A Tribute to Garry Lefebvre: My Hero, My Friend

I first “knew” Garry Lefebvre from the media when as a teen in northern Alberta, I was struggling with the insecurity and identity issues of a normal teenager. I felt stuck in a “no-man’s land” between the church and the world. I could neither identify with the church nor the lifestyle of my peers, which included a lot of drug-soaked parties and alcohol-influenced car accidents. We were a half-step behind the boomer generation of drugs, sex, and rock and roll, and it felt like my generation was always trying to “catch up” to the boomers. This wasn’t for me, so I went into sports, both participating and watching them. I dreamed of being a future star quarterback or receiver for my favourite football team at the time, the Edmonton Eskimos. I wanted to help lead them out of their severe drought of Grey Cup championships. However, as I approached my mid-teens, the team began to improve. One of the stars at that time was Garry Lefebvre. Shortly after his arrival, the Eskimos were finally in a Grey Cup Championship game, and even though they lost in that final, Garry won the Canadian Player of the Game award.

Because of Garry's award, a lot of the “post-game” microphones were on him. To my surprise, he mostly spoke of his faith in Jesus. Indeed, one of his achievements in that Grey Cup final was that he kicked one of the longest punts in CFL history. He later testified that when he kicked the ball, a gust of wind caught it and carried it downfield. It then bounced off an opposing player’s helmet and continued its trajectory into the end zone, which the opposition didn’t bother even trying to return.  This was back in the day when no pop star or sports hero ever spoke about God or Jesus, as is common today. There was no describing the impact Garry’s witness had on me. Following Jesus was just “not cool” in my circle of peers. However, being a star football player was cool. So, in Garry Lefebvre, following Jesus and “cool” came together in a remarkably attractive package which had a powerful influence in drawing me towards Christ. In my heart of hearts, I really did want to follow Jesus for myself, so Garry’s courage inspired me. But, his witness didn’t stop there. Garry continued to give public testimony of Christ in the media and other venues for the remainder of his career.

In an age where there is a lot of talk not matched by walk, Garry’s witness and testimony were remarkably consistent. He lived his faith. His life and actions backed up everything he said. He was a genuine loving and caring human being. His authenticity had a profound impact on his fellow-players and coaches. Almost half the Edmonton Eskimo team became involved in prayer and Bible studies.

Aware of the impact of sports stars on the young, Garry founded Athletes in Action, and after he retired from the CFL, he and his wife, Sandi, founded Circle Square Ranch in Halkirk, Alberta, where thousands of teens came for summer camps. These teens were profoundly touched by Garry’s faith and witness in the context of the beautiful outdoors.  


The story doesn’t end there for Garry and me. I became a youth pastor in Calgary, and due to significant growth in our youth group, I began to receive invitations to speak at youth camps, retreats, and rallies across the country. One of the invitations received was from my hero, Garry Lefebvre and his wife, Sandi to speak at their Circle Square Ranch. Garry had heard about my ministry in Calgary so he wanted me to speak to the teens at Circle Square Ranch. As in a lot of summer camp programs, the teens at Circle Square Ranch engaged in a lot of healthy outdoor activities, including horseback riding. It seemed being close to nature opened these teens up to spiritual things. Some of the most moving and powerful times of speaking to youth that I can remember occurred for me at these Circle Square Ranch meetings. It seemed like God came down and camped with us! I believe it was because Garry and Sandi did such a fantastic job of “setting the table,” that the hearts of the teens were softened and receptive to the message of the Good News. They had set this table by providing a loving and wholesome environment where the teens felt safe and connected, and of course they prayed earnestly for each one of them. I still remember vividly those nights were kids would jump up in response to my sermons in tears, crying out, “I take the Cross!” as a declaration that they were following Jesus. Much healing and deliverance occurred. 

Just as special were the times at Circle Square Ranch when Kathleen and I would sit around the breakfast table with Garry and Sandi, while we were enjoying our morning coffee, and we would reflect on the evening prior and the wonderful things we had been seeing God do in the kids. We would talk for hours about Jesus and the kingdom of God and God’s heart for our generation as well as for Canada. My hero, Garry Lefebvre, had become my friend. With great joy, I was able to reciprocate his invitation. Shortly after, he came to speak at our church in Calgary.

Garry and I stayed in touch throughout the years, including my “post-breakdown” Kelowna days during which time Garry and Sandi founded a small church in that city. Again, I preached for them but most enjoyable was our continuing friendship. One of my favourite moments was the time we were hanging out at Gyro beach, and we were throwing a football around. Garry always preferred to kick the ball than to throw it, so he began kicking sky-high punts for me to catch. A man was observing us and he came up to Garry and said to him, “You kick well. Did you play high school ball?” I grinned at Garry, and he grinned back at me. Typical of Garry, he acknowledged that he indeed, played high school ball, but he never offered any further information to the fellow. That was just his way. He was always so humble, gentle, joyful and unassuming. His life wasn’t about Garry. It was about knowing Jesus, and making him known to others in word and in deed. I believe that was his greatest success. Still, in that moment, I knew I had to interject, so I said to the man watching us, “Excuse me, this is Garry Lefebvre, a former CFL star with the Edmonton Eskimos.” I’m sure the man must’ve felt a bit sheepish, but I had to say it. I had to brag about my friend and hero!

Well, let me brag some more. Garry has just won his greatest achievement, and I know it’s the one I know means the most to him. Early Wednesday morning, he passed from this life. He has now heard Jesus say to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” With a lump in my throat, I say, farewell dear friend, until we meet again. Thank you for the legacy of your courage and faith that continues to inspire me and give me courage to finish my race.  “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith...” (2 Timothy 4:7). 

See Edmonton Eskimos mourn the passing of Garry Lefebvre and thanks to Todd Rutkowski, Garry's nephew, for the FB pics.