A BOOTLEGGERS’ TALE – PART 2
FiredUp Network Sports Writer
Friday, January 21, 2022
A BOOTLEGGERS’ TALE – PART 2
1988 was now in the books. The Bootleggers had to prepare for 1989. Many aspects of the team had been a huge positive for them in their first season. If there was one thing that they wanted to improve for their second year, it would be to increase their depth at every position.
If there was one constant in ‘semi-pro’ football, it was that not every player was going to make it to every single game. What contingencies would players and coaches have to be prepared for in any given situation? The team sought to fill in any gaps they might have had in their roster.
The Boots would be without a couple of their coaches going forward. Bob Stephen moved over to the Sooners to become their head coach. Kevin Dalliday became the defensive line coach at Carleton University. Also, outstanding running back Dean Noel got a football scholarship at Delaware State University. He would later go on to play for the Ottawa Rough Riders and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
That meant that Mike White would need to fill those spots. Now in were new offensive coordinator Bob Swan, running backs coach and former CFLer Richard Holmes, offensive line coach and former Rough Rider Alex Saunders, defensive line coach and two-time CFL All-Star Greg Marshall and linebackers coach and former three-time CFL All-Star Rick Sowieta. They would join defensive coordinator Ian Hoyte and wide receivers coach Mark McGee who were with the team in 1988.
The biggest player addition was at quarterback where the team added Rod Moors. The man that everyone called ‘Rodney’ had played his high school football at Sir Robert Borden, the same school Mike White attended. He then went on to play at the University of Toronto where he set a Canadian university single season record for passing yards.
Moors told me that, though he and White did not play at Sir Robert Borden at the same time, White had always been aware of him. Moors had just finished his Masters degree in Science and had applied to teachers’ college when White contacted him to play for the Bootleggers in 1989. He had been playing semi-pro football in Moderna, Italy and at Gateshead in England before coming back to Ottawa.
Two other quarterbacks, Jamie Price and Tom McKenna, were added as well. To fill the void left by Dean Noel’s departure, Mike Shearon joined the team. Darin Burns became a part of the defensive line as well. Burns continued to play football after the Bootleggers ceased operations and was still playing in 2021 at the age of 57 with the Moncton Mustangs. He led his team in quarterback sacks that year!
As the 1989 season approached, the team announced some of their promotions for the year. Earl McRae mentioned some of them in his July 14 column. There would be Pearl Fleming Night during which they would crown the elderly superfan as “The Queen of Football”. Also, there would be a gap of time between quarters in the second half called The Third Quarter Stretch in which Pearl would sing the 1933 classic ‘You Gotta Be a Football Hero’.
In September, the team would be releasing a cover of AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black’ with Pearl on lead vocals. Other theme nights would be Herb Tarlek Night based on the character from the TV show WKRP in Cincinnati, Casino Night – A Tribute to Pete Rose, Elvis Night II and Carolyn Waldo Night complete with free nose clips and a halftime performance by ‘The Canadian Dryland Mens’ Synchronized Swim Team’.
Instead of playing in the Empire League, as they did in 1988, the Bootleggers would play the 1989 season as an independent team. They were still part of the American Football Association and could schedule games that suited them as best they would be able. It also allowed them to manage the number of road games they had to play. The only issue was that, in many cases, they had no idea of the quality of their opponents until they actually got face to face with them on the field.
Their first game was against the Watertown Red & Black. In 1988, Ottawa owned their North Country opponents. That didn’t change as the 1989 campaign got underway. Ottawa’s defense set the tone but their newly augmented offense was also spectacular in a 43-0 win.
Moors played only part of the first two quarters but while he was in, the team scored four touchdowns and had another called back on a penalty. Two of those majors were Moors passes to Jamie Straw. Jamie Price came in partway through the second quarter and threw a scoring pass to Pat Milks and ran one in himself.
Things were taking off in the Bootlegger sphere of things. The team had an organized group of cheerleaders. Also, sports media were actually covering the team in the stadium instead of just relying on reports from the team.
