I had forgotten that she was given the nickname, JP Superstar! Wow, how time flies. I may have forgotten her nickname but I will not ever for forget how she personalized professional football.
I of course refer to Jo-Anne Polak, the first female General Manager in professional football.
For the many who don’t know and sadly, for those who forgot, Jo-Anne joined the Ottawa Rough Riders in 1987 and was named the teams business manager in December 1988. The title should have been Business Miracle Worker! She became co-GM with then head coach Steve Goldman a month later! As general manager, Polak became the first woman to hold an executive role in the Canadian Football League and the first woman general manager of a North American sports team. She held the position of general manager until stepping down in November 1991. I first met her in the off-season of 1989. I was heading into the locker room for a workout and she was there hosting a tour and working on her latest marketing marvel to re-connect fans to a team that had under-achieved like no other. The team’s hopes had been placed on the shoulders of Canadian RB Orville Lee, QB Damon Allen and K Dean Dorsey. Lee was drafted 1st overall the previous year, Dorsey had returned after a stint with the Philadelphia Eagles and Allen arrived from Edmonton thanks to his connection with Head Coach Steve Goldman . The team also acquired warrior OL Gerald Roper and Rob Smith in 1989. Smitty beat Matthew McConaughey to punch when it came to not needing an excuse to go shirtless! All were significant pieces in the effort to build a team that could compete.
Truth be told, Jo-Anne inherited a 6 ring circus. I could go on about my teammates and their love for Jo and I could go on about how she changed the football landscape in Ottawa and how she excelled in what was an “old boys” setting but that would be too easy and too obvious.
Yes, when we got our pay cheques the morning after a game we would indeed race to the RBC on Bank St. and First Avenue before team meetings, to get them cashed knowing full well that there may not be enough money in the teams account to cover the payroll! Forever teammates but in that moment, arch enemies! Nothing personal but I got to get paid! Some guys got paid and some guys came back pissed off! Funny how you could pick them out in the crowd!
I could go on about the charity hockey game between the Rough Riders and the Perth OPP and how it got out of hand real quick, like at the drop of the puck. Ah, alpha males!! Jo was our “coach” and she got out from behind the bench real fast. As the competitive energy rose, she took on this panicked look on her face! She booked it away from the bench and into the stands despite our assurances that all would be fine. She arrived worrying about about branding and selling and was now worried about a full line brawl! Yes, Damon Allen always played the wing furthest away from the bench so he could extend his shift to about 7 minutes at a time and yes, Loyd Lewis would undo his skates between each shift and get riled up when he would miss a shift as he laced back up!
For me it was about her leadership under very personal and challenging life experiences.
The first came on July 5th, 1989. We had played the Toronto Argonauts the night before in pre-season play. Guys were on pins and needles knowing the roster was being cut down. I was in a special teams film session when I was told Head Coach Steve Goldman wanted to see me. There was a pause in the entire room. Was I being cut? Perhaps traded? I had a great training camp and had really found my groove going into my 2nd year as a pro. When I entered the office I saw Jo-anne first. I had laughed about a million times with Jo by then and when we looked at each other, she had an expression of sadness. I thought, “shit, I am gone!”. Steve was seated behind his desk. He was clearly uncomfortable so Jo-Anne took the lead and I think Steve and I were both glad she had.
That morning, my cousin David had been struck by a car and had passed away. He was working for a courier company and had been making a delivery downtown when the accident occurred. David was the oldest of 3 boys. His father is brilliantly funny! At social events, Uncle Gerry would make my dad laugh until his lungs fell out. Still does to this day! Aunt Claudette did her best to eliminate the hi-jinx, largely because Gerry’s humor was at the expense of french hockey players even though he and Claudette were fluently bilingual! David has two younger brothers, Shawn and Chris. Shawn was the quiet thoughtful one. Chris, known as Cricket and Boots, had more energy than anyone I had ever met. I didn’t get a lot of details when I was given the news. I just knew the loss was going to carry a lifelong magnitude that no one should ever have to experience. I know because I had a sister pass away when I was 4 and she was 5. Her name was ‘Jo-Anne”, and she was likely as spirited as my boss. Jo-Jo was riding a bike that was too big for her and she had fallen into a parked car, bumping her head. No need for details but I still cry to this day when I think about her. I imagine Uncle Gerry, Aunt Claudette, Shawn and Chris will always shed a tear for David as well.
