MONTREAL - The Vanier Cup game will be a special day for former CFL fullback Michael Soles.
The former Edmonton Eskimo and Montreal Alouette will act as co-honorary president with ex-Governor General Adrienne Clarkson of the game on Saturday between the University of Montreal Carabins and the McMaster Marauders.
He can expect a warm ovation from the crowd of more than 20,000 at Percival Molson Stadium at McGill University, as much for his stellar football career as for the nine-year battle he is still waging with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease.
Before his CFL career, Soles starred for the McGill Redmen when they won their last Vanier Cup in 1987, an upset 47-11 victory over the University of British Columbia. The Pointe-Claire, Que., native rushed for 203 yards and a two touchdowns that day and was named the game's MVP.
On Thursday, a large group of family and former McGill teammates and coaches got together to announce a endowment in Soles' name to provide scholarships to Redmen recruits.
Soles, 48, watched from the front row. He was able to get up from his wheelchair to pose for pictures and can still speak in a whisper, but he let others to the talking.
"He's had symptoms for nine years and it became more evident in the last couple of years, so we felt it would be good timing to have something at the same time as the Vanier Cup," said Wayne McRae, a co-captain of the 1987 Redmen who was Soles' partner in a financial management company.
"It gave it more of a sense of urgency. It's still at a point where Mike can participate and be here for it, which is fortunate."
McRae and four other members of the 1987 team started the fund-raising campaign. Their goal was $80,000, but they hauled out a oversized ceremonial cheque for $209,323.85, nearly triple their target. The sum was gathered from 249 donors.
The endowment, called the Michael Soles Football Award, is expected to earn enough to fund up to three recruits per year.
Soles was released from a five-month stint in hospital in September and now lives with his mother, getting regular visits from nurses. His wife Catherine and his three children live nearby.
His old teammates are impressed with how he has kept smiling while he fights the disease.
"Even his doctors say one of the main reasons he's been such a poster boy for this thing is because of his attitude," said McRae. "He remains positive.
"I worked with Mike every day and I never heard this guy complain about anything. Never once."
Soles' wife said that since he got out of the hospital he has his appetite back and still has his sense of humour.
"He doesn't want pity," she said. "He's living it with the most grace and determination I've ever seen. We joked that it's like an eternal football game and he won't give up. It's great."
It was much the same with former Alouettes defensive back Tony Proudfoot, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2007 and died in 2010. Proudfoot launched a foundation to raise funds to fight ALS. Another Alouette from the 1970s, defensive back Larry Uteck, also died from the disease.
Soles was a solid fullback for 11 CFL seasons. He played from 1989 to 1995 in Edmonton, winning a Grey Cup in 1993, then moved to Montreal for his final four seasons when the Alouettes returned from a 10-year hiatus in 1996.
After football, he went into wealth management. When Larry Smith left as president of the Alouettes in 2011, many thought business savvy, bilingual and popular Soles would be the perfect replacement and were surprised to find he wasn't interested.
It was only in the past two years that it became known that he was suffering from ALS.
"I didn't believe it at first because he kept it pretty private for a long time," said Charlie Baillie, the coach of the 1987 Redmen. "Even when he was having some problems, he would never talk about it.
"He's still got that smile. Still got the good looks. It's just his body's not responding, unfortunately. It's very sad."
In his CFL career, Soles rushed 579 times for 3,007 yards and 20 touchdowns, adding 326 catches for 3,500 yards and another 25 TDs.