Gerry Sternberg was five years old when he immigrated to Canada with his parents, both of whom were Holocaust survivors.
An active kid, Sternberg played many different sports, and his parents didn’t mind. They signed the permission slip that allowed him to play volleyball, basketball and run track at his school, Bloor Collegiate Institute in Toronto. But when it came to playing football, his parents, Sally and Ben Sternberg, balked. They refused to sign the permission slip. “They felt it was too dangerous,” Sternberg said.
When Sternberg’s phys-ed teacher suggested he try out for the football team, Sternberg told the teacher that his parents wouldn’t sign the form. But his coach said the earlier permissions they signed were good enough.
That was all he needed. Sternberg turned that parental mix-up into a fruitful high school football career, a successful college career with the University of Toronto Blues and finally, a seven-year stint in the Canadian Football League, including a Grey Cup win in 1972 with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, Sternberg, who practices law today, recalled. When he was in high school, he was only five feet 10 inches tall and about 145 pounds. Even then, his coaches (and probably his parents), thought he’d “get killed.”
“My body structure was such that I didn’t feel pain that much and I could avoid injuries,” he said. “I was a fearless tackler. Nobody was too big for me to hit.”
Drafted by the Edmonton Eskimos in 1965, he had a try out as a wide receiver and punt returner, which was known then as the suicide squad because there was no blocking. Unfortunately, he was cut before his first game.
He was eventually signed as a free agent by Montreal, where he played for the Alouettes as a receiver, while also attending law school in Toronto.
He was traded to Hamilton, but the team had a full complement of receivers, and his end came that season when he dropped a pass in an exhibition game.
He sat out the 1968 season and in 1969, he talked to legendary Argos coach Leo Cahill, touting himself as a defensive back and punt returner.
Invited to training camp, he did enough to make the lineup on a very talented team, one that would go on to lose in the Grey Cup in 1971 (although Sternberg was traded back to the Ticats midway through the season). During the 1971 season, Sternberg recalls being taunted by opposing players coming down the field on punt coverage: “We’re going to get you, Super Jew,” they’d say. Sternberg didn’t take it as anti-Semitic. They were just trying to get him off his game, he said.
The year 1972 was an auspicious one for him. Playing for the Tiger-Cats in the Grey Cup as a defensive back, “I intercepted a pass during the latter part of the game. It helped snuff out the drive. That was special,” he said.
“Winning the Grey Cup was the culmination of my career,” he continued. “Many great players never won the Grey Cup.”
Alas, his career didn’t last much longer than that, as he was cut soon afterwards.
As for his immigrant parents, his dad would occasionally come to games and try to figure out what he was watching.
“My mother never came to a game. She watched it on TV and when I was being tackled, she yelled at the screen, ‘Get off my son,’ ” Sternberg said.
After all, football is a dangerous sport.
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Other Jews to ply their trade on the Canadian gridiron included: Sternberg’s teammate, Mike Eben, who played wide receiver for four teams from 1968-77, was named a CFL East All Star twice and CFL West All-Star once; George Druxman, a Winnipeg native who played centre with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers from 1953-63, winning four Grey Cups under legendary coach Bud Grant; Noah Cantor, a native of Ottawa who played from 1995-2006 and won three cups with the Argos and one with the B.C. Lions and was named a CFL All-Star defensive lineman in 2004; Cantor’s uncle, Moe Segal, a member of the 1944 Grey Cup-winning Montreal St. Hyacinthe Donnacona Combines, a navy team; and Benny Steck, who played for a variety of teams in professional leagues that pre-dated the CFL, from 1940-51.
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