I sometimes hit the mute button on my TV remote when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are grabbing grass on TSN, and it has nothing to do with Glen Suitor crushing on Keith Urban.
It’s just that I’d rather lend an ear to Bob (Knuckles) Irving, who’s been painting blue-and-gold word pictures from the CJOB broadcast booth with his smooth, calm delivery most every year since 1974, when he was fresh-scrubbed and greener than St. Paddy’s Day.
Knuckles’ voice is comfort food, like a bowl of soup and a grilled cheese sandwich on a chilly Manitoba morn, and I can’t imagine him swooning over Mr. Nicole Kidman during an in-game interview. (Mind you, as I recall, he had a thing for Shania Twain back in the day, so if she were to poke her head into the booth I’m guessing his play-by-play call suddenly would become about as smooth as a long stretch of unpaved country road.)
The thing is, Knuckles doesn’t have much roadway left, just three more Bombers skirmishes, including the Dec. 5 West Division final at the Local Ball Yard In Fort Garry. And maybe—just maybe—he won’t pull the plug until after the Grey Cup game in The Hammer a week later, should the blue-and-gold clad lads advance to the Canadian Football League title joust.
In any event, Knuckles made his adios as voice of Winnipeg FC official this morning, at age 71, and I’m certain his retirement notice received an enthusiastic okie-dokie from his bride Daye, who’s watched her hubby swan off hither and yon every summer for nigh on half a century.
It kind of reminds me of the lyrics in a wonderful tune by country songstress Kathy Mattea, Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses: “Charlie’s had a good life, and Charlie’s got a good wife, and after tonight she’ll no longer be counting the days.”
Those of us who were privileged to work alongside Knuckles are counting down the days, though, because he ranks at, or near, the top of anyone’s list of good guys among news snoops. Anyone in the Winnipeg media more respected than Knuckles? Nope.
I started in jock journalism three years before Knuckles had his Bombers broadcast baptism in 1974 and, to this day, I’ve yet to hear anyone utter a discouraging word about the man who took the long way around the barn (Regina, Estevan, Brandon) before finding his wheelhouse in Good Ol’ Hometown. But why would they? He’s very funny, extremely witty, admirably thoughtful, and not at all prone to vanity in a business full of people who like what they see in mirrors. He’s as down to earth as a fresh layer of top soil.
The thing I remember most fondly about Knuckles is standing on the sidelines at Bombers grunt sessions, or in the stands during training camp, and laughing. Laughing at stupid things. Laughing at silly things. A lot of self-deprecating humor, like his acute fear of flying, which inspired his nickname.
One year at Camp Cal in Brandon, for example, the two of us were perched on some wooden bleachers on the edge of the yellow, gnarled practice field near the university dorms, and Knuckles took note of a group of young boys loitering nearby.
“Punks,” he said, nodding in their direction.
“Punks?” I responded. “What makes you think they’re punks? They look like nice kids to me.”
“They’re teenage boys, aren’t they? All teenage boys are punks. Punks!”
He was smiling while yanking my chain.
“Punk is a good word,” I said. “It’s a descriptive word. Tells you right away that there’s a rough edge to a kid. And you can only call a boy a punk. Girls aren’t punks. Never.”
We watched a beat-up, old car rumble down the road.
“Jalopy,” Knuckles observed. “That’s a good word, too.”
“Also descriptive,” I agreed. “Soon as you say ‘jalopy’ everybody knows you’re talking about a rusty, dented ol’ beater of a car. And only guys drive jalopies. Women don’t drive jalopies. Never.”
Like I said, it was stupid stuff. Silly stuff. Kind of like a Seinfeld episode. About nothing.
But, hey, we had to humor ourselves while baking in a hot, summer sun for two hours, while awaiting Cal Murphy’s call to terminate training exercises.
Knuckles and I are the same age (okay, I won’t be 71 until Nov. 27), and I’ve often wondered why and how he kept trucking on. I wonder the same thing about a sports scribe like Terry Jones of Postmedia Edmonton. I thought the same about Bob Picken, who covered curling almost until the day he departed for the great misty beyond. Why and how? Why and how? After all, I bailed due to burnout after 30 years.
Well, it’s simple: They love(d) what they’re doing.
Knuckles still does, but he’s heard and acknowledged Father Time’s whispers about health challenges, and there’s a different kind of road to travel with his bride.
I doubt that means there’s an 18-wheeler in their future, but a few Shania tunes might be.