Not Without My Teammates

Not Without My Teammates cover  
Cover of Not Without My Teammates  

By Mike Sullivan and Chris O'Leary

Jeff McWhinney is one of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame’s (CHFoF) Official “Keepers of the Cup” and if you’ve been following Alberta One-Call, the Alberta Common Ground Alliance, the Canadian Common Ground Alliance (CCGA) or Alberta’s Joint Utility Safety Team’s “Where’s the Line?” campaign over the years, you’ve likely met him or at the very least, heard of him.

I was first introduced to Jeff by a common friend, Mr. Steve Loney, whose outside-the-box thinking saw an opportunity for the CCGA to leverage damage prevention awareness via the Grey Cup. The demographics of the stereotypical Canadian Football League fan was a perfect match for the CCGA and over several years, Jeff and the Grey Cup traveled to various locations across Canada promoting damage prevention awareness. Our relationship, and the connection with the CFL, migrated to Alberta One-Call and helped flourish our relationship with the Edmonton and Calgary CFL teams. 

Watching Jeff work events was inspiring. Not only is he an open encyclopedia of CFL and Grey Cup history, his endless energy, passion for people and approachability makes him a tremendous ambassador for the CFL and the CFHoF — in a very short amount of time, he became a damage prevention ambassador.

As Jeff told in the April 2021 article "O’Leary: The story behind the keeper of the cup’s children’s book" his dad, Glenn “Keeper” McWhinney was a quarterback-halfback with the 1954 Grey Cup-winning Edmonton team and a member of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

"The elder McWhinney cherished the memories of his teammates and the camaraderie that came with them. Years later, when he was very ill and nearing the end of his battle with terminal cancer, he was offered a chance to hold the Cup and drink from it one last time. He declined, saying, 'Not without my teammates.' Jeff was there that day and the moment became the backbone to a children’s book he’s written centered on football’s power of inclusion.

Jeff grew up in Winnipeg, where he heard stories about his father’s friendship with his teammates like Jackie Parker, Norm Kwong and Cal Jones. He watched as the CFL provided opportunities to players of colour when they couldn’t find it in the U.S. He remembers Jed Roberts’ arrival in Edmonton and the barriers he broke as an Indigenous player that wore double hearing aids through his career. 

Those figures inspired his book, Not Without My Teammates; a story about a kid (Cal Jones) that’s in a new town and makes friends — all child-versions of these CFL figures — through playing football together. The game puts what can divide adults: race, gender, bodies impacted by disease, hearing difficulties, etc. on the backburner and allows the children to play together, “inside, outside, whatever the weather.” That’s the impact that McWhinney has seen football in Canada have all around him through his life.

'I think the inspiration (for the book) was certainly that my dad had a gift,' he said, pointing out that in the 1950s, even in Canada, having friendships with people of different races wasn’t necessarily an easy thing.

'And (those friendships) were so easy for these guys to do during such a hard time. I felt it was a gift given to me by my dad. And he felt it was a gift given to him by all these different cultures that he was fortunate to be a part of. And he enjoyed it.'

Over the years, Jeff has visited schools with the Grey Cup, has seen the impact it has on children and wanted to do something similar with his book. Part of those visits, he said, would be donating his book to the children at these schools through a sponsor that he’s linked to the project and Alberta One-Call wants to be one of those partners.

The book is in its final preparation stages. McWhinney worked with picture book author Gwen Smid, illustrator Sheldon Dawson and designer Daniel McMullin on the project. They’re hoping to have it ready for the fall, just in time for school visits.

'We all belong,' McWhinney said of his book. 'I didn’t want to show separation. I wanted to show inclusion.'"