The CFL has lost one of its early legends. Former Eskimos' and Stampeders' fullback Norman "Normie" Kwong, who was a Canadian Football Hall of Famer, a four-time Grey Cup champion, and the former lieutenant-governor of Alberta, passed away Saturday at the age of 86. He'll be remembered for the barriers he broke, for the success he had as a player, and for the remarkable things he did after his playing career.
Kwong was born in Calgary in 1929 to parents who had immigrated from China, and in 1948, he became the first Chinese-Canadian to play professional football when he joined the hometown Stampeders at just 18. That came just one year after Chinese-Canadians were given the right to vote, so it wasn't an easy time at all. Here's what UBC's Chinese Canadian Stories project wrote about him in 2011:
Hall of Fame inductee Normie Kwong, the “China Clipper,” was central to the success of the Calgary Stampeders and the Edmonton Eskimos during their Grey Cup triumphs in the 40s and 50s. In a time when many Chinese Canadians were still struggling to overcome decades of job discrimination and racial barriers to career advancement, he was a symbol of hope to Chinese Canadians that their hard work and talent could be recognized and celebrated. His ability to use humour to defuse hostility is perhaps still underappreciated as a sign of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. Even though Kwong played football in an era when the "colour barriers" broken by Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron created animosity and even violence, his talent, humour, and ability to take as well as give a good ribbing endeared him to his teammates. Kwong helped popularize Chinese Canadians as a familiar part of the Canadian sports and social landscape. Normie Kwong was the 16th Lieutenant Governor of Alberta and served until 2010.
Kwong helped the Stampeders win in his first season, becoming the youngest player to win the trophy in the process. He played for Calgary from 1948 through 1950, then was traded to Edmonton, and he really broke through with the Eskimos, earning divisional all-star nods in 1951, 1953, 1955 and 1956, winning the Eddie James Memorial Trophy as the West's top rusher three times, winning the Schenley Most Outstanding Canadian Award in 1955 and 1956, and being named Canada's top athlete in 1955. The 1,437 yards Kwong rushed for in just 15 games in 1956 stood as the CFL's Canadian rushing record until Jon Cornish broke it in 2012. Kwong also helped the Eskimos win three straight Grey Cups in 1954, 1955 and 1956.
Kwong was recognized for his football success during his career and almost immediately after it as well. He retired after the 1960 season and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1969. Canada's Sports Hall of Fame inducted him in 1975, and he was later inducted into the Edmonton Eskimos' Wall of Fame and the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame. He went on to plenty of off-field success, too; he worked as a stockbroker and a real estate agent, was one of the original owners of the Calgary Flames from 1980 to 1994 (including their Stanley Cup win in 1989, making him one of the few people whose name is on both the Stanley Cup and the Grey Cup), was the president and general manager of the Stampeders from 1988 to 1991 was named to the Order of Canada in 1998, served as the chairman of the Canadian Consultative Council on Multiculturalism, and was the lieutenant-governor of Alberta from 2005 to 2010. There have been numerous tributes to him already, including from the Flames, Stampeders and Eskimos, but the ones from Alberta premier Rachel Notley and current lieutenant-governor Lois Mitchell particularly stand out:
Lieutenant Governor Lois Mitchell said Kwong will be missed.
"[He] will long be remembered for the quiet strength, innate kindness and sense of humour that he brought to his duties as Alberta's vice-regal representative and to his lifetime of sterling service and leadership," Mitchell said in a statement.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said he gave a great deal.
"Mr. Kwong was proud to be the son of Chinese immigrants. He was an Alberta success story from an early age. From his storied career in the Canadian Football League to his later co-ownership of the Calgary Flames, he was a champion on the field of play and in life," Notley said in a statement.
"He gave his time generously to non-profit and voluntary organizations across the country. His contributions to public life earned him many honours, including the Order of Canada."
The opportunities the CFL provided for black players have been well-celebrated, but other trailblazers like Kwong haven't always received their fair due. He succeeded at a time when there was still tremendous racism against Canadians from Asian backgrounds, and he was one of the first professional football players from an Asian background. He also was one of the great Canadian running backs, proving that a Canadian player could play that position just as well as an American. Kwong's legacy on that front is still seen today with players like Andrew Harris and Jerome Messam. He went on to be an excellent executive, too, and a successful lieutenant-governor. Kwong will be fondly remembered by many from many walks of life, and he was a key figure in the history of the CFL.