripped out his mouth guard and proceeded to shout and berate the other four linemen. As the five teammates walked back to the sideline, #59 stopped and tore off his helmet. He glared at Walby then yelled, “Shut up and worry about doing your own job!”

It’s almost impossible for anyone to re-create or recall an exact moment in time accurately. Everyone involved will have their own recollection of the situation. Memories fade after 25 years.  “What went through your mind after the ball was snapped on that second and short during the Tiger-Cats’ game in 1991?” It’s an impossible question to answer.

“I don’t remember exactly what I said,” said Walby trying to recall the incident. “If you ask the guys, they’ll all tell you I had a reputation of yapping and shooting my mouth off all the time. Nobody ever listened to me, but I can tell you, when Bauer spoke, we listened. We paid attention to him.”

“As a professional athlete, you never want to show weakness or defeat or anything along those lines,” said Bauer. “If your opponent knows of any weakness at all, they will take full advantage of it. They had to. It’s part of their job. Hell, I did it all the time. But, on that play, we didn’t do our job.”

“As our center, Lyle was extremely intense,” recalls quarterback Tom Burgess who played six seasons in the CFL and quarterbacked the Blue Bombers to a Grey Cup win in 1990. “He had everyone’s respect and attention. He was definitely the captain of that line and he was tough as nails.”

The Blue Bombers went on to win that game, 68-14 and the offensive line, considered to be the best in Blue Bomber’s history, held their ground until the very last whistle.

“I was born during my father’s later days of playing,” said Wesley Bauer, Lyle’s son. “But I will never forget watching a historical football game with my father playing on late night television. I was excited as I never had really seen any footage of my dad snapping the ball.”

“I remember sitting beside him and watching that first play. He snapped the ball and the next thing I see is my dad cut block the nose tackle. I turned to my dad and said ‘You were a dirty football player.’ He said to me, ‘In those days you had to be.’”

“My dad was one tough SOB,” said Brodie Bauer, Lyle’s other son. “I remember him coming home with his fingers all broken from the game the previous night. Broken fingers and all, it didn’t stop him from hanging out with me, Wes, and Danni, playing games in the yard.”

When asked about Bauer’s toughness, Ross Hodgkinson, the Blue Bombers head athletic trainer in 1985 said, “Lyle had some ongoing knee issues prior to me starting with the team,” he recalls. “At some point he was placed in a leg cast to give his one knee a chance to settle down. But Lyle, in his divine wisdom, decided one evening that he had had enough of the cast. He cut it off with a power saw in his garage. The next morning he came in, stuck his head in the training room and threw the cast at me. He said he was done with it. I was furious!”

Bauer earned the reputation throughout the league as being a smart, tough leader.  “I spent 10 years battling that guy,” said Mike Walker who spent eight years on the Hamilton Tiger-Cats defense and two with the Edmonton Eskimos. “We had some epic battles in those years. But he was one guy that never broke. He would never let up.”

So in August 2004, when the former leader of the Blue Bomber’s “Hog Line” developed a severe sore throat, he ignored it.

“I was never one to go to the doctor. I hated going to doctors,” Bauer had said. “It was that don’t show a weakness attitude.”

But eventually he did go and after weeks of tests and appointments, he received the diagnosis: oropharyngeal cancer – stage 4. The tumour was hidden deep inside the base of his tongue.

This time it wasn’t a game. The old locker room clichés of “failure is not an option” and “win at all costs” quickly became a hard reality for the former lineman. This was now life and death. There was no playbook, no business plan to reference; no teammates, coaches or trainers to lean on.

“In spite of family and friends, I had never felt so alone and unsure of what the future would bring,” said Bauer. “For the first time in my life, I had no control over what was going to happen.”

His first concern was his wife and children seeing him in pain. “I don’t think my kids ever saw their father that vulnerable. I’ve always tried to be there, strength-wise,” says Bauer, who has one daughter, Danni and two sons, Brodie, and Wesley.

“Once it happens, it puts you in a whole different mindset. And really, what you have to do is draw upon your past life experiences and prepare for the battle of your life. Alone.”

But throughout the numerous treatments and doctors’ appointments, Bauer never had a ‘why me’ moment.

“At the time, my thought was, ‘What difference does that make when what I need to focus on is what’s going to happen now?’” says Bauer.

After 42 gruelling radiation treatments, as well as chemotherapy, Bauer is now cancer-free. The radiation treatments have left him with damage to his tongue, throat, and voice box, which affect his speech, but he’s grateful to be alive.

“What doesn’t kill you only, makes you stronger.”

That quote has been around for years. We’ve all seen it and heard it. It’s been printed on T-shirts and embossed on coffee mugs.

Some credit the quote to the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, but he actually said it more eloquently than what we have become used to: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” However it’s said, it turns out, he was right in Bauer’s case.

There have been numerous studies and examples, medical, scientific and personal, which have shown that some survivors report positive changes and enhanced personal development after their trauma. There’s even a term for it, Post Traumatic Growth or PTG. PTG is defined by any beneficial change in circumstances resulting from a major life crisis or traumatic event. People experience a positive shift by having a renewed appreciation for life or they adopt a new world view with new possibilities. They feel more personal strength, more spiritually satisfied, and their relationships improve. And some, like #59, do all that and more.

In 2005, even before he was finished with his own cancer treatments, Bauer created the Never Alone Foundation with the vision of a world where no one enters the fight against cancer feeling alone. The Never Alone Foundation is now a nationally registered charity committed to improving the lives of people affected by cancer.

When our childhood heroes face personal tragedies, they become human just like the rest of us. On the field, Lyle Bauer was a powerhouse athlete, a three time Grey Cup Champion and a member of the Blue Bombers Hall of Fame. Off the field, he was a successful business leader and role model to many. Yet with all that going for him, he was still attacked by something completely outside of his control.

If you ask him today, he’ll tell you he never wanted to fail at anything. I’m sure at some point during his battle with cancer he repeated that same line to himself he once said to Chris Walby.  “Shut up and worry about doing your own job!”  Bauer’s job was to survive. To live another day and make someone else’s path a little easier.

When we come to know our heroes through their own eyes, we understand that a hero is just an ordinary person who found the strength to persevere in spite of overwhelming obstacles. They keep moving, always, towards a goal they believed in.

Lyle now says he’s more concerned with what he will leave on this Earth after he’s gone than what he can take from it now.

“You can’t take anything with you. That’s been proven and I’m living it. But, what you can do is make sure you did something for someone else. That’s really what we are supposed to do. That’s our job, that’s my job, and that’s what people will be remembered for.”

Since 2005, Lyle and the staff and volunteers of the Never Alone Foundation have raised funds to support various cancer programs and have assisted hundreds of victims and their families. But he is quick to point out that even though he started the foundation, it’s not his. It never was.

His story is not complete by any means. This book is meant to tell the story of a man who works tirelessly to make the later chapters of his life far better than the earlier ones. And isn’t that what life is all about.