NOVEMBER 30, 2005


Rushing on the gridiron: Dr Dave Fleiszer, football legend

Dr Dave Fleiszer takes in the sunset at the site of his football glory, McGill University's Percival Molson Stadium. He hasn't strayed far — the field is within walking distance from the Royal Vic Hospital where he's co-director of the celebrated patient-centric Cedars Breast Cancer Clinic.
Photo credit: Liam Maloney

Dr David Fleiszer is still running.

On this crisp autumn morning he bounds between performing minor' surgery and sparing some precious moments for our interview in his office as his first patients take their seats out in the hall. The rest of the day will be a marathon, though that's no challenge for the football champ turned surgeon — he's already run three of those. And at some point this week Dr Fleiszer, who is also co-director of the Cedars Breast Cancer Clinic at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, will lace up his sneakers and steal an hour for a run past his old stomping grounds, McGill's Percival Molson Stadium.

Dr Fleiszer spent five years playing McGill varsity football at the stadium, racking up 21 touchdowns and 2,177 yards as one of the best fullbacks to ever run the ball for the Redmen. He was named team MVP twice, McGill athlete of the year once, and was the first McGill player to win the Hec Crighton Trophy as the most outstanding football player in the nation. That came in 1969, the year he led his team to the Ontario-Quebec championship and a berth in the Vanier Cup. (Dr Fleiszer scored two touchdowns in the Vanier Cup game, a 24-15 loss to Manitoba.) Not surprisingly, that year still stands out for him.

"Without question, the best memories I have are from our championship team in 1969," he says. "It was an unbelievably wonderful group of guys led by George Wall, our quarterback. I don't think I've met anybody with more grit than George. It was a special group that completely put out for each other."

Dr Fleiszer was already established as the team's star at the beginning of that season, having won the conference scoring title the year before. But he says the team's true strength was its attitude.

"We were fierce," he says. "We weren't particularly big or particularly talented. But everybody played one hundred percent and we trusted each other to do our jobs. Everyone was so willing to put out for the team, it was never about individual glory."

Montreal-born Dr Fleiszer earned a bachelor of science in 1969, a medical degree in 1973 and a masters degree in science in 1979, all at McGill. He says even his decision to pursue medicine after completing his BSc in 1969 had something to do with football. "I had two years of football left to go, so I looked at various graduate schools to see what would be okay to be in while I finished my football career, and medicine seemed to be the best," he says. "You could say I backed into medicine and it turned out to be great."

After graduation the Montreal Alouettes offered him a tryout, but this time he chose medicine. But he cast a long shadow at McGill: some of his rushing records still stand.

Dr Fleiszer reconnects with the gridiron
Photo credit: Liam Maloney

Five years ago, Dr Fleiszer was given a rare chance to combine sports and medicine. In a play that remains one of the more gruesome on-ice incidents in NHL history, Montreal Canadiens forward Trent McCleary was hit in the throat by a puck during a game against the Philadelphia Flyers. At the urging of his wife, a child psychologist at the Montreal General Hospital, Dr Fleiszer left his seat to help team doctor David Mulder and his assistant in the dressing room. They managed to keep the right winger breathing before sending him to the hospital. Dr Mulder later told the Montreal Gazette, "It was a matter of seconds before death. If Dr Fleiszer and I hadn't been able to keep Trent breathing all along, there would have been serious brain damage, at least."

The team effort that saved Trent McCleary's life that night is present every day at the Cedars Clinic, according to Dr Fleiszer. It's what he thrives on.

"Everybody doing their job and doing it in a coordinated way is what makes this clinic function," he says. "There's no question it's all about team. One of the lessons I learned on that championship team, and throughout football, is the understanding that you are one member of a team. If you do your part really well and trust everyone to do theirs, then that's what makes a champion."

During his playing days, Dr Fleiszer was listed at 6-foot-1, 185 pounds and his frame isn't much different today. He continues to follow Canadian football ("I don't have time to follow the NFL") and pays particular attention to a certain Number 34 from the Edmonton Eskimos. That's his son, Tim, a 6-foot-3, 266-pound defensive end who graduated from Harvard. It's therefore no surprise to hear Dr Fleiszer pick the Eskimos to win this year's Grey Cup on November 27.

"It's not an objective pick," he laughs.

But it is a surprise that this Alou-ettes season ticket holder eschews his hometown team and picks the Toronto Argonauts to face the Esks in the championship game. That's the height of objectivity in light of the troubles with the Alouettes defence this year.

Though he now leaves the full contact football to his son, Dr Flei-szer has had three occasions to throw the pigskin around with his old teammates. The last was at their team reunion in Banff about a decade ago.

"We've had several really good reunions," he says. "Ten years ago in Banff we were only missing three or four guys from the team. That speaks to the kind of individuals we had and the team cohesion."

As for football? "We've had a touch football game at each reunion," he says, adding, "It's getting slower and slower each time."

He looks at the time. Gotta run.



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