February 6, 2024

Rob Vanstone: A cherished conversation with “a great guy” — Jim Hopson

It is not in Jim Hopson’s nature to lament: Why me?

“Why not me?” he countered on Monday from his home near Last Mountain Lake.

We talked for nearly an hour and shared more laughs, more stories, than I could count. Come to think of it, it was like every conversation I have enjoyed with this icon of Canadian football over a stretch of 20-plus years.

Listening to Hopson, you would never imagine — not even for a millisecond — that he is encountering the slightest form of adversity.

But then you remind yourself that he has been battling Stage 4 colon cancer for nearly three years. Recently, the decision was made to stop treatment, with the priority being to ensure that whatever time remains is as comfortable and joyous as possible.

So what does he do? He goes to extraordinary lengths — ones for which I cannot find a precedent — to ensure that other people are comfortable.

“It has always been my nature to be positive and that is how I have approached this,” said Hopson, who played for the Saskatchewan Roughriders from 1973 to 1976 and many years later became the first full-time President-CEO in franchise history.

“When I was diagnosed with cancer, my approach was that I wanted to enjoy whatever time I have left. At the time, I was told it may be three or four years, and we’re coming up on three now.”

Over that time, he has continued to travel extensively with his wife, Brenda. They have a place in Mexico, which is far away but nonetheless close to their hearts, so that has been a frequent destination.

“I quickly realized that while something like this is certainly hard on the cancer patient, it is even harder on the caregivers,” Hopson said.

“Brenda, in this case, has been through this every day with me, and I’ve always thought that makes it a lot harder on her.

“Realizing that makes it easier for me to be positive. Me being strong plays a big role in it because there will come a point when I’m going to be gone and she’s going to be here.”

Hopson will not allow that reality to affect his demeanour. Instead, it fuels his determination.

“I could have three months, I could have two months, or I could have five months, but I hope I get to see the Riders play this year and see what type of team they have,” he said. “There’s a lot of excitement about Corey Mace and the new staff and I really like the direction that the team is taking.”

Ideally, the team’s trajectory will be comparable to the one it enjoyed under Hopson, whose tenure as the President-CEO began on Jan. 2, 2005.

Over the next decade, the Roughriders made four Grey Cup appearances — in 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2013 — and celebrated two championships.

Most memorably, the Roughriders won the 101st Grey Cup Game, defeating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 45-23 on Nov. 24, 2013 at historic Mosaic Stadium.

By that time, the clock was already ticking on dear old Taylor Field, where Hopson had played as a member of the Thom Trojans and Regina Rams before joining the Roughriders’ offensive line in 1973.

Hopson was integrally involved in negotiations that led to the construction of the current Mosaic Stadium. After five years of negotiations and speculation, the new stadium deal was announced on July 14, 2012, shortly before a home game.

In less formal settings, Hopson has also sparkled. I have written many times that he is equally comfortable in a boardroom or at a barbecue.

Regardless of the setting or the circumstances, Hopson has always been quick to make friends.

All of that leads to today and the deluge of calls and messages Hopson has received since it was revealed nearly four weeks ago that the cancer treatment had been discontinued.
“When the news first broke, I said to Brenda, ‘We must have gotten dozens of texts, emails and phone calls,’ ” her proud husband of 15 years recalled. “She said, ‘No, Jim. We’ve gotten hundreds.’ ”

He just heard, for example, from Kerry Joseph, who was recently named the Chicago Bears’ Quarterbacks Coach.

Joseph piloted Saskatchewan to a Grey Cup victory in 2007, when he was also named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player.

No stranger to accolades himself, Hopson has been inducted into the SaskTel Plaza of Honour (in 2018), the Canadian Football Hall of Fame (2019), Regina Sports Hall of Fame (2022) and Mike Ditka’s Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund Hall of Fame (2022).

“I’ve had a wonderful time,” he reflected. “I wish there was more of it, but you just know.”

What he does know is that he wants to extract the most from every day — a long-standing philosophy that is not applicable strictly in times of misfortune.

After being stricken with terminal cancer, he didn’t suddenly start taking time to smell the roses. He has always been one to live in the moment and appreciate every interaction and all the blessings in his life. Why change now?

“In many ways, I don’t think about it,” he said. “I have a lot going on every day.

“I’m not thinking about being sick. I’m reading books, watching TV, and following the news online about the CFL, NFL, NHL, Formula One …

“I’m still doing the mundane things. I’ll go to the store for a quart of milk or get the mail. It’s pretty normal, the stuff you do.”

As we spoke, Brenda was preparing some turkey soup, a few hours after her husband’s latest visit with an oncologist. The Monday morning consultation was “pretty good,” all things considered — the impetus for him to speak so highly once again of our dedicated medical professionals and everyone at the Allan Blair Cancer Centre.

To Hopson, they are the remarkable ones, and the plaudits are certainly well-deserved.

But, sitting in this chair, it is impossible not to marvel at the amazing person on the other end of the telephone.

In nearly 40 years of writing for a living, I have never seen or heard anyone tackle such heartbreaking news head-on and discuss it almost matter-of-factly in interviews with a number of media outlets.

“I’ve always been an open book,” he explained.

“I feel like I have a unique forum, so I want to encourage everyone to get tested.

“Colon cancer is hitting a lot of people, including young people. If I had been tested a year earlier, maybe I wouldn’t be in this position.

“I’m hoping that by speaking out about it and encouraging people to get tested, it will make a difference.

“A few people have already come back to me and said that they’ve been tested and, lo and behold, they’ve found some growths.

“Get tested. Get tested. Get tested.”

There is a tendency to think, “It’ll never happen to me,” but that can be a dangerous trap.

“I just heard that King Charles has cancer,” Hopson said. “It hits everyone.”

Maybe so, but not everyone can face the biggest test of their life as positively — and as publicly — as No. 52, Jim Hopson.

That prompted me to inquire, near the end of our conversation, with the utmost incredulity: How on Earth do you do this?

He chuckled while considering the question.

“I don’t know how I ended up this way …,” he said before turning away from the phone for a moment.

“Brenda, do you know why I am the way I am?”

Her reply was as immediate as it was accurate.

“Because,” she responded, “you’re just a great guy.”