CFL Heroes: Normie Kwong

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Who He Was

Normie Kwong, nicknamed “The China Clipper” after a famously fast mail plane, was the son of Chinese immigrants, brought up in a working-class neighbourhood in Calgary. He was picked up by the Calgary Stampeders in 1948, and was part of their Grey Cup-winning squad in that first year, in the memorable Western Invasion of Toronto.

But in 1950, Kwong suffered a potentially career-destroying ankle injury, and Calgary dropped him from the squad. In 1951, “Edmonton took a chance on me,” Kwong remembers. Good move, Eskimos.

Why He Was Great

The CFL was more of a ground game in the 1940s and 50s than it is now. And the CFL had never seen a running back like Normie Kwong. Coaching superstar Wally Buono–who was first hired as a head coach by Kwong in 1990–points out, “Teams were built around stopping the run in those days… It was probably harder to get rushing yards in the 1950s because teams knew you were going to run the ball.”

Kwong was a smaller player, but he was quick. “I was nimble,” recounts Kwong, “and able to negotiate my way through precarious places.” He could take a hit like nobody’s business, too. “I actually liked being hit sometimes,” he admitted in a CBC interview.

On a team stacked with running threats–Jackie Parker, Bernie Faloney, and Johnny Bright were all on the team during Kwong’s most productive years–Kwong absolutely tore up the field. He established eight single-player records by the end of the career. He was one of the primary reasons for Edmonton’s dominance in the mid-50s, and he earned was a major contributor to Edmonton’s three Grey Cup wins in ’54-56.

For twelve years, Kwong was the primary running threat in the CFL. He stood out in an Edmonton team stacked with legendary players. And when he retired in 1960, he had barely begun his public career.

Kwong returned to Calgary, where he still lives today. He was an owner of the Calgary Flames. He received the Order of Canada in 1988 for his work on multiculturalism. He was general manager of the Calgary Stampeders from 1988-91. And, oh yeah, he was appointed Alberta’s Lieutenant-Governor in 2005, making him the guy who welcomed the freakin’ Queen of England to Alberta in her 2005 visit.

Check your resume. Do you have any CFL records? Four or more Grey Cup rings? Own any NHL teams? Ever meet the Queen? Yeah, me neither. Those are justthe highlights for Kwong’s career, though.

One Great Moment

Montreal and Edmonton met in the Grey Cup for three straight years, in 1954-56. The underdog Eskimos had stolen the first win by a single point, and the Alouettes were not going to underestimate the western team again.

The Edmonton game plan was simple: give Normie the ball. Kwong was the primary running threat throughout the game, racking up two touchdowns and 135 rushing yards, a Grey Cup record at the time. (It only stood for a year, with Johnny Bright excelling the mark in the 1956 Cup.)

If there’s any doubt whether Kwong was the major north-south yardage threat, consider this: he was handed the ball 30 times in the game. That’s a Grey Cup record that still stands today.

Why You Should Stand In Awe

Three reasons.

First, he was the first Chinese-Canadian player in the CFL. In a time when discrimination was something that Chinese immigrants commonly faced, Kwong rose to superstar status. And not just because of his dominating talent as a player, but also because his good humour and friendly demeanour disarmed the jerks who wanted to make something of his race.

Second, his single-season rushing record for a Canadian player stood for fifty-six years. Every great Canadian running back in the league for more than a half-century failed to even come close to his mark. In 2012, John Cornish finally surpassed Kwong’s record–although he took 18 games to rack up that many yards, whereas Kwong took only 15 games.

Third, Kwong was part of the ownership group who moved the Atlanta Flames hockey team to Calgary in 1980, and he remained an owner of the hockey team until 1994. That means he was one of the owners when the Flames won the Cup in 1989. That means he’s one of the very few people with his name engraved on the two trophies that Canadians hold most dear, the Grey Cup (four times) and the Stanley Cup.

I’m not sure what Normie Kwong is doing now, but if I found out he was ducking into phone booths, putting on a cape, and thwarting evil, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

 

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