Ottawa Rough Riders

Dave Thelen - Running Back- 1958-64 - Miami (OH)

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Capital Region Football – July 19, 2009

Dave Thelen should be dead.
He should not, this Saturday morning, be in Moe’s World Famous Newport Restaurant having breakfast with his buddies, not looking at all 73, his trim, hard body and litheness showing no apparent signs of his sacrifices to past wars: A knee, a hip, both replaced.
Dave Thelen should have died 51 years ago.


And he would have died if he’d had teeth.


If he’d died that fall afternoon at Lansdowne Park he would not be remembered today for what he is remembered: The greatest and most destructive power fullback in the history of the Ottawa Rough Riders. Six times a CFL all-star. Several times the league’s leading rusher with 1000-yard plus seasons. Thirty 100-yard plus games. A Schenley nomination as the league’s Most Outstanding Player. Six seasons with the Riders followed by two with the Argos. Induction into the Canadian Football Hall Of Fame in 1989.


You hear a lot about concussions in team sports, you hardly ever hear of what, at the age of 22, nearly took the life of Dave Thelen, son of a hard-scrabble steel mill worker from East Canton, Ohio.


“I had five or six concussions when I played. High school, college, the CFL. They didn’t make of it then what they do now. It was simply getting your bell rung. A coach would hold up two fingers to see if you could count and back in you’d go.


“Our helmet in those days had little face protection and the inside was just a thin layer of foam rubber. We had a running back with Ottawa, Bobby Judd, and one game he was right out of it from a concussion. He couldn’t understand the plays called in the huddle, but that didn’t stop him getting the ball and taking off.”


Thelen draws his knife across his eggs. “Sometimes I’ve wondered if the concussions had a long-term effect on me, but I don’t think so, I feel fine.”

Dave Thelen     Miami (OH)          
  Rushing           Receiving    
Yr Team C Yds Avg Lg TD C Yds Avg Lg TD
1958 Ott 100 696 7.0 77 2 12 175 14.6 41 0
1959 Ott 228 1,339 5.9 59 10 9 95 10.6 40 1
1960 Ott 245 1,407 5.7 52 3 10 91 9.1 19 0
1961 Ott 180 1,032 5.7 47 3 8 197 24.6 48 2
1962 Ott 146 759 5.2 65 4 10 178 17.8 37 0
1963 Ott 151 907 6.0 62 9 12 213 17.8 47 2
1964 Ott 161 777 4.8 59 8 19 270 14.2 76 2
1965 Tor 152 801 5.3 38 3 22 297 13.5 38 2
1966 Tor 167 745 4.5 29 5 17 248 14.6 49 0
Total 9 1,530 8,463 5.5 77 47 119 1,764 14.8 76 9


I ask Thelen about the gold watch on his wrist. It’s his award, he says, from Miami University in Ohio where, in 1990, he was inducted into its football hall of fame. Thelen could have gone to the NFL Cleveland Browns who’d drafted him. But in that era when CFL clubs often matched or exceeded NFL offers, he signed, in 1958, with Ottawa: Two years at $8,000 a season, good money back then.


The same as Cleveland’s offer, but football in the NFL would have been a full-time job whereas in the Canadian league players could — and most did — hold jobs outside of the game to supplement their income. “Russ Jackson,” says Thelen, “taught high school and banked his football salary.”


During Thelen’s sensational rookie season he landed a paying job as athletic director at the Jewish Community Centre.
There three years, it’s where he eventually met Norm Torontow who was in the hardware business, and also happened to be a neighbour of Dave and his wife Bonnie, an Ottawan he’d married. The friendship led to them starting their own highly successful business, Thelen Torontow Lighting Centre.


It’s the second quarter against the Argos. The ball is handed off to Thelen. In his signature style — head down, knees high and pile-driving — he explodes forward. He’s hit low. The hit sends his face crashing into the knee of a defensive back.


Thelen is knocked unconscious. He has swallowed his tongue. They can’t pry his mouth open. Dave Thelen lies choking to death.


“I had a gap where I had no top teeth,” says Thelen. “The teeth got knocked out in high school ball and I never played with a plate in case I swallowed it. Frank Morgan, our equipment guy with Ottawa, managed to get my mouth open enough so that he could stick scissors through the gap down my throat and pull out my tongue. It saved my life. I didn’t play the rest of the game. I went to hospital.”


A reflective smile. “When I lost my teeth back in high school? I remember how upset my mother was that I now had no teeth.”
 

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