Doyle Orange with a photo of his sons in front of St. Teresa’s Church in Toronto. Wendy-Ann Clarke
  • June 19, 2020

Father’s Day is a time to celebrate the men who go above and beyond for their family, and for former CFL star Doyle Orange going the whole nine yards (plus one) is second nature. 

Born in the southern Georgia city of Waycross in 1951, the Toronto Argonauts alumni grew up going to Baptist church with his parents and nine siblings. A proud husband and father of three sons, he converted to Catholicism in 2007 and says it has been the glue that has kept his close-knit family together. 

“I was going to church with them every Sunday and I just figured we should be united in our faith,” said Orange whose wife, Maggie O’Leary-Orange, came from an Irish Catholic upbringing. “My parents always said that family unity is more important than anything. I wanted to show my sons that faith and connectedness is everything and was going to keep us together as a unit forever.”

Beyond his obvious passion for his own children, the theme of fatherhood runs even deeper for Orange. Growing up, he not only had a close relationship with his own father but has also been somewhat of a father figure to many young people through his long-time work with City of Toronto Parks and Recreation, which he began after retiring from football in 1977. Throughout his time there, he connected with countless young men, providing mentorship, career guidance and opening up opportunities to help them on the right path.

“These kids would come to me often because they knew I was an athlete and I was just taking them under my wing,” said Orange, who is now retired. “I hired many of them as workers when they were youths and was able to mentor them in a great way.”

Growing up as a black man in the southern United States, Orange is no stranger to the adversity youth face due to racism and discrimination. Watching the video death of another father — George Floyd — at the hands of police in Minneapolis and the global outcry against racism has been triggering for the 68-year-old who was a youth during the time of the American Civil Rights Movement.  

“All that’s going on has got to change a lot of things because equality is just not there,” said Orange. “It’s got to change for the better. It’s got to change for everybody.”

Orange is also troubled by the issue of systemic discrimination that has plagued American society for centuries and been exacerbated by the privatization of prisons which began in the 1980s.

“They made a business off of locking (black men) up because prisons were owned by these huge companies,” said Orange. “The more people you put in jail, the better for them and it was unfair. A lot of the time the crime doesn’t even fit the punishment.”

Doyle, who moved to Canada permanently after retiring from football, has been able to assess racism in Canada and the U.S.

“I find that here there is a lot of racism, but it can be very quiet and that can be more harmful to you,” said Orange. “If they’re going to come out bluntly and say it, you can deal with it. It’s kind of hard to deal with something when it’s hidden, but it’s here.”

A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, Orange was among the first crop of black athletes at the school following the 1960s integration. Despite moving far away from family into racially divided Mississippi, he says he had a positive experience.

“I used to tell my kids and a lot of the young men down here, don’t let nobody tell you you can’t do something,” said Orange. “Never let anyone put you in a box and say this is who you are because that’s not who you are.”

As a passionate convert to the Catholic faith, Orange’s now adult sons recount that he woke them up every Sunday to make sure the family was in church. Having served as altar boys throughout their childhood, the O’Leary-Orange offspring say their father’s conversion marked a critical turning point for the family, one they are grateful for to this day. 

“As a child I didn’t enjoy going to church,” laughs youngest son Liam, who studies child and youth care at Ryerson University, where he also competes on the basketball team. “It was all about sitting around and playing video games at that point in my life. As time went on, I reflected on it more and I think it strengthened not just my faith in God but in myself and my abilities to accomplish what I want in my life.”

Orange, who attends St. Teresa Roman Catholic Church in Toronto, says he and his wife have always nurtured and encouraged their sons to pursue their dreams. Their eldest son Daniel, 25, is an avid musician and now works as a financial advisor, and their middle son, Brendan, has followed in his father’s footsteps with his recent draft into the CFL.

A graduate of the University of Nevada, Brendan grew up playing all kinds of sports, but admits admiration for his father inspired him to take up football. 

No question the football roots go deep. Orange was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons, came to Canada in 1974 and immediately made his mark in the Argo backfield, rushing for 870 yards. A year later, he ran for 1,055 yards, only the second Argo (Bill Symons was first in 1968) to break the 1,000-yard barrier. The all-star played just four seasons before retiring and going to work for the city.

“Growing up, my dad was like a superhero to me,” said Brendan, a receiver taken in the fourth round of the draft by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in late April. “Even my friends were in awe and looked up to him and it made me want to be like him in everything. Even if he was barbecuing, I was holding the plate and watching how he seasoned the meat. I can’t thank him enough for giving me the dreams that I have and the ability and blueprint to be where I am today.”

While Orange looks forward to seeing his son play his first professional football game, he says he is most proud to have passed on to him and his other children the principles of hard work and determination, something he says he received from his own dad.

“My father worked for the railroad company in Georgia,” said Doyle. “He worked there for many years. I think that meant a lot to Brendan. He even put a tattoo on his arm of a set of railroad tracks as a reminder.”

Having raised three successful young men of colour, Doyle and his wife continue to let them know there are no limits to what they can accomplish and no situation they can’t overcome. With the CFL season on hold due to COVID-19, Brendan and the family are confident he has the faith and strength of character to get through it. 

“The pandemic affected the whole draft process and we missed out on a lot of opportunities we would normally have this time of year,” said Brendan, who celebrated the news while in quarantine in Nevada. “But I feel in everything God has a plan and that this is just the beginning of something special.”

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