One afternoon in May, I came home to an unusual message on my answering machine. It was from a man who had read an article about me in the newspaper and was calling because he was curious about "the Right To Play." The article in the paper he was referring to was about a wonderful award I had recently won from the University of Calgary -- the Graduate of the Last Decade -- and it included a little bit of information about me and some of the things I've done, including my contributions as an athlete ambassador for Right To Play.
It was an older gentleman calling. I figured him to be in his 70s, at least. He had tracked down my phone number and requested that I return his call so I could answer his questions. It's safe to say that I don't get a lot of strangers calling me with regards to articles about me in the paper, so this was intriguing to say the least.
That night, I attended a play with my friend Sabina and we shared a chuckle when I recounted the strange message. She suggested that he was calling because he was a generous old man who wanted to make a sizable donation to Right To Play. Up until that moment, I wasn't sure if I would call him back, but the prospect of this being true, along with a healthy dose of curiosity, led me to return his call the next day.
It took a few moments for 91-year-old Phil Streifel to remember that he had called me and exactly what he had called me about, but once everything was cleared up, the conversation began in earnest. After some brief introductions and friendly chit-chat (where I learned that Phil, the longest serving barber in the city of Calgary, likes to go speed skating at the Olympic Oval during the winter), I eventually brought it around to his questions about Right To Play. I explained that Right To Play is an athlete-driven humanitarian organization that uses sport and play as tools for development in some of the world's most disadvantaged countries. Working predominantly in African, Asian, South American and Middle Eastern countries, Right To Play has been instrumental in improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of children over the last 10 years.
There was a pause, during which I imagined a dense cloud of question marks forming above Phil Streifel's head. It seemed that this was not what he'd hoped to hear. After a brief silence, Phil began to tell me the seemingly unrelated story about how he had been playing slo-pitch in Calgary since 1971. He spoke at length about many of the interesting aspects of his 40-year career in the sport and his previous years in the sport of baseball, including the league he played in, his strengths as a player, the friends he had made and how much he loved to play the game.
Now, this left me scratching my head as I sat there listening, at my desk, phone in hand, with my own giant cloud of question marks floating above me. What on earth was he talking about and what did his slo-pitch career have to do with Right To Play or me? After several polite "uh-huhs" and "hmmms" and "that's interesting" remarks, I wasn't really sure what else to say.
At this point, Phil began to tell me about a recent meeting where the Calgary slo-pitch league he played for had held a vote and it was decided that Phil was too old to play and that for his own health and safety, and that of other players, he would no longer be allowed to play the game. He said, "Can you believe that? I've been playing slo-pitch for 40 years, and I know what I'm doing! And now they're saying I'm too old and I might get hurt! Well, I could get hurt just walking across the street! And I'm good, too! I can still move and make plays!"
It occurred to me then, and my heart shamefully sank for just a moment, that Phil Streifel had not called me with the intention of making a sizable donation to Right To Play. Instead, he had called because he thought that Right To Play could help him get back on his slo-pitch team. My heart broke just a little bit, but I also smiled, as I pictured this sweet old man, until now a complete stranger to me, on the other end of the line, his hopes dashed at the news that this Right To Play was a world apart and three generations away from what he needed.
Once I got over myself and the selfish expectations I'd had, I shared my heartfelt dismay and sympathy and, quite frankly, my indignation, at his unfortunate and unfair dismissal from the slo-pitch league. We should all be so lucky, not only to live until the age of 91, but also to thrive and endure and play slo-pitch!
I apologized that unfortunately I -- and by extension Right To Play -- would not be able to help him but I wished him well in his mission to be reinstated as a valued and enthusiastic member of the slo-pitch league. His appeal was underway. He said if he had to go public to garner support, he would. He also told me the story of a 65-year-old player who was accidentally struck in the head with a ball and ended up with a concussion, and that while that was unfortunate, he himself had been playing so long and was adequately spry that such an incident would not likely have happened to him. I have no doubt that this is true.
A number of weeks later I remained curious if he had won his appeal, so I decided to give him a call to find out what happened. He wasn't home, so I left a message on his machine, one that I suppose he might have found unusual. Still no word back, but I hope it's because he's too busy out on the field, playing the game he loves, exercising his right to play.