Vanstone: This photographic memory is still breathtaking

Rob Vanstone looks back on the fall of 2001 and the craziest coincidence involving two former Martin Monarchs football teammates.

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Recently, in this cherished space, I paid my respects to Mom on what would have been her 88th birthday (March 24, 2022).

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I woke up that morning – always a good sign – and as always checked my email.

The first item in the inbox included this subject line: “Canadian Weightlifting Team Named for 2022 Commonwealth Games.”

My interest was piqued for two reasons: (1) The team included Alexis Ashworth, who resides in Regina; and, (2) The announcement regularly referenced Birmingham, England, where the Games are to be held from July 28 to August 8.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because mum — aka G. Helen Vanstone-Mather — was born in Birmingham, England.

Prior to March 24, I do not recall ever receiving an email, or any form of work-related correspondence, in which his place of birth was mentioned.

The timing was random…strange, even.

And that made me think – never a good sign – of other coincidences.

Here comes the whopper to end all whoppers. If you can figure out the odds, well, let me know…

One beautiful night in 2001, I was covering high school football at Taylor Field. At the time, Mike O’Donnell was the commissioner of the Regina High Schools Athletic Association.

During one of our high-profile conversations, Mike mentioned to me that he scored the first touchdown in O’Neill Titans history, in 1967. When I returned to Leader-Post’s world headquarters , I decided to dive into the microfilm and find Mike’s middle finger’s original diary report.

(I’m corny that way. A cure hasn’t been found yet.)

Sure enough, O’Donnell’s touchdown was featured in the September 21, 1967, best-selling edition of the Regina Leader-Post. He tallied all of O’Neill’s points by scoring on an unconverted one-yard run in a 20-6 loss to the Scott Blues.

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While researching this story, I also came across a preview of 1967 high school football that appeared on September 9. One of the people in the attached photo was Jerry Orban, who in 2001 – and for many years before and after – was a regular in the high school football press box.

I thought Jerry would like to see the picture, so I pressed “PRINT” on the microfilm machine. I have professional skills.

The next time I covered high school football, I brought the grainy photocopy of the photo – the intention being to tell Jerry, “Look what I found!”

I quickly found Jerry, who was quite amused by the photo.

Commissioner O’Donnell, a gentleman who helped identify members of the Usher Unicorns for the two statisticians, and, uh, the two statisticians, joined us in the little booth that evening.

As the game progressed, I noticed that Usher’s observer seemed particularly interested in the excellent performance of the Unicorns’ third-year starting quarterback Brett Birnie.

My keen senses quickly told me that the gentleman could very well be related to the pivot Usher.

At that point, I started to seriously consider buying a lottery ticket – because the same 1967 photo that Jerry appeared in also showed a Martin Monarchs teammate named…wait…Dave Birnie.

Birnie, Orban and a third Monarchs player, Gerry Walker, were given coaching tutelage by Martin head coach Bob Lowe.

I was obsessed with this photo, instead of focusing on the high school football game I was supposedly covering.

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My 19 brain cells were working overtime to ponder – oops, up to 18 – the very real possibility that two of Martin’s players who appeared in that obscure September 9, 1967 image were also sitting a few feet away from me.

Determined to get to the bottom of things, I waited for a stoppage in play, after which I asked, “Excuse me. You wouldn’t be Dave Birnie, would you?

He answered in the affirmative.

I then showed him The Picture and he too could only shake his head.

Thirty-four years had passed since the photo was taken. The Leader-Post had published more than 10,000 issues between September 9, 1967 and the fall of 2001.

How many photos had appeared in the newspaper since? How many names? How many games?

How did circumstances align for MM. Orban and Birnie were reunited near yours truly and THAT photo, that night – an evening when the press box was sparsely populated.

All these years later, I still can’t figure out how it all happened. All theories are welcome, because I only have 17 brain cells left. Never a good sign…

(Rob Vanstone is the sports editor of the Regina Leader-Post.)

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Michael E. Marquez