February 8, 2018

Smoke and Mirrors | Life in the CFL with Richie Hall

Richie Hall is a Grey Cup champion, both as a player and as a coach. A quick Google search can confirm that for anyone who doesn’t know the man.

But over his 30-plus years in the Canadian Football League, he has also become both a mentor and an inspiration for teammates and players. Hall has some stories to tell, and after years in the making, they’ve been put to paper with three-time Canadian bestselling author Guy Scholz.

Scholz and the Bombers’ defensive coordinator have just released ‘Smoke and Mirrors: Life in the CFL with Richie Hall’. But this isn’t just a book about football and tales from the locker room. Scholz describes Hall as a philosopher at heart, a warrior-poet and ‘a CFL Yoda’, and their collaboration is as much about his approach to life as it is to coaching.

The book is available through all major websites and bookstores such as Chapters/Indigo, Google, and Barnes & Noble for $25.

This week, Hall and Scholz chatted with about their effort.

Q: Give us the how and why you two decided to collaborate on a book?

RICHIE HALL: Guy and I go back to 1988. He spoke at a chapel before one of our games when I was playing for Saskatchewan. We had a conversation afterward, and for whatever reason, kept in contact. He approached me about writing a book. It’s been really his vision. It’s taken us awhile because I’ve dragged my heels on it and never saw myself writing a book. It’s something he saw and challenged me on.

GUY SCHOLZ: The idea of writing a book popped into my head in the early 2000s. I think we connected when I first met him because we both had social work degrees and as I’ve pastored churches over the years, I’ve brought Richie in 10-12 times. It just hit me over the years his consistency in character and integrity… we just love to talk philosophy about all sorts of stuff. I write curling books as well and just love the way Richie talks about sports psychology and a lot of our book is built around that.

This guy is an excellent coach, but he also builds the morale of players. They just believe in him. He’s almost a master psychologist when it comes to dealing with people, both in football and out. You can see why players want to be with him and why he keeps getting rehired by coaches year after year. He’s just got a great story to tell.

Q: This isn’t a book about your life in football. It’s not all a biography. There’s a lot of spirituality and life lessons involved here.

RH: This is about my life lessons and my journey from a child to my present age. Sports have been a big part of my life and I’ve learned so much about life through them. It’s about how to deal with other people, how to overcome obstacles, setting goals, picking yourself up when you get knocked down because heaven knows we’ve all been knocked down, and I’ve been knocked down many times. This is about trying to stay positive and move forward. This is what worked for me and hopefully there’s something in here that somebody might read and it might help them get through what they’re going through.

GS: My favourite part of the book is the life lessons where we go through the cities he’s played or coached in because Richie’s very transparent and honest. We didn’t want it to be a conventional biography. ‘Who is Richie Hall from the heart?’ is I guess one way to say it.

RH: We didn’t want it to just be a football book because the audience we are trying to attract isn’t just football people. The people I’ve been involved with are all types, not just those in sports. There’s nothing glamorous about my career… I’m not a hall of famer, I’m not this, I’m not that. I’m just an overachiever and a hard working person. That’s part of what has made my journey unique in just becoming a professional athlete.

Q: You speak about life lessons in this book. You came up here to play and now, three decades-plus later, you’re still here and working in this league. You’ve won, you’ve lost, you’ve been traded and you’ve been fired. Isn’t a big part of that your survivability and resiliency?

RH: Very much so. That goes back to being an overachiever. My dad always told me that if you work hard good things are going to happen. He didn’t say they were always going to happen; we all face adversities in life. I go back to college… I flunked out in my first semester, but I graduated. I’ve been fired, but I was able to pick myself up. It’s not what happens to us, it’s how we respond. Look at me… I was 5-6 and 150 pounds and I got the chance to play pro ball. For whatever reason, I got the chance to play for nine years. Since I graduated in 1983, all but two years of my life have been involved with sports in the CFL. I would never had thought that going to Calgary in my first year. I’m blessed.

GS: I don’t know if you knew this about Richie, and I wish it was in the official record books, but he went through a series of seven head coaches in Saskatchewan who either left or got fired, and he got rehired by the next head coach seven times. The only other person that’s happened to was Fred Biletnikoff in Oakland. How many assistant coaches can say that? There’s something in him that head coaches want.

Q: One of the interesting parts of the book was the time Guy spent ‘embedded’ with the Bombers during a week in 2015. It provides a compelling look at the life of a coach. What was that like?

GS: Remember the old book by George Plimpton, ‘The Paper Lion’? That’s what motivated me.  I approached Richie about it. Honestly, I was like a kid in a candy store. It was something to be able to see how a professional sports team operates behind the scenes. I have to give Mike O’Shea a ton of credit because he welcomed me to the stadium and gave me total access to go to any meeting I wanted. It gave me a chance to see how each coach operated. And what hit me was how they all put their egos on the shelf to work together. I’ll be honest with you – that was probably one of the most fun weeks of my life.

Q: Right at the front of the book, before you get to the dedication and the first chapter, is a quote by you Richie: ‘If everyone in this choir was just like me, what kind of choir would this choir BE?’ Can you explain the meaning behind that?

RH: It’s a saying we said at the end of choir rehearsal when I was growing up. For whatever reason, it resonated with me dating back to when I was about 14 and singing in the church choir. It makes you look at yourself. The natural thing as a human being is to point fingers and look at everybody else and never look at ourselves. It’s how do you react. It made me think twice. If I was a selfish person, if I was late and everyone was like me, how can we be a team?

It comes back to how do you want people to treat you? You want to be supported, you want to be respected. It’s a quote that helps me in that before I say something, I want to take the other person into consideration. I’m not perfect, I’ve got so many faults, but I try to live my life like that.

Q: Former Bomber player and president Lyle Bauer came out with a book last year that chronicled his days in the game, but also his battle with cancer. He spoke of the process of putting together the book as therapeutic. Was there anything like that for you in doing this?

RH: Guy challenged me on a lot of things. I know how I view myself, but it was interesting talking to him and then reading the final product to find out how other people viewed me. Some of the things that resonated with me were things I hadn’t talked about for a long time. So I can understand it when Lyle talks about the process being therapeutic. I’d like to think all this has made me a better person. It forced you to think about what you’re doing and saying. There’s a certain amount of vulnerability you open up here because you are telling someone about your life. I wanted to make sure I was as honest as I could be.

Q: You’re a very humble man. Did this book help give you some perspective on your career and the things you’ve accomplished, that it’s OK to thump your chest and be proud once in a while?

RH: I’ve been very blessed. I’ve been blessed to be part of Grey Cup wins, blessed to have the opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream and become a professional athlete. I’m blessed to still be coaching. I don’t want anything more now than for the members of our team to hoist that Grey Cup trophy. I know what it feels like. I want them to know what it feels like. I look at back at ’07 when we won in Saskatchewan. What made me proudest was that I was also with the team in 1999 when we were 3-15 and the worst team in the CFL. I was fortunate to still be with the team in 2007 and to see some of those guys still around… that’s what it’s all about, seeing the joy in somebody else. That’s what motivates me.

Q: Finally, separate from the book, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about this coming season and the changes to the defence. It’s a unit under the microscope. Can you speak about that and the changes?

RH: I’m excited. Looking back at 2017, I remember looking around the room and saying ‘This room will never be the same.’ We all understand this game is about change. And 2018 is an entirely different year. I know we’ve got a good football team. There are some little things we can do to get over the hump. I’m a process person and this is just one of those things regarding the process and change, whether it’s the staff or the players. It’s always changing because we’re trying to improve and we’re trying to get better. And in order to get better, we can’t remain the same.