Human interest stories on individual players began appearing in the newspapers. They were even gaining interest from national media in stories on both CTV and CBC. Newspapers from outside of Ottawa, including from Toronto, Edmonton and Calgary, were writing stories about this local team of Canadians.
The second game of the season was against the sixth-ranked Brooklyn (N.Y.) Kings and it was a memorable one. Brooklyn scored first and carried a 13-0 lead into the half on touchdowns by ex-USFLer Lorenzo Chambers and ex-Buffalo Bill Warren Loving. In the second half, Mike Shearon scored on a 12-yard run to make it 13-7. Then, the Kings conceded a safety in the fourth quarter and with time running out in the contest, it was 13-9.
On the last play of the game, Rod Moors fired a pass down the left side toward Jamie Straw. There were two Kings’ defenders, one deep and one in front of Straw. The three men all converged on the ball and the two Kings’ players collided in the air. The ball got through and hit Straw on the helmet.
It popped straight up into the air. Straw located it and watched it fall into his hands. He very briefly bobbled it before rambling down the field untouched for the winning score. Ottawa had come back to defeat Brooklyn 16-13 in unthinkable, miraculous fashion.
After the game, Straw spoke to CJOH’s Brian Smith. “It was a little bit of luck, but we’ll take it,” Straw explained. When Smith asked him to describe the play, Straw said, “I was supposed to run a ten-yard out but the corner went for the out, so I turned it up the field and Rodney read it perfectly.”
When I spoke to Moors in preparing this column, he identified two games that he played with the Bootleggers that were his most memorable. This was one of them. “Jamie said the ball was tipped up into the air, but we all know it hit him in the helmet before he caught it,” Moors told me, with a chuckle in his voice.
Because of the win, Ottawa was now slotted fourth in the American Minor League Football Alliance rankings. That also prompted the Toronto Globe &Mail to send a reporter to cover the Bootleggers’ next game against the Baltimore Bears the following Sunday.
7,500 fans found their way into ‘Death Valley Stadium’, as Lansdowne Park had come to be known by this time, to see the Bootleggers knock off the Bears 44-20 on Carolyn Waldo Night. Fans received souvenir nose clips on their way into the stadium in honour of the Canadian gold medal synchronized swimmer.
At the half, Ottawa led 23-6, and they cruised to the win. Mike White was happy with the win even though the team’s execution wasn’t necessarily perfect. “It wasn’t a pretty game,” he told Bob Ferguson of the Ottawa Citizen. “We had too many defensive breakdowns, we missed audibles at the lines and were sloppy on a lot of tackles. Our defense scored two of the touchdowns. Still, we have played better football. And it got a little chippy at the end.”
Hey, a win is a win. The team was 3-0 and even when not playing it’s best, was able to come out with a victory. The following Sunday, they would be facing the Chambersburg (Pa.) Cardinals. With all the publicity the team had been getting both in the city of Ottawa and from outside, 8,600 fans came out to see their group play.
Before the game started, the large crowd stood for the anthems, performed in full equipment by Bootleggers’ offensive guard Dave Upton. They then saw their team knock the Cardinals’ quarterback out of the game. By halftime, the home side had a 21-0 lead. In typical Boots’ fashion, the show at the intermission was ‘little people’ wrestling.
By the time the game was over, Ottawa had won by a score of 37-6. The only Cardinals’ score came on a punt block. Rod Moors completed 17 of 25 passes for 342 yards. Jamie Straw caught eight passes for 196 yards and a couple of touchdowns. Mike Shearon had scored a touchdown and was becoming one of Moors’ favourite and most versatile targets. He could run between the tackles, he could bounce it outside and he could catch balls from the backfield.
There were rumbles from the media that some of Ottawa’s opponents had been a little on the easy side. Miles addressed this in his book. He talked about the difficulty of consistently playing high quality opponents. “Scheduling them is difficult in semi-pro ball. Playing in a league, the EFL for example, there will always be bottom tier, beer-league teams.”
