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Argos' iconic Fred Dunbar was known for his kindness and elevating sports therapy

A mentor, pioneer, trailblazer and a friend, Fred Dunbar wore many hats while maintaining his deep devotion to family.

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For Danny Webb, Dunbar — who passed on Nov. 18 at the age of 82 — opened a door some four decades ago, helping to usher in his long and distinguished career as equipment manager for the Argos, a role, sadly, that too many take far too lightly in today’s sporting climate.

As a student at Sheridan College, Webb fondly remembers the times when Dunbar would address a class during the CFL’s off-season. It was an occasion that allowed Dunbar to reach back into his roots.

“Freddy would do it once a week,’’ said Webb. “And it was great for us hearing from someone entrenched with a team.”

Keep in mind that the profession of sports therapy and equipment management was in its infant stages.

“Everyone aspired to be with a team, either at the pro level, college, university or at a private clinic,” said Webb.

Then Argos president Ralph Sazio put his trust in Dunbar and asked him to hire an equipment manager.

Dunbar selected Webb and the rest, as they say, is history.

“I’m forever indebted to Freddy because he’s the one who put my name forward,’’ said Webb. “And heck, here we are 37 years later and we’re still here.”

Indeed, many are in Freddy’s debt. The list of athletic therapists whom Dunbar helped spawn is as long as it is impressive — from Jim Panno to Giulio Carlin to Brent MacKay, just to name a few.

“A great mentor to the many therapists and equipment guys who came up through the ranks,’’ added Webb. “Fred touched everyone’s careers in one way or another.

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“What a great guy with his big belly laugh. He was just a joy to be around.”

Born in New Brunswick in 1939, Dunbar was raised in Brantford and then Hamilton.
Sports was dear to his heart but when he realized he would never be a pro athlete, he decided the next best thing to stay connected was to pursue a career in athletic therapy.
Webb grew up in Collingwood and one of his dad’s closest friends was Eddie Bush, who coached the Hamilton Red Wings to a Memorial Cup title.

“Once Freddy heard I was from Collingwood and that one of my dad’s best buddies was Eddie, there was an instant connection,’’ recalled Webb. “I guess you might say it got me a foot up in the process.”

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All across the country various college and university programs offer students opportunities to learn the sports therapy industry. Dunbar didn’t start it, but he certainly had a hand in raising its profile and significance.

“He took the role of trainer and brought it to a new level,’’ said Webb. “He helped add respect to the role of therapist. When you think of Freddy, you think of instant recognition who was larger than life.”

In 1968, Dunbar was appointed head of athletic therapy at the University of Guelph. Then  in 1976, he was named head of the Argos’ training staff, a role he served for 14 years.
Freddy later started Dunbar Medical, a proudly Canadian company.
Placekicker Hank Ilesic was a member of the 1983 Argos after winning five straight championships in Edmonton. He arrived in Toronto and was met at the airport by team executive John Wintermeyer, who drove him to the Argos’ training camp site at Guelph.
In that era, the university was not known for its facilities as it is today.
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“It was not up to par from where I was coming from,’’ said Ilesic, a seven-time Grey Cup champion. “I thought I had made a mistake (in signing with the Argos). The locker room was pretty jam-packed.

“The person I go to is Freddy and I introduce myself to Freddy. I’ll tell you what: He took care of me during my career in Toronto. Even once he left Toronto, if I ever got injured I called Freddy for advice. Basically, he would take care of me after the fact when he wasn’t there (with the Argos).”
That’s the kind of impact Dunbar had with athletes. Every Argos player loved him, though his reach extended beyond the gridiron.
The Argos shared CNE Stadium with the Blue Jays back then and when catcher Buck Martinez broke his leg, it was Dunbar who took care of him.
Ilesic recalled a chat he had with Martinez about Freddy.

“People have to understand that Freddy was ahead of his time when it came to therapy,’’ said Ilesic. “He was pretty close with Dr. (Robert) Jackson (renowned orthopedic surgeon and Argos team doctor). Freddy learned a lot from Dr. Jackson.”

Ilesic, like Dunbar, enjoyed having fun.

Dunbar had a sleeping condition and Ilesic would notice Dunbar taking a nap inside the Argos’ team van during practice.

“Freddy would doze off sometimes,’’ said Ilesic. “He would go in the van where they had bags and football gear. I used to punt the ball and hit the van and use it as target practice from 60 yards away to rattle Freddy. Fred would walk out of the van with this pissed-off look to him.”

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Ilesic last saw Dunbar at the visitation for former Argos offensive tackle Chris Schultz in Burlington earlier this year.

“That was quite ironic,’’ said Ilesic. “We lost two great teammates.”
Visitation will be held from Thursday to Saturday, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., at Gilbert MacIntyre and Son Funeral Home, Hart Chapel, 1099 Gordon St., in Guelph.

Guests are advised to RSVP their attendance on the funeral home’s website or by contacting its offices at 519-821-5077 to reserve a time slot. No proof of vaccination will be required, but masks are mandatory and social distancing will be in place.

In lieu of flowers, the Dunbar family encourages people to honor Fred’s legacy by making donations in his memory to Sheridan College to support athletic therapy students and programs.

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