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Players and coaches might win championships but Dave Dickenson believes it's people like George Hopkins who are the glue that binds a football team.
Hopkins is the Calgary Stampeders' veteran equipment manager in his 51st year with the CFL club. He'll appear in his 1,000th career regular-season game Friday when the Stamps visit the Ottawa Redblacks.
Hopkins has been a part of six of Calgary's eight Grey Cups wins. In 2014, he was added to the club's Wall of Fame as a builder.
"To me, there are positions that are the glue of an organization," said Dickenson, the Stampeders head coach. "You've got your equipment manager, your head athletic therapist and your video coordinator and those three positions keep everyone in the organization clicking."
The Stampeders have certainly been blessed in those three positions.
Ross Folan, Calgary's director of video operations, is in his 30th season with the club. Pat Clayton retired as the club's director of medical services in 2013 after 29 years.
"Everywhere I've been, the equipment guys, they kind of run the show. The guys respect them and they know they need to have the equipment manager on their side," Dickenson said.
Dickenson also has a long history with the Stampeders. He served as a quarterback for five seasons (1997-2000, '08) before starting his coaching career with the club as an assistant in 2009. He became head coach in 2016.
"I came into the league in the mid-'90s and obviously Geo had been here for more than a while," Dickenson said. "When I heard 1,000, I really didn't believe it.
"It's just crazy to think he started out at age 12. Aren't there some child labour laws against that?"
Hopkins, a 63-year-old Calgary native, began his tenure with the Stampeders as a ball boy. But even he admits he's lost track of time.
"It kind of snuck up on me a bit," Hopkins said with a chuckle. "I think more than anything, it's loving what you do."
Hopkins took over as equipment manager shortly after the late George (Dundee) Dunn retired in 1977.
Hopkins has witnessed firsthand the evolution of football equipment from being big and bulky and one size fits all to lighter and more athlete-specific.
"Everything was bigger, heavier and smelled really bad after the first week you wore it," Hopkins said. "Fast-forward to where we are now, I mean, hockey shoulder pads are bigger than football shoulder pads for some guys."
Hopkins is generous with his time, providing guidance and knowledge about equipment to Alberta high schools and minor programs.
"For us, he's been an absolute godsend," said Football Alberta executive director Tim Enger. "He's actively involved in making sure our kids are getting safe equipment and the people handling the equipment are getting a decent amount of training to know what they're doing."
Hopkins has missed just three regular-season contests during his tenure and none since 2012 when surgery for a torn rotator cuff forced him to skip a two-game Eastern road trip.
The other came in 1992 when Hopkins' wife, Cathy, gave birth to their first child, daughter Jorde. The Hopkins also have a son, Hunter, and grandson, Malcolm.
Then again, continuity has long been a staple of the Stampeders' organization.
Like Dickenson, president/GM John Hufnagel played quarterback for Calgary and served as an assistant and head coach before assuming general manager's duties in '08 and becoming president in 2016.
"It's funny because both of those guys I had as players and so that tells you something," Hopkins said. "We have that expectation we're going to do well, we're going to win but most importantly we're going to do it with class.
"I like to think I've made a few guys in the locker room aware of what the Stampeder way is."
A fact not lost upon quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, a Stampeder since 2012 and in his eighth season as the starter.
"If you go into the coach's office we have team pictures from years back and you can see the progression of Dave and Huf," Mitchell said. "But in every one of those pictures is George and it's kind of cool to see his progression.
"He's one of those guys who's consistent, he doesn't change who he is … he's Geo Hopkins no matter what and that's one of the things I love about him."
Mitchell said Hopkins certainly has the respect of Stampeders players.
"If he says, 'Hey, this is a shirt you can do whatever you want to it, but this shirt here you do not cut, you do not take it home. It stays in your locker at all times.' Guys respect that," Mitchell said. "Guys understand Geo has his ways and if you go against that, it's not like there are super-bad consequences but there are consequences."
One constant with Hopkins is his penchant for wearing shorts, regardless of the weather.
"I've never been a fan of pants," Hopkins said. "It's not that big of a deal in the winter because you leave the house and step into your car in the garage, then drive to work … You might be outside for 38 seconds to come into the building."
Hopkins believes the sight of him wearing shorts during the late fall/early winter could provide players with inspiration to do the same.
"I think it does, especially with your young guys coming in who've never really seen snow," he said. "I've always told guys when they come in for long underwear, 'I'll give you long underwear when you see me wearing pants.' That's my September answer.
"Now, when it gets cold, by all means, we've got some unbelievable cold-weather gear that we give them. But it does harden them up a little bit because if that little bastard over there is going to walk around in shorts, then maybe it's not that cold outside."
Mitchell said Hopkins has a great understanding about when to be all business, but also when a little levity is needed.
"When I'm maybe having a couple of bad drives, he's the guy who'll come up and say, 'Here, drink some of this water. I changed it out for you because you need some different water,''' Mitchell said. "He kind of distracts you in a good way. He brings up something completely random that has nothing to do with it but knows you might need a little push or something like that.
"I know he's small (in stature) but I'd say Geo is a giant in terms of his presence and personality … That guy loves this game, he has dedicated his whole life to it and it rubs off on us, that's for sure."
And in 1978, the Stampeders certainly benefited from Hopkins' generosity during a road trip in Montreal. Two days before the game, Hopkins was at Olympic Stadium expecting the arrival of the equipment truck.
Trouble was, in the back of that truck was a 400-pound shipment of fresh lobster.
"I have no idea where my gear is, it takes me a day and a half to find it, it's actually in Newfoundland," Hopkins said. "So we did the only thing we thought we should do.
"We rerouted the truck to the team hotel and dined on fresh lobster that night and I kept my fingers crossed we were going to see the gear in time for game day. It did show up at 2 p.m. on the day of the game so it was one of the fastest setups we've ever had, but we did eat very well on Air Canada."
Hopkins said he has no intention of slowing down any time soon.
"Luckily I've been pretty healthy over the years," he said. "I did kind of think the day when I hit the 50-season mark I'd like to do 55.
"That's kind of the plan, that I want to do 55 and then kind of graciously ride off and maybe hang around a little bit and be on the sidelines watching a game, not working it. That's kind of what I'm looking at."
With files from Donna Spencer in Calgary
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2022.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press