Catching up with... Former DSU star, CFL HOFer Chris Walby
Chris Walby was so taken aback that he had to ask again, just to make sure he wasn't dreaming. How much? The answer was the same. Two dollars for a plastic cup of beer from the very large vat sitting in front of him, apparently called a kegger, t...
Chris Walby was so taken aback that he had to ask again, just to make sure he wasn't dreaming.
The answer was the same.
Two dollars for a plastic cup of beer from the very large vat sitting in front of him, apparently called a kegger, the first he had seen. He was in heaven.
Actually, he was in Dickinson in 1978. But still.
"I'm from Canada," said Walby, now 60, a 2003 inductee into the Canadian Football League Hall of Fame, "where beer cost a freakin' fortune. I was absolutely in heaven."
The 6-foot-7 footballer from Winnipeg, later of CFL fame with his hometown Blue Bombers, was then a 21-year-old student, a little unsure of his future, who had just crossed the border and settled into Selke Hall to begin his first of three seasons playing football for the Blue Hawks under Hank Biesiot.
Before that, he was a skinny 6-foot-6 Canadian kid, playing what some might guess a 17-year-old Canadian kid to play-hockey.
It wasn't until his senior year of high school that football became a part of his life, and, at first, Walby was a novice-not all that good.
He knew because no one wanted to do drills with him.
He toiled through a season of football at St. John's High School and was told by a junior football coach-an amateur league for Canadians aged 17 to 22-that maybe this whole thing wasn't for him.
Nevertheless, with the help of a rinky-dink weightlifting set his parents bought him, Walby began to bulk up and improve, soon making the Winnipeg Rods-a now defunct junior team.
He gained drastic weight and muscle and, by the time he was 19, was attending a training camp for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
"I said, 'I'm not going to quit. I'm not going to make it, but I'm not going to quit,'" Walby said. "I went through two weeks of two-a-days and just got my ass kicked, but what a learning experience to get professional coaching."
He was cut, but not without a wink and a nod from the coaching staff.
They suggested he had a future with the CFL and hinted at getting him to the States and into a big-time college program.
But at that point, Walby had heard from only one coach in America-a coach in western North Dakota, distinct for his decency and his drawl. He liked the persistence that the Blue Hawks recruited him with-their consistent phone calls, their relatively close proximity and the fact that he would be able to get his education.
"I had a friend in Grand Forks at the University of North Dakota that knew Chris and knew about him," said Hank Biesiot, who coached the Blue Hawks for 38 years and amassed 258 wins. "It was just through the normal recruiting process-saw some film on him, his name had appeared on the list and I had a friend at the university who gave me his name. Chris is one of the first Canadians we had."
One of the first, but certainly not one of the last-Walby's recruitment opened the doors to a new world for Biesiot.
"Hank just had a knack for getting good, solid people and good, solid players from Canada," said Rod Kleinjan, a broadcaster for KDIX Radio since 1974. "I thought at the time, if all the players that come down from Canada are like Chris, they're going to have some pretty good football teams."
Population wise, Dickinson was significantly smaller in the late 1970s and '80s than it is now.
From a metropolitan area in Winnipeg to a small-town feel in North Dakota, one of the first things Walby noticed about the people were the people noticing him.
"I loved the people. One of the first times I was there I was walking towards the library and everybody was saying, 'Hi, hello, how are you?'" he recalled. "Everyone says hello there, up here everyone puts their head down. That blew me away-the friendliness."
Walby was a socialite in his three seasons in Dickinson, Biesiot recalled, a mammoth of a man with the personality to match.
"Easily the squad's biggest player," wrote The Press in August, 1978.
He "sold pop" on campus as a work study job, and for a time bounced at the Esquire Club on weekends to help pay for parts of his education the football scholarship didn't cover.
He was so recognizable, Kleinjan said, especially on the grass at old Whitney Field, where he starred as a defensive linemen, different from his offensive line position as a pro.
"He kind of was a dominant figure compared to a lot of the people he played against. But he was talented, too," Kleinjan said. "There's a difference between being big and not talented and being big and talented, and he was both-an intimidating person, but very polite, still to this day, polite. I remember when I was doing games when I started-he was just making plays all the time.
When he'd make a play, it would be pretty impressive. When you sack the quarterback and you see a 300-pound guy bringing down a 6-foot-1 guy, it always stood out in your mind. He was just a horse, I just remember that."
As his game improved, folks began to take notice, and not just folks in town-NFL folks.
Scouts would come to see him, letters showed up in his mailbox.
"Tampa, Oakland, all these places. I'm like 'Woah,'" said Walby, gearing up for an impression of Biesiot's drawn-out diction. "I remember talking to Hank, and he said, 'Well, if I were you, I'd probably go up to Canada and play up there for a while and see how it goes.'"
After his third season as a Blue Hawk, Walby was drafted fourth overall in the 1981 CFL draft by the Montreal Alouettes.
Two days after he mailed his signature on his official contract to play with the Alouettes, he got a call from the San Francisco 49ers, who were expressing interest in him as either a late-round draft pick or an undrafted free agent.
"They told me not to worry about it, that things would work out," he said. "As it turns out, I stayed up here-played 16 years."
After his first pro season in 1981, Walby came back to Dickinson for the spring semester, finishing his teaching degree despite, he noted, the out-of-state tuition costs as a non-scholarship student.
It turns out he'd need that piece of paper. He was a substitute teacher for several offseason years to follow.
"To me it would have been a total waste to do three," he said. "I was so close, I had to finish it up."
A heck of eh career
"Goofy" is the term Biesiot used.
Walby went through a strange and convoluted situation in Montreal, where ownership had him on the "taxi squad" (the practice roster) and was forging his signature to keep him around.
But the Blue Bombers, intent on regaining the player who had auditioned for them a half-decade earlier, found a loophole where they were able to claim the rights to Walby.
That speed bump aside, he went on to iconic heights with Winnipeg, playing until he was 40 years old, a nine-time all-star and three-time Grey Cup Champion. A TSN - Canada's ESPN equivalent - poll in 2006 ranked him the 22nd best CFL player ever.
He did have a brief moment in the late '80s when, at the age of 30, he was courted and brought to training camps by several NFL teams.
The 49ers, still interested, offered him a contract, but for whatever reason, the deal fell through at the last second.
After retiring in 1996, he joined CBC as a play-by-play color announcer, a position he held for 10 years until TSN bought out the rights to broadcast CFL games.
Nowadays, Walby still lives in Winnipeg, still keeps close contact with DSU players of the past and last saw Biesiot eight years ago, he estimates.
He serves as a Blue Bomber analyst for TSN 1290-a station not affiliated with the team, an important detail because it lends Walby free range to criticize when needed.
"No coddling," he said.
But all these years later, his loyalty to Biesiot and Dickinson endures.
"I've said this to Hank a number of times-he turned not only my career around, but probably my life around. I don't think it gets any bigger than that," Walby said. "I'd like to get down there one more time and see Hank and some of the guys again. When I think about the Hawks, the sweaters, the road trips, playing the Jimmies and Mayville, going down to Chadron State, man, it was great."