George Hopkins has seen many players come and go during his 51 years with the Calgary Stampeders, but none impacted him more than the late Willie Burden.
Burden spent eight seasons as a running back with Calgary (1974-81). He was the CFL's outstanding player in 1975 after rushing for a then league-record 1,896 yards.
When Burden retired in June 1982, he was Calgary's fifth-leading rusher with 6,234 yards. The Stampeders retired his No. 10 in 1982 then added Burden to their Wall of Fame in 1992.
Nine years later, Burden was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
But for Hopkins, Willie Burden the man far outweighed anything Willie Burden the football player accomplished. Burden died in 2015 in Atlanta of a heart aliment. He was 64.
"I can't say enough about the late Willie Burden as far as just being an unbelievable person," said Hopkins, who'll appear in his 1,000th regular-season game Friday when Calgary visits the Ottawa Redblacks.
"He was a fabulous football player but Willie taught me more in the time he was here about how to treat people and be the best you could be.
"If that rubbed off on people positively, which in Willie's case it did, think about just how much better the world is because of it."
Ditto for stalwart defensive lineman John Helton, who spent his first 10 CFL seasons with Calgary (1969-78) before finishing with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (1979-82).
A nine-time CFL all-star, Helton won a Grey Cup with Calgary in 1971. He was the league's top lineman in 1972 and its outstanding defensive player in 1974 before being inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1986.
"John Helton took me under his wing when I first started out," Hopkins said. "The same type of thing as with Willie."
Hopkins has nothing but praise for the impact linebacker Alex Singleton, who's now with the NFL's Denver Broncos, made with the Stampeders (2016-18). After being named the CFL's top defensive player in 2017, Singleton helped Calgary win the 2018 Grey Cup.
But the biggest inspiration of Singleton's life is his older sister, Ashley, who was born with Down syndrome.
"We have someone on staff here that's autistic and Alex took him under his wing and really made him grow and shine," Hopkins said. "Alex really made an impact during this time here."
He never played a down with Calgary but megastar Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson remains one the franchise's most famous alumni. After playing collegiately at Miami, Johnson spent time on the Stampeders practice roster in 1995 before being released.
Johnson has stated repeatedly he left Calgary with just $7 in his pocket before opting to follow in his father's footsteps and become a professional wrestler. The rest, as is often said, is history.
"The Rock wasn't here long but he was a presence," Hopkins said. "You could see what potential he might have down the road but I didn't expect him to be as huge as he is.
"He came in and basically paid his dues for the time he was here and Wally (then Stampeders head coach Wally Buono) was very upfront and honest with him that there wasn't going to be a position for him."
And it's not hard to see why. Calgary's defensive line at the time consisted of Canadians Kent Warnock, Stu Laird and Srecko Zizakovic and Harald Hasselbach (who later won two Super Bowls with Denver) and Americans Will Johnson and Tim Cofield.
Will Johnson was named for induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame last year.
"But Dwayne still worked hard and left on good terms," Hopkins said. "I reached out to him 10 years ago when there was a fundraiser here and we sent jerseys to him and he signed them all and sent them back.
"He was always very approachable even when he was a superstar. That's all related to us going out of our way to find good people when we bring them in."
But not all of Hopkins' close friends in football have ties to the Stampeders. He remains tight with Dwayne Mandrusiak, the former Edmonton Elks equipment manager who was let go by the club in 2020 after 49 years of service.
Mandrusiak is currently an equipment safety adviser with the CFL Players’ Association. He and Hopkins go back to the 1975 Grey Cup in Calgary. Edmonton won 9-8 over Montreal on a bitterly cold day at McMahon Stadium.
"George Dunn had thrown me the keys and I threw them to Dwayne and told him, 'The room is yours. Tell me what you need,'" Hopkins said. "There was also a kid working for Montreal by the name of Red Batty, who's now the equipment manager with the Green Bay Packers.
"So one of the longest-serving equipment managers in the NFL (Batty is in his 28th season with Green Bay, 41st in the NFL) and two of the longest-serving equipment managers in the CFL all met at the '75 Grey Cup in Calgary.
"To this day, I talk to Red a couple of times a month. I still converse with Dwayne."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 5, 2022.