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Johnny Fripp, who has died at 101, was believed to have been the oldest living former player in Canadian football.Courtesy of Laurentian Ski Museum

Johnny Fripp was a downhill demon on the ski slope and elusive quarry on football’s gridiron.

The two-sport star’s athletic career was interrupted by war service, during which he trained ski troopers and helped a Royal Canadian Air Force team advance to football’s Grey Cup championship game. To his disappointment, he was transferred to another base and missed the big game.

Mr. Fripp, who has died at 101, was believed to have been the oldest living former player in Canadian football.

He was a reminder of an era when football players wore leather helmets, the forward pass was an innovation, and amateurism was the rule. His own status was challenged by a prominent sportswriter, who accused him of being a professional for holding a seasonal job as a ski instructor.

John Downing Fripp was born on Feb. 11, 1921, in Ottawa to the former Nora Thompson and Herbert Downing Fripp, an insurance and real estate businessman. Johnny, the oldest of three boys, learned to ski at age six. At 17, he won a regional skiing championship only to have been ruled ineligible because he was too young for senior competition. He was crowned junior champion, while a slower but older skier took the senior title.

A year later, his name appeared in banner headlines on the sports pages of both Ottawa daily newspapers as he set a course record on the Skiskule slopes at Camp Fortune in the nearby Gatineau Hills of Quebec. He won both the downhill and the slalom competition in the inaugural Gatineau Ski Runners tournament, a performance in which he “definitely stamped himself as the outstanding star to be developed in Ottawa during the past several years,” reported the Ottawa Journal.

The youth played football and hockey for Lisgar Collegiate Institute before transferring to Glebe Collegiate, which also had a ski club.

At 5-foot-7, 177 pounds (1.8 metres, 80.3 kilograms), he was a stocky halfback and a “piano-legged quarterback,” as The Globe’s Hal Walker described him. At age 20, fresh out of high school, he made the roster of the Ottawa Rough Riders. He shared the backfield with Tony Golab, a son of Polish immigrants who was known as the Golden Boy for his blond hair. The young pair offered a devastating attack for Ottawa and Mr. Fripp soon became a fan favourite for his fearlessness as he willingly plunged into the line against larger opponents.

“Johnny Fripp was used a lot and at every stage he was conspicuous,” Bill Westwick of the Journal wrote after a 13-1 victory over Balmy Beach. “The chunky former Glebe star was right at home with the ball and recorded gain after gain with off-middle drives or end skirts.”

Montreal Star sports editor Baz O’Meara challenged the young athlete’s amateur status. The Eastern Rugby Football Union was still an amateur league and had earlier in the season barred a former professional baseball player from suiting up for Balmy Beach. While Mr. Fripp was a paid ski instructor, he was considered an amateur for competition by that sport’s governing body, the Fédération internationale de ski (FIS). The controversy was resolved when league officials permitted Mr. Fripp to play. Canadian football accepted professionals after the war.

The Rough Riders advanced to the Grey Cup championship in Mr. Fripp’s rookie year, though they lost the game to Winnipeg.

Wanting to be a pilot, Mr. Fripp enlisted in the air force, though colour blindness put an end to that ambition. He was assigned to play for Flying Officer Lew Hayman’s RCAF Hurricanes, based in Toronto, a service team which played civilian teams in the Ontario Rugby Football Union. Among his teammates was Jake Gaudaur, a future CFL commissioner. The Hurricanes went on to win the Grey Cup by which time Mr. Fripp, an aircraftman 2nd class by rank who would end the war as a sergeant, had been transferred to Trenton, Ont.

Mr. Fripp was inducted into the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame the following year.Courtesy Laurentian Ski Museum

Later in the war, he played for the Lachine RCAF Flyers before being posted to Labrador for 18 months.

At war’s end, Mr. Fripp stayed in Montreal to be the starting quarterback for the Montreal Hornets of the Big Four. He shared the backfield with halfback Doug Harvey, a future Hockey Hall of Fame defenceman with the Montreal Canadiens. The hornets managed only one win in six games, though Mr. Fripp was runner-up in all-star voting behind Billy (Bubbles) Myers of Toronto.

Mr. Fripp also became an instructor at the Mont Tremblant ski resort north of Montreal.

In 1946, he won the men’s combined championship at the Alta Snow Cup in Utah by placing second in the giant slalom, second in the downhill, and fifth in the slalom. He would go on to win several ski titles in the 1950s and served as coach of the Canadian men’s team at the 1958 Alpine world ski championships at Bad Gastein, Austria.

He was inducted into the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame the following year.

Away from sports, he operated the family’s H.D. Fripp & Son Ltd. insurance business, which he took over from his father.

Mr. Fripp died in his sleep of natural causes on March 24 at the Perley and Rideau Veterans’ Health Centre in Ottawa. He leaves his second wife, Lizabeth Drolet-Fripp, as well as daughter Renee Mills and sons Robert Fripp and 1976 ski-jump Olympic competitor Kim Fripp. He also leaves 23 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as his brother, Shaun Fripp, a fellow inductee into the Canadian Ski Hall. A first marriage in 1947 to the former Virginia Henline, known as Gini, ended in divorce. She predeceased him, as did their sons John D. Fripp, known as Jay, who died of multiple sclerosis in 1974, and David Roy Fripp, who died of lung cancer in 2021, aged 70. He was also predeceased by a grandson, Isaac Mills, and by a younger brother, Ian Bowles Fripp, who died in 2011, aged 87.

One of the first sporting competitions Mr. Fripp ever entered was a juvenile dog derby at Ottawa’s Lansdowne Park three days before his 10th birthday. Sitting on a sled behind a dog named Bozo, the boy’s idea, possibly inspired by a cartoon, was to use a fishing pole to dangle in front of the canine a tempting wiener. Alas, the ploy left both Johnny and Bozo unsatisfied, as another lad was crowned the juvenile “monarch of the mushers.”