The Late Rob Ford and His Unlikely Friendship

WASHINGTON — Former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford died Tuesday, at the age of 46, after succumbing to an 18-month-long battle with cancer.

Ford was diagnosed with pleomorphic liposarcoma, an aggressive and extremely rare cancer form which develops in the body’s fat cells, amid a reelection bid for his mayoral seat in Sept. 2014. The ailing Ford withdrew his reelection bid, and later ran, and won, a less taxing city council campaign to represent his home district, Etobicoke, a Toronto suburb. He held that seat up until his passing.

The Canadian politician catapulted to international celebrity, often as chuckling punchline, in 2013, when video surfaced of him smoking crack cocaine, a controversy which led Toronto’s city council to strip Ford of most of his powers. Headlines abound, emanating globally for months from the Ontarioian capital, as Ford refused to step down.

In front of a captive worldwide audience, Ford forged an unlikely media alliance with four Washington, D.C.-based radio hosts, 106.7 The Fan (FM)’s The Sports Junkies, in Dec. 2013. It was on their program while steeped in a media spectacle where he made weekly predictions for National Football League games.

Ford made the terms of their relationship clear — he was there to talk football — from the onset of his debut appearance, halting the hosts’ request for comment on his latest allegation, that he’d once offered money to keep his crack-smoking video under wraps.

“Number one, that’s an outright lie,” he said, denying the allegation. “And number two, you can talk my lawyers about it, but I’m here to talk football, guys. So if you want to talk football, I’ll talk football; if you want to talk about other things, then, unfortunately, I’m going to have to let you go.”

As a regular guest, Ford quickly found a media haven with his American radio pals, granted a brief reprieve from the constant chaos of his mayoral term to make his weekly predictions — anything NFL game-winners to Super Bowl prop bets. He weighed in on the coaching search of his favorite football team, the Washington Redskins (he loved Jay Gruden to replace Mike Shanahan).

Over time, The Sports Junkies became somewhat of a conduit to Toronto media; local journalists, looking to breach the walls of exclusivity, would feed the hosts questions seeking comment on domestic issues from the mayor abroad.

“You know what, guys? I can’t talk about it,” Ford said of one swirling controversy, a lawsuit in which the plaintiff, a prisoner with family ties to Ford, alleged the mayor ordered him to be beaten in jail to keep him from running to the press over Ford’s alcohol and drug abuse. “It’s all before the courts and that’s all I’ve got to say. That’s it. I can’t say anything.”

They went on to discuss the upcoming Super Bowl, between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos, from there. Ford picked the Broncos to win (he was friends with one of Denver’s offensive linemen).

Ford was an early champion for the Redskins to bench quarterback Robert Griffin III, solely in the interest of career preservation. After a Dec. 2013 Redskins game got out of hand, with Washington trailing Kansas City 45-10 by the fourth quarter, Shanahan benched Griffin for Kirk Cousins. The Redskins coach later deactivated Griffin for the remainder of the season, effectively punching his own ticket out of town.

“He’s injured. Like I said last week, guys, his knee’s bad and he even looked worst last week,” Ford reacted. “If you keep playing this kid, you’re going to lose him. You know what? You’ve got to either think now or think in the future. I personally think, yeah, we should be sitting him. Find out what’s wrong with his knee, get it fixed and let him play, or else he’s going to ruin his career. It’s something that has to be done.”

Ford stumped for the Redskins’ team name at the height of activists’ demands for it to be changed: “Well, you know what? Why don’t we look at the Cleveland Indians? What do we call them next, the Cleveland Aboriginals? Like, where do we go with this? It’s been around for years and years and years, and if they were offended, they should have come out when the name was first initiated, when you started playing.”

One Sports Junkies host, Eric Bickel, recalled the show’s unique relationship with Ford upon hearing news of his passing: “Rob Ford had a lot of demons. But he was great to us, and it’s my opinion he had a good heart.”

At his core, Ford was conflicted, building a fanbase in America’s capital while fleeing from the mess he’d helped create in his own; a lightning rod for outrage among his own citizens, but embraced adoringly beyond the borders of his own contempt.

But for a brief moment in time, The Sports Junkies offered Ford a respite he couldn’t find elsewhere in his turbulent life, an escape from reality we all so often need, talking about sports.

“It was surreal. One of the biggest media gets in the world wanted to come on our show, because he loved the Redskins and picking NFL winners,” John Auville, another Sports Junkies host, said in remembrance. “Sad that he is gone so young, at 46… cancer sucks.”

Follow @ChrisLingebach and @1067TheFan on Twitter.

(Ed. note: Find more of Rob Ford’s Sports Junkies appearances here.)

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