“Even as an independent team, we sometimes had to fill out the schedule with whatever teams were available on the dates we had open. We weren’t always able to book top-line teams and had little control over the quality of our opponents.” No one had to be concerned about the quality of the Bootleggers next opponent. The team was going on the road to play the Number 1 ranked club in the country.
The New Jersey Cougars played their home games at Montclair State University and the Bootleggers made the long bus ride to their hotel which was situated in the shadow of The Meadowlands Sports Complex, home of the Giants and the Jets. The team headed down on a Saturday. The game would take place the following afternoon. The boys worked hard on the seven-hour bus trip ingesting as much alcohol as they could.
The game was actually broadcast on the MSG Network and viewers in the Tri-State area would have seen the home team dominate for the first 59 minutes. Through that span, the game was, as Warner Miles described it, “a penalty-ridden, lacklustre affair for the Ottawa boys. One of our players vomited at half-time, spit out his chew and said ‘I’m done, brother’. He wasn’t the only hurting cowboy.”
At the 14:24 mark of the fourth quarter, the score was 27-14 in favour of the home team. Earlier in the game, Shane Ireland had blocked a Cougar extra-point try. That would prove important as time wound down. With 36 seconds left, Rod Moors hit a wide open Chris Johnston that moved the ball down to the four-yard-line. Moors then hit Jamie Straw for a touchdown. Allan Willard kicked the extra point. That was when the dramatics began.
Ottawa’s only option was an onside kick. The Bootleggers’ Jamie Straw recovered it. As time was running out, Moors found Straw wide open for the game-tying touchdown. Willard hit the extra point and the game was over. One more time, the Bootleggers won a game on their last play.
Earlier, I told you that Moors had mentioned to me that he had two games that stood out to him as gratifying and memorable in his time as a member of this team. This was the second.
Warner Miles also singled this game out as one of his most satisfying and enjoyable wins he had experienced when I asked him that question. “(T)hat was epic. We were down, hungover, facing a good opponent and hometown refs. And just like that, we come back from down 13 points with 36 seconds to go to win 28-27. Times up. We win, you lose! I think I remember everything about that night pretty vividly.”
“An interesting part of that win was that every O-lineman got to play,” Miles continued. “I only played two quarters. Ronny Wilson, the centre played a half, Tim Saunders played a half, Brent Cherkas played half. I think Donny Staats was with us on that trip and he spelled off Jim Brunton and Andy Malguzzi, our starting tackles.”
“That was Alex Saunders’ doing. He knew this was senior amateur football and he felt that if you came out to practice, you should play in the game. Alex Saunders is one of my favourite people and a great Canadian!”
New Jersey amassed 325 yards in total offense while Ottawa gained 270. The Bootleggers totaled 245 yards in penalties. Miles said he talked to several Cougars in the parking lot after the game and the loss “crushed” them. But they were gracious enough to admit that they had been beaten by a better team.
As far as quarterback Rod Moors was concerned, he finished the game hurt. He told me that he was in excruciating pain afterward and he couldn’t sit for the long bus ride. His back was spasming. The only option he had was to lay down on the floor in the centre aisle of the bus. When I told him that Miles had described that in his book, he seemed slightly surprised. “Oh, that’s in his book?”
The players who were former Ottawa Sooners owned the back of the bus and you know that they were celebrating after the win. Miles said in his book that “copious amounts” of alcohol were consumed and he used brilliant phrasing when he wrote that the aisle was “awash with effluent”. When I suggested to Moors that the experience must have been awful, he replied that “If that was what I had to go through to get home, I didn’t mind it.”
I know from personal experience through hockey trips that the bus ride home from Jersey to Ottawa can be long and awful when you are coming home as a loser. But it’s fun as hell when you are a winner!
The sad thing for the Bootleggers was that even though they had toppled the Number 1 team in the country, and they had a 5-0 record, they were not rewarded with the top spot when the new rankings came out. The American Minor League Football Alliance gave the Number 1 spot to the Racine (Wisc.) Raiders!
