Tuesday, March 26, 2013

George Chuvalo accepts key to Toronto with gratitude — and a broken heart

TORONTO - Canadian boxing legend George Chuvalo joked on Tuesday that he was as “happy as a hog in slop” after being presented with a key to the City by Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

The former heavyweight great went on to regale onlookers with some anecdotes of his early life growing up in the tough Junction area of Toronto and how he got started in boxing, as well as his long relationship with the Ford family in Rexdale. But Chuvalo attended the ceremony with a broken heart.

Chuvalo’s background is well documented. A former world-class heavyweight in the absolute best era in heavyweight boxing — having fought six world champs, including Muhammad Ali twice — Chuvalo was never knocked down in 93 pro contests and scored some huge wins over the likes of Mike DeJohn, Doug Jones and Jerry Quarry, among others. He was rated as high as No.2 in the world.

But the devastating tragedies Big George experienced outside the ring overshadowed his great boxing career. He lost his son Jesse, who had become addicted to heroin following a motorcycle accident, to suicide in 1985. Another son, Georgie Lee, was lost in 1993 to a heroin overdose. A few days after Georgie Lee’s death, Chuvalo’s wife, Lynne, unable to cope with the devastating loss, committed suicide. Three years after that, another son, Steven, who along with Georgie Lee struggled with addiction for much of his adult life, overdosed, leaving behind a young son and daughter.

Somehow, Big George managed to persevere. One way was to turn his pain into good work, appearing at schools and prisons to speak to kids about the dangers of drug use. He’s been awarded the Order of Canada and countless other citations for his community work as well as for his legendary boxing career. But through it all, the unfathomable sadness of losing a wife and three sons never abated. And how could it? Chuvalo has carried on, but always with a deeply wounded heart. And now tragedy has befallen the Canadian sports icon once again. His beloved granddaughter, Rachel, Steven’s daughter, passed away from cancer at the age of 30 last month after a courageous struggle with the disease. A school-teacher, who taught for a while in the north, Rachel and her mom established a scholarship, the Rachel Chuvalo Follow Your Dreams Memorial Scholarship, which goes each year to a deserving student bound for post-secondary education. By all accounts, Rachel Chuvalo was a wonderful role model and teacher. And person.

George was supposed to receive a key to the City from Ford a week ago, but the ceremony was postponed as he was still too overcome with grief to make a public appearance. His spirit is still broken. But on Tuesday, he managed to keep it together and accept the honour from Mayor Ford, though he declined speaking to the media afterward.
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