Playing in one of the most famous Grey Cup games in history is obviously an honour, but for Nick Volpe it got even better than that.
In the 1950 Mud Bowl, Volpe kicked two field goals and made a key tackle on defence to lead his Toronto Argonauts to a 13-0 victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, playing on the worst terrain ever seen in a championship game.
“I scored enough points to win the game and stopped a touchdown,” said the 84-year-old. “So [Argonauts head coach] Frank Clair said at the end of the game, ‘you deserve the game ball.’
“And I still have the ball to this day. It’s in a plastic container up on my mantle.”
Sixty years ago, the field at Varsity Stadium, home to the University of Toronto football team, was hit hard by snow the day before the Grey Cup game. Small bulldozers were brought in to clear the snow, but while the snow was removed the field was also damaged in the process.
To make matters worse, the snow turned to rain the morning before the game, leaving the field torn up and deep in mud.
Volpe chuckles at the deplorable conditions on that historic day.
“The bulldozers chewed up the field something awful so that we were running in literally four or five inches of mud,” he said. “It was very hard to run to say the least and very hard to kick the ball off the ground.”
Volpe’s life in football began just like most Canadian kids: playing for his high-school team. The life-long Toronto resident made the team as a grade nine student at East York Collegiate, which is a big achievement in its own right, but it was an even bigger deal considering he was only 11-years-old.
“When I was eight people thought I was actually nine, but they were looking at my baptism certificate,” he said. “So I was already a year ahead and I also skipped a grade.”
It didn’t take long for that 11-year-old to start to make his mark. In grade 10, Volpe became East York’s quarterback, in addition to playing other positions, which he continued to do years later at the U. of T. as a member of the Varsity Blues.
Because the Blues were deep at quarterback, Volpe was made into a wingback – a third form of running back that was primarily a receiver – but also played defensive back and kicked field goals and converts.
His versatility and talent attracted the attention of the Toronto Argonauts, who drafted him after his graduation in 1948, and they served him well in the Mud Bowl.
Volpe played with the Argos until 1953—after winning another Grey Cup in 1952—when Clair asked him to serve as an assistant coach, working primarily with the quarterbacks.
When he wasn’t playing, Volpe worked as a teacher and coach at Port Credit Secondary School.
“I used to teach classes until 2:30 and then around three we would start practice and we would do that for an hour-and-a-half,” he said. “I’d then drive into Toronto, practice with the Argos, have supper, drive home and prepare lessons for the next day.
“It was a pretty hectic routine, but enjoyable.”
That routine was part of a 39-year career in education, capped off with his retirement as superintendant of schools in the Peel region in 1988.
During that time, Volpe never lost his passion for football, serving as a cameraman for CTV’s football broadcasts from 1973-1988.
At that time, the Toronto Argonauts came calling again, this time offering him the position of Director of Player Personnel. He later became director of Canadian scouting in the 2000’s and finally he became a consultant to the team, a position he still holds today.
Volpe takes pride in his recent scouting successes with some current Argos – Jeff Johnson, Kevin Eiben and Andre Durie—all of whom he affectionately calls his ‘pets.’
He still takes in games and makes scouting notes, most recently at the annual Red & Blue Bowl between York and U of T.
And he still goes to every Argos practice, home game and sometimes he still even travels for road games as well.
Involved in football for more than six decades, Volpe’s love for the sport hasn’t changed since the beginning.
“I think football is one of the best games for co-operation,” he said. “You have to work together, you can’t win a game as an individual, you have to win as a team.
“I just like the atmosphere, the cooperation, and the teamwork.”