For their next game, the Bootleggers were without Jamie Straw, tight end Gord Hudson, and linebackers Tim McGowan and Mike Morris. Hudson was getting married out of town and so the team would have to make do. But this was precisely why they improved their depth at the beginning of the year.
They were also playing a Frederick (Md.) Falcons team that allegedly had three players that were 6’11” and 300 pounds. They were said to have a former Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback and a corner who had played in the USFL.
6,100 fans made their way out to Lansdowne Park, errr, ‘Death Valley’ Stadium to see their Bootleggers get off to a slow start. The Falcons got on the board first with a field goal. Ottawa didn’t score until the second quarter when Moors hit his former U. of T. teammate Paul Shorten with a touchdown pass. But another Frederick field goal brought the visitors to within a point.
Moors answered that with a 66-yard pass-and-run to Chris Johnston for another major score. As the half was coming to an end, Bootleggers’ defensive back Johnny Lamont picked off a pass and ran it back 68 yards to the house for a late touchdown. It was 21-6 at the half. In the second half, Moors hit Johnston for another touchdown. He also connected with inside receiver Bryan Bynoe for another. The final score was 35-13 for the home side.
Oh, and for those who may have looked at the Falcons as possibly being a weak opponent, they did go on to win their league in 1989. They won five league championships, were a mainstay in their region. They also recruited heavily in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area for their 25-year run at McCurdy Field in Frederick.
Originally, the Bootleggers were next scheduled to play the Washington Metrobucs, but they had folded. It was tough for the team to get another opponent on short notice and the team that said they could play was the Chambersburg Cardinals. The Cards had added a few new players since they faced Ottawa earlier in the season and felt like they could give Ottawa a tougher test this time.
Quarterback Jeff Houston had some NFL playing time on his resume from his time with the San Francisco 49ers. Steve Gerhart was a safety who had been a recent cut of the Philadelphia Eagles. Tight end Darryl Grimes had been cut the week before from the Detroit Lions. Could they do better than they had the first time they had come north to play the Bootleggers?
For Ottawa, Mark Moors, brother of quarterback, Rod, had completed a ten-year career on the Calgary Stampeders’ offensive line and he dearly wanted to join the Boots for one game so he could block for his brother.
On the promotional side, this was Tammy Faye Bakker Night at ‘Death Valley’. All female fans received a complimentary tube of mascara. Face painting booths were there too for anyone so inclined.
At this point in the season, Ottawa was 6-0 and were ranked Number 2 in the country, now behind the Brooklyn Mariners. Ottawa’s defense was the key to their success and when their linebackers were good, they were very, very good. On this night, they were excellent.
It took a while for Ottawa’s offense to get going. The Cardinals moved the ball between the 20s though and they had two drives to start the game in which they got inside the Bootlegger 20-yard line. But Ottawa’s defense sacked their way out of one and they blocked a field goal try to keep the visitors off the scoreboard on the other.
The Boots’ special teams gave them their first opportunity when they blocked a Chambersburg punt and took over the ball on the Cards’ 20. Moors then hit Chris Johnston for a touchdown to get the home side on the board. On the next Cardinal possession, Ottawa’s Mike Morris intercepted the ball and gave his offense the ball at the opponent’s 11. A Moors pass to Johnston later, it was touchdown time again for Ottawa. At the half, it was 16-0 for the Bootleggers.
In the second half, Mike Shearon had two touchdowns, Rod Moors had one and running back Mark Brown had another. Late in the game, a flea-flicker play gave the Cardinals their only score of the day. It was a 92-yard pass-and-run for the touchdown. The final score was 43-6. After the game, the Cards’ coach, Ron Nalewak told the Citizen’s Ken Warren, ”I’m still not convinced we can’t beat this team. They’re a decent team, but they are not a great team.”
In the two meetings between the two clubs, the Cardinals had been outscored by the Bootleggers 80-12.
