McGill University's Homecoming football game was about more than touchdowns on Saturday as family, friends and former teammates gathered at a pre-game ceremony to remember university Hall of Famer turned pro football star, Michael Soles.
Known as one of the best football players to ever play for McGill, the native of Pointe-Claire in Montreal's West Island passed away this July at the age of 54 after a 16-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease.
Former teammate, roommate and life-long friend Bruno Pietrobon remembers Soles as a tough opponent that never gave up. He says it's fitting his greatest opponent in life is yet another one against which he never backed down.
"I think we'll always remember Mike as the guy who did his best against ALS and fought a terrible disease for way, way longer than anybody else could have," Pietrobon said.
"And while he did that, he never complained once. And that was the way Mike was on the football field — he just did what he had to do."
Soles played three seasons with McGill and was instrumental in leading the team to the Vanier Cup Championship in 1987. A two-time all-Canadian, Soles won 48 awards during his university career.
He went on to play 11 seasons in the Canadian Football League with Edmonton (1989-1995) — where he helped the team clinch the Grey Cup — and Montreal (1996-1999). He was a league all-star in his first season with the Alouettes.
According to former teammate and co-worker Wayne McRae, Soles' talent was matched only by his humility.
"He wanted his teammates to get the recognition but it was hard not to talk about Michael because he was breaking every record," said the president of the Friends of McGill Football alumni booster group.
Still, McRae said Soles would insist to the press: "Talk about my [offensive] line, talk about my other running backs."
A gregarious, fun-loving prankster, Soles always had a nickname for somebody and a story to tell, says Pietrobon.
"He had an infectious laugh," he said. "He loved to laugh and he loved to live."
'His heart on his sleeve'
Whether golfing, playing a game of Monopoly or a hand in poker, Pietrobon says Soles was the most competitive person he'd ever met.
"He just hated to lose. And it was so obvious that that's what made him such a great football player," he said.
It also made him such a fighter against the rare neurological disease he was diagnosed with in 2013, says McRae. The normal life expectancy with the disease is two to five years. Soles fought it for 16.
"He wanted to see what the next day brought for his kids in terms of their school, their sports, their whatever they were getting involved in. He wanted to follow their lives and that made him fight every breath," said McRae.
On the field, that same tenacity and courage left a decades' old mark on the McGill Redbirds, the university's football team.
Head coach Ronald Hilaire says Soles remains a big inspiration for the team and its players, year after year.
"Just talking about him lights up the eyes of all our football players and they know that they have big shoes to fill, but they want to fill it," said Hilaire.
The team, including player Dimitri Sinodinos, wore stickers on their helmets of Soles' number, 22, during Saturday's game. Sinodinos has played for McGill for the past five years and says this game signified more than just a chance to beat Laval University's Rouge et Or.
Ahead of Saturday's game, Sinodinos said he would use the emotion felt by many of his team's members to fuel him to do his best.
"I think we got to use that emotion and play the same way that [Soles] played — with his heart on his sleeve."
Soles' legacy lives on at McGill with a bursary in his name awarded to four players every year.
"Mike was dealt a very rough turn and he handled it like a champion," said McRae. "His name should remain in McGill history forever because he deserves it."