In a room jam-packed with big, burly football players spanning several generations, Jeff Hale, even in death, proved to be an imposing presence.

The much-loved gentle giant, who won a Canadian title while playing at the University of Guelph, and who passed on his love for the game over 17 years as a coach with the Huronia Stallions, succumbed to cancer in October. He was 60.

At an afternoon celebration of his life Saturday at ODAS Park, Hale was remembered as a “special human being.”

“He loved football and he loved being around kids,” said Martino Di Sabatino, founder and president of the Huronia Stallions. “Jeff was a big influence on so many guys that you see in this room.”

One of those guys is Dylan Hart, who started two games this year — his rookie season — for the University of Toronto football team. The former Stallions player said Hale was instrumental in his ascent to the Blues.

“When nobody believed in me, Jeff believed in me,” said Hart. “He was like a father figure to me. He was always there for me. We’d bump heads (about a drill), but at the end of the day, he always had my back. He was demanding but supportive.”

Hart, an offensive lineman, said having a coach like Hale, who was one of the best offensive linemen of his era, was a game changer.

“He knew what to do to get to the next level. He kept telling me, ‘You can do it; keep working.’ He made me better,” said Hart. “If he didn’t help me, I wouldn’t be in university. Everything I’ve done is because of him.”

Those he played with at Guelph remembered a competitor who was an exceptional talent and an even better teammate.

“He was a great teammate that would give you the shirt off his back and was always there for you,” said Lance Leonard, a Gryphons guard who lined up beside Hale, who, at six-foot-six and 285 pounds, was an intimidating presence.

He was also a star. Hale, who was born in Belleville, was a two-time all-star and was selected as an All-Canadian in 1981. Twice he was named a team captain and, in 1984, was a key player on the Gryphons’ team that won both a provincial and a Canadian university championship.

Despite being an elite player, he had time for everyone, said Orillia Mayor Steve Clarke, who played with Hale at Guelph.

“I remember as a rookie walking in and, you know, it’s pretty intimidating. It’s the first time away from home for many of the guys and you’re doing two- to three-hour workouts and dropping 10 pounds each time … But Jeff was one of those guys; he would come over and say, ‘It’s OK, guys. You’re doing good. Keep it up.’ That meant the world to us,” Clarke recalled.

Leonard, who travelled from Montreal to pay tribute to his former teammate, said Hale had an incomparable work ethic. He was not surprised Hale turned to coaching when his playing days ended — first at the University of Guelph and later with the Stallions. “He loved kids and he loved giving back.”

It was evident Saturday that people loved and respected Hale, something his widow has always known.

“People have come from far and wide today … It’s quite a testament to Jeff,” said Robin Hale. “You’ve got family, guys he played with, guys he coached at Guelph and guys he coached with the Stallions over 17 years … He meant the world to them all.”

She never begrudged her husband his passion for the sport he loved.

“I would never tell him he couldn’t do what he loved to do … It made him whole,” she said, noting when their two boys, Calvin and Nick, were younger, their dad coached them.

“I tried to get him to coach in our rep program, but he coached in house league as long as his boys were playing. Only when they were finished did he come to coach in our junior varsity program,” said Di Sabatino. “He was a big family guy. He was loving and didn’t need a lot. He swam in the pool with his kids … You could see how much he loved his family.”

Hale, who was a firearms instructor for three decades, learned he had prostate cancer five years ago. Over time, the cancer spread to his brain, his lungs, his bladder and throughout his body.

“I never heard him complain,” said Di Sabatino. “I’d say, ‘How are you feeling, coach?’ And he’d say, ‘I feel great.’”

And, for as long as he could, he kept coaching and mentoring young Stallions. When he finally had to give that up last season, it was devastating, said Robin.

“This last year, it killed him not to be involved,” she said. “But he was lucky. He did not have pain.”

Throughout his journey with cancer and throughout his life, Hale was, above all else, kind.

“It is astounding to me, in a way, that he had that much impact because, as he and I always discussed, we don’t really understand why people were so amazed by his kindness. Isn’t that just how people are supposed to behave?”

Original Article by: By Dave Dawson, Orillia Packet & Times
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