The next scheduled game for Ottawa was a road game in Baltimore against the Bears. But then, Hurricane Hugo hit the East Coast and there was no way that the game could be played that weekend. The Bootleggers would have a weekend off.
But, as luck would have it, the Number 1 Brooklyn Mariners were losing to the Brooklyn Kings. As a result, the 7-0 Bootleggers supplanted the former top dogs and were now the highest ranked team in all of America. A Canadian team was the top semi-pro team in ALL OF AMERICA!!
Three weeks then passed since their game against the Cardinals. Their next scheduled game was against the Albany (N.Y.) Metro Mallers. The Rest vs. Rust argument was heavily in play here and Rust took the early lead. It was early October and the cool autumn night in Ottawa was a factor in having only 2,000 fans show up at the park.
The first quarter was scoreless, but Ottawa got on the board first on a one-yard run by Domrie Roberson. The Willard conversion made it 7-0 for the home team. The Mallers got a touchdown just before halftime but could not make the extra point. The score was 7-6 for the Bootleggers at halftime.
Albany’s game plan in the second half was to run the ball and eat the clock. They executed their objective well and in the third quarter, they managed to score a touchdown and take a 13-7 lead. That score held through the end of the third quarter and well into the fourth as well. The clock ticked down. Ottawa had the ball on their own 35-yard line, down by six points, with ten seconds remaining in the game.
Moors took the snap and dropped back. He spotted Steve Lalonde and fired the ball. The pass was perfect. Lalonde caught the ball in stride and ran it all the way down the field for the game tying touchdown. Allan Willard booted the extra point and for the third time in 1989, the Bootleggers had won a game on their last play of regulation time.
Moors would describe it to me as ‘The Magic’. The Bootleggers, in 1989, had ‘The Magic’.
After the game, the commissioner of the Minor League Football Alliance, Mark Eickhorst, who was at the game, was effusive in his praise for the Bootleggers and their management group. He also said that, should Ottawa remain undefeated, they would undoubtedly host the National Championship game on December 3.
The 8-0 Bootleggers’ next opponent was the Baltimore Rams. Playing against Albany the week before seemed to get Ottawa back into their usual rhythm. The Boots' defense played its normally strong game completely shutting down the Rams’ offense. Baltimore compiled just 58 total yards on the day. They were 2 for 9 passing and were picked off twice.
Ottawa was up 21-0 in the first quarter and 28-0 by halftime. That ended up being the final score. White took most of his starters out in the second half and the team coasted to victory.
All seemed to be going swimmingly for the Bootleggers. They were sitting with a 9-0 record and were the Number 1 team in all of semi-pro football. The weekend after the Rams contest was one without a planned game so one of the players had scheduled his wedding for that Saturday. Plenty of the players were going to be there to help their teammate and his bride celebrate.
Mike White had given his players the week off and everyone was looking forward to a few days of rest and relaxation followed by the party on the Saturday.
There was one problem.
You’ll recall that the Bootleggers’ game against Baltimore, that had originally been scheduled for September 24, had been postponed after Hurricane Hugo hit the east coast. Jeff Morris was the guy looking after the rescheduling of the game. He had agreed with the Baltimore Bears to play the game on the weekend that was open, but he had forgotten to tell anyone.
The players declared that there was no way they were going to make that road trip with no notice like this. White was unhappy that things had unfolded this way and, according to Miles’ book, he told Morris that the team was not going to play and that was all there would be to it.
Morris asked, “What should I tell them?” White dismissively said, “I don’t care what you tell them. Tell them we were in a plane crash. I don’t care what you tell them, just get us out of that game.” White was speaking metaphorically, of course, but apparently, Morris took him almost literally.
An Ottawa Citizen article by Bob Ferguson, with the headline “Bootleggers Caught Lying to Avoid ‘Nothing Contest’”, told the story of how Morris told the Bears’ people that relatives of one of the players had been in a car accident and the team would be unable to make the trip. Initially, the Baltimore team reacted sympathetically but when the lie was exposed, they were upset.
