Held on the day before the Grey Cup, Athletes in Action’s annual Grey Cup Breakfast is a way to show fans that the “stars” of the game are as human as anyone else—and that what really sets these men apart has a lot more to do with their faith than with football.

“They’re not just poster boys,” says Dave Klassen, AIA’s national pro ministry director and chaplain to the CFL B.C. Lions and the NHL Vancouver Canucks. “We like to take people on a journey at the breakfast and help them understand that there’s a different way of life, that faith in Jesus Christ can make a difference.”

Athletes in Action has been hosting the breakfast since 1977 as a platform for CFL players, coaches, staff, and spouses to share their life experiences.

“What we try and do is show people that the players they watch on the field are real people. They have real problems, real issues,” Klassen says. “We’ll have husbands and wives up there talking about how they deal with the pressures of being a professional football player and a spouse at home. For example, how do you as a wife or a girlfriend deal with angry fans in the stands?”

Wally Buono, the head coach, general manager and vice-president of football operations for the B.C. Lions, is a past speaker at the Grey Cup Breakfast. As a Christian, he believes his faith makes it all the more important that people know he’s not just a successful athlete and businessman. “There’s more to you,” he told Convivium magazine earlier this year. “A lot of people keep things private. Some people believe that they have a platform to be able to share the Good News. I believe that when you’re put in this position, that’s a responsibility.”

This year’s Grey Cup Breakfast will be held in Ottawa on Saturday morning, November 25th at The Westin Ottawa. Former Toronto Argonaut player and head coach—and a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame—Michael “Pinball” Clemons will act as MC. Today he’s an in-demand motivational speaker and global philanthropist. He and his family live and attend church in Oakville.

“He’s been our guest speaker for a while. We’ve moved him more into an MC role for the main reason that the interviews he does, he’s been able to capture so many things. He’s just been phenomenal,” Klassen says. “We try to get as many interviews in as we can. And people still get a full dose of Pinball because he’s involved in almost everything.”

But Athletes in Action does a lot more in conjunction with the Grey Cup than just the breakfast. In the week leading up to the championship game, its members fan out to serve in the local community. The hope, Klassen says, is “to add value” to what others are doing to help their neighbours.

“We go to places that nobody else will go, put athletes in places that are real. We try to hit every segment of society to encourage and inspire.”

“We like to partner with already existing groups and organizations to help strengthen them. We work in their buildings and alongside their constituents,” he says. “We go to places that nobody else will go, put athletes in places that are real. We try to hit every segment of society to encourage and inspire.”

AIA’s Ottawa activities in this year’s Grey Cup Festival Outreach Week, as it’s called, include a church party for single moms and children, as well as visits to a pediatric palliative care hospice, an addictions recovery ministry, a mission to the homeless, The Boys and Girls Club, Ottawa Christian School, and with varsity athletes at both the University of Ottawa and Carleton University. Players will also visit the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre where they will share their faith at the weekly chapel, followed by a pick-up football game with the inmates. In all, AIA is partnering with upwards of 15 organizations.

“The groups that we align ourselves with are excited about being part of something bigger,” Klassen says. “We try not to do our own thing. Other than the breakfast, we’re not interested in doing our own thing.”

To find out more about the Grey Cup Breakfast, go to greycupbreakfast.ca.

Frank Stirk is a Vancouver-based freelance writer with more than forty years experience as a print, radio and Internet journalist and editor.

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