Having Jo-Anne there, sitting close by as I called my Uncle Gerry, not knowing what to say or do will be etched in my memory bank forever. She wasn’t just about the bottom line and football. Jo was about the relationships. In the blink of an eye, she had earned my trust. She was a “show me, don’t tell me” type of leader! Always had been, always will be.
The second memorable, emotional moment came in 1991. I had established myself as a CFL pro by then and was part of a team that had a lot of potential. In the off-season, the team signed big name free agents Glen Kulka, Tony Cherry, the late John Mandarich, and David Williams. Some would argue that the team crossed the line in terms of the unspoken gentleman’s agreement that teams not sign other teams big name free agents. Some would call it the art of collusion! Coach Goldman and Jo-Anne opted to go big and create some positive heat around the team. The result was a vengeful group of competing General Managers. Fortune favors the bold but it could also come back to bite you in the ass.
We played Calgary on October 13th. I injured my knee and had anticipated being placed on the teams injured list. It was an eventful morning after the game because the team doctor opted to drain fluid build up in my knee. I was assured it would accelerate my return to the roster. When he drew back the syringe, there was blood and not the fluid he had anticipated. This was indeed good news. My knee was fine. I did have a 2 inch tear at the base of my quad but that would heal. I was going to miss some time but nothing to worry about. At least that’s what I had thought. Now, in the CFL, teams use re-callable waivers as a tool in building their weekly rosters. If a player is place on re-callable waivers and claimed, the original team can recall the player. Through all of this, the player has no idea all of this is going on. We are just a pawn in the game of football life! The fly in the ointment is teams can only place a player on re-callable waivers once a season. Now, if a player is injured and is placed on waivers, the odds are a team won’t claim him because they don’t want damaged goods. That is in a perfect world but things were not perfect between other teams General Managers and the Riders. Ah, yes…those vengeful general managers?
So, out of the blue, I get a call the next day from a guy I know from my football circle that I choose not to name. He is chatty with me than asks me about my knee. I told him that I would be fine. I explained the injury believing I could trust him. in football, trust, like contracts, is often broken. The next morning, I am called into Steve Goldman’s office. He broke the news that I had been claimed by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. I was stunned. He went on to tell me that I was placed on waivers in a bid to hide me because of my injury and that Hamilton had crossed the line and claimed me. I asked him how that could happen. I then learned that I had been placed on re-callable waivers earlier in the season. WHAT! In a blink of an eye I was property of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. In one moment, I was on the rise and an active community member and the next, I was an after thought. I remember flying to Hamilton and being met by absolutely no one from the team and staying at some roach motel in a sketchy part of town! What a disaster!
When the news broke, I went to my apartment to pack. Jo-Anne had been on her way to Fort McMurray for a charitable event with Bobby and Dennis Hull when she called me. Before I could get pissed off she apologized and was in tears which led to my breaking down. The transaction had not been her call. Our conversation, her dismay and apology was genuine. In that moment, I had resigned myself to the fact that I was no longer a member of the Ottawa Rough Riders but would forever be connected to Jo-Anne. Here is the kicker. She was going through her own difficult time as she and her first husband had separated.
I am grateful. Who wouldn’t be. It’s not everyday you spend time with JP Superstar. I know being the first female GM of a professional football team was not easy but she did it with one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding a diet coke with Wendy Lisowski laughing her ass off in the passenger seat!
The cool thing about Jo was she could sell. Whether it was kazoo or paper airplane themed nights or convincing me to wear a lobster suit and host the teams keynote off season fundraiser!
The next season, as a member of the Tiger-Cats, I paid Jo-Anne a visit with a couple of teammates in tow. No appointment necessary. We walked into her office, hung out with her and laughed. My teammates were astounded. Then, to no one’s surprise, Jo gave the guys tickets to the game so they could hand them out to people we met downtown. The guys added about 12 new female Tiger Cat fans to our fan base that afternoon while walking around Sparks Street!
There will never be anyone like JP Superstar! She had me at hello! Can’t say the same for opposing GM’s like Cal Murphy, Bill “The Undertaker” Baker or Joe Zuger! All great guys but don’t take this personal when I say, with Jo…it was personal.
I can’t tell you the score of any game but I can talk Jo-Anne Polak until the paper planes land from the top of the south side.
Ken Evraire is an award-winning leadership coach and team builder, a talent specialist with Cistel Technology in Ottawa, Canada and is a former professional athlete.
To contact Ken email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.