Eickhorst reacted with shock and a reprimand. In the Citizen piece, he was quoted as saying, “I feel Jeff and Mike should have known better. They have done so many things right this year. I’ve held them up as a model operation. Something like this tarnishes that image... Unfortunately, such things have been all too common in minor football in the past. I think they have learned their lesson and the issue is closed. I’m satisfied and this won’t affect the club’s playoff status.”
What the players were told though internally was worse than what was reported in the Citizen article. According to Miles’ book, the team was informed that Morris told the Bears that their quarterback was killed in the accident. The Baltimore team told their local papers that the game was being cancelled for that reason. The Baltimore local newspapers, sensing a sympathetic human interest story, called the Ottawa Citizen. That was when the story unravelled.
Everyone connected with the team was ashamed and embarrassed. The players reacted with disbelief. From that point on, the players all referred to it as ‘The Lie’. As Miles writes in his book, “After all the great things we had done together, it felt like this one stupid act wiped it all out. As they say, ‘one “oh shit” ruins thirty “attaboys”’.”
The embarrassment and humiliation were palpable. The media were treating it for what it was, a lie. CJOH’s Smith called it a ‘sleazy management move’ in one of his editorials, but at the same time, he said that the players deserved the public’s support.
The Citizen's John MacKinnon was pretty harsh. "(T)heir recent let's-tell-the-opposition-a-whopper-so-we-can-bail-out-of-a-road-game scam was unbelievably shabby, even for a bunch of mavericks."
The situation was clearly a public relations nightmare for the team and it was obvious to many within the club that something needed to be done. Alex Saunders stepped forward to be the point man discussing the matter going forward. He had been a former Rough Rider, an RCAF officer, peacekeeper and he also founded the Myers Riders minor football organization.
He had a ton of credibility, he loved the team and would do whatever he could to help guide the group through this, even if that meant standing in front of cameras and microphones and answering all the questions. At the same time, he took it upon himself to try to clean up the mess from all this. As he said in one television interview, “It’s like trying to mop up the floor with tap still running”.
One thing that was clear was that Morris was out as the general manager. Saunders was in. The first thing he did was to arrange a meeting between the Citizen’s Bob Ferguson and several players on the team. It was important for fans to understand that the players and coaches were more than just “concerned” about what Morris had done.
Miles told Ferguson that the move was not a criticism of White or Morris. He added that their hard work had brought the team to a certain level and they could take pride in the success the team had achieved. But the team needed to grow and move on. Shane Ireland said that the players were proud of the city and their play and that they all played because they loved the game.
Going forward, the team did more things for the community like canned food drives for the food banks, blood donor clinics, visits to the Childrens’ Hospital of Eastern Ontario and promotions that would elicit donations to the Snow Suit Fund. They wanted to show the city of Ottawa that not only could they be successful on the field, but that they were good citizens off it as well.
It would take some time for the effects to be felt, but the football fans in Ottawa would hold the team to their hearts.
The next opponent for the Bootleggers was the Syracuse Express. In 1988, Ottawa had edged Syracuse 18-17. The team was keen to use this game as a test to see how far they had progressed in the year since the two teams last met. Ottawa opened the scoring by blocking an Express punt and recovering it into the end zone. Things rolled from there.
Jamie Straw caught two passes for touchdowns. Mike Shearon scored on a 48-yard pass-and-run play. But the best part, for many of the players, was seeing running backs’ coach Richard Holmes suit up as a back himself for this game. The topper was seeing him actually score a touchdown. His last active game as a player had come in 1983, when he was a member of the Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL.
The final score was 41-0. It was a pleasant departure from the sour news of the last while. Everyone was happy with the result. Mike White said after the game, “This is the first time we’ve played a solid 60 minutes of football in a long time”.
The team was now 10-0 and Number 1 in the Minor League Football Alliance rankings. As the top dog, they would now have to wait to play the winner of the game between the Eastern League champion Marlboro (Mass.) Shamrocks and the Empire League winners, the Albany Metro Mallers.
It would be three weeks between games for the Bootleggers. The last time they had a three week hiatus between games, they got off to a slow start in their next contest. Regardless, they had to sit and wait.
One thing that I had been curious about for these Canadians, who had grown up playing the three-down game on the wider field with the defense playing a yard off the ball before the snap, was the matter of adjusting to the American game. Was it difficult to make the transition to a narrower field, different rules, and everything that came with that?
Rod Moors told me that he didn’t see much difficulty for him in terms of having to adjust to the American game. He liked the narrower field and the shorter throw for the out-routes. He figured it might be more difficult for the offensive linemen having their defensive opponents almost right on top of them. Miles, an offensive guard, answered that question thoughtfully and in depth.
“The lack of a yard offset means that the first collision isn’t as violent as in the Canadian game. It’s still a smack, but it doesn’t have the defensive lineman’s full weight, or momentum, actually, behind it. But even better is that the variety of types of offensive plays afforded four-down football means the defensive line can’t play pass rush all day. They have to read and check a little bit and it does slow them down.”
While the Bootleggers were sitting at home, the Marlboro Shamrocks outplayed the Metro Mallers 9-6. The Shamrocks come from a town just west of Boston. Rod Moors was able to watch the game for his team and he gave them his report. Marlboro had a 250-pound fullback that could motor but didn’t seem to have much of a passing game.
The concern for Ottawa would have been the layoff and its possible effects, if any. The Shamrocks showed up to play. But so did the Bootleggers.
Marlboro started the game by moving the ball down the field. They got it down to the Ottawa 5-yard-line before the Bootleggers defense shut them down. Ottawa took over there and soon after, Moors hit Straw on a 95-yard pass-and-run touchdown jaunt and just like that, the home side was up 7-0.
In the second quarter, Moors hooked up with Chris Johnston for a 42-yard pass that took the ball down to the Marlboro 5-yard-line. A couple of plays later, Moors hit Straw for a 3-yard touchdown pass. Before the half, the Shamrocks scored on a 34-yard pass and after two quarters, it was 13-6.
In the third quarter, Marlboro handed the ball to their mammoth back and he carried them to a touchdown and cutting the Boots’ lead to 13-12. Ottawa returned the favour by handing the ball to Domrie Roberson and following him down the field. Richard Holmes capped the drive by carrying the ball to paydirt.
On Marlboro’s next possession, they tried throwing the ball but Bootleggers’ cornerback Tim Yee got his second interception of the day. Moors quickly found Straw for a 40-yard major score. Ottawa added a field goal later. The Shamrocks scored a late touchdown but it was too little too late as the Bootleggers managed a 30-19 victory and the right to move on to the next round.
Their next opponent would be the Brooklyn Mariners. If the Bootleggers were to win this game they would play in and, more importantly, host the National Championship game. It was November 25 and the weather in Ottawa was terrible in the days heading into this game. A lot of snow had been falling for seven days. It began during the Marlboro game and it continued through the week.
The field was not in tip-top shape. Efforts were made to clear the field but they were only somewhat successful. They did clear the area between the hash marks, but the areas outside them were icy and the footing was horrendous. Before the game, there was talk among some of the Bootleggers about trying to put industrial staples in the soles of their artificial turf cleats, but that stopped as soon as the staple points went through the shoes and into the soles of a couple of players’ feet!
In Miles’ book, he talks about a funny situation that unfolded on the Bootleggers’ sideline. It was a story that was related to him by one of the linebackers on the team. Steve Hughes told it this way, “It was so cold, we had propane flame heaters on the sideline. Suddenly, Warner jacks me from a blind spot into a pile of snow. I thought I did something wrong. That was not the case. My shoes were on fire and Warner kicked snow on to my feet to put the little fire out.”
As far as Miles was concerned, “I was just pissed because he was the only guy with warm feet”.
Though the weather outside was frightful, the crowd was just short of 5,000, and the game they saw was so delightful. Jamie Straw caught Rod Moors' touchdown passes of 31 and 86 yards. Moors also found Steve