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Interview: Paul Cowan speaks about “The Crash”, part of the Engraved On A Nation series

The crash of TCA Flight 810 drew headlines for the five Canadian football stars lost.TSN's Engraved On A Nation series of CFL documentaries has produced some incredible films thus far, looking at everything from how the Saskatchewan Roughriders' legion of fans responded to the crushing 2009 Grey Cup loss to the against-the-odds journeys of quarterbacks Chuck Ealey and Anthony Calvillo to the journeys of star quarterback Russ Jackson and bomb-disposal expert Robert Cote ahead of the FLQ-threatened 1969 Grey Cup. Friday's film, "The Crash," (first airing at 8 p.m. Eastern on TSN, repeating Saturday, Nov. 3 at 7 p.m. on CTV Two and Sunday, Nov. 4 at 5 p.m. Eastern on CTV) is perhaps the one I'm most eagerly anticipating, though. It's about the 1956 Trans-Canada Air Lines Flight 810 crash on Mount Slesse near of Chilliwack, B.C., one of the worst plane crashes in the world at that time and an incredible story, but one that's unknown to many Canadians (although there's an excellent book on it). This is the tale of a remarkable event in Canadian history, and one CFL fans would do well to watch.

What makes this plane crash so relevant to the CFL? Well, this was even before the official formation of the league in 1958, but five Canadian football stars on their way back from the annual East-West all-star game in Vancouver were amongst the 62 people on board Flight 810, none of whom survived. There's an incredible connection to the modern CFL too, as Calgary offensive lineman Edwin Harrison's grandfather, Calvin Jones (the first African-American to win the Outland Trophy as the NCAA's top lineman during his career at Iowa), was one of the Canadian football stars killed in the crash. This film focuses on Harrison's journey to discover more about Jones and the crash. When renowned director Paul Cowan spoke with me about the film this week, he said that's what attracted him to the project.

"I like stories about family, I like stories that are intergenerational," he said. "I like stories that are archival in nature."

Cowan's done some sports-related projects in the past, including the Academy Award-nominated "Going The Distance" (about the 1978 Commonwealth Games), but he said it wasn't the sports side that drew him to this.

"I didn't want to make a football film," he said. "I thought I had something to say about family."

The crash happened in December 1956, but wreckage wasn't found until May 1957.Cowan said while the crash is about much more than just the Canadian football players who lost their lives, tying a film about it to football made sense given how prominent these guys were (and how prominent Harrison is).

"It felt absolutely natural," he said.

He said Harrison's openness to talk about Jones and his family made for easy interviews.

"I could ask him anything and he'd give me an answer, and it would be an honest answer," Cowan said.

There are endless ways you could take a film like this (Canadian aviation history? The early days of the CFL? What the CFL was like for black players like Jones in those days?), but Jones said he decided to focus on the Jones/Harrison family connection, as it provided so much compelling footage.

"There was more than enough material here," he said. "We just did the story of the Harrison family; in a television hour, you can only do so much."

The crash was a remarkably significant event from many perspectives, including football and aviation, but it really hasn't been publicized much outside of B.C.; Cowan said it was new to him before he started making the film.

"To be perfectly honest, I had never heard of it, and I was born before the crash happened," he said. "I was nine years old at the time."

Cowan said making the film was a fun experience, and it was great working with TSN, as that enabled more rapid decisions than had been the case on some of his other projects .

"This is one of those films that, to me, was enjoyable beginning to end," he said. "We had one producer, that was TSN, and they made decisions quickly."

He said working with TSN went very well, as they were open to what he wanted to do.

"TSN was great," he said. "They took a gamble. They took a deep breath and they went with it."

The film wasn't easy to make, though. One particular part, where the crew journeyed up Mount Slesse with Harrison to see the wreck of the plane, proved challenging; it had to be done on the Stampeders' bye week and the weather had to cooperate.

"We had a very small window where we could do that," Cowan said. "We just got up there in time to cut that into the film to make our air date."

Before his CFL days, Cal Jones was a star at Iowa, and was featured on this 1954 SI cover.That climb was arduous, too.

"It's a hard slog up there," Cowan said. "Boomer (Harrison) is a big guy; he's used to running 20 yards, not climbing a mountain. ... There was too much snow up there even in July for us to get (all the way) to the wreckage site."

Still, viewing the wreckage with Harrison made for an incredible experience.

"It was an emotional moment for everyone," Cowan said.

When asked why CFL fans should watch this film, Cowan deferred to what Harrison had told him.

"Boomer says it best: 'This is a story about me trying to find myself and my family trying to find itself.'"

The Crash first airs at 8 p.m. Eastern on TSN Friday, Nov. 2, repeating Saturday, Nov. 3 at 7 p.m. on CTV Two and Sunday, Nov. 4 at 5 p.m. Eastern on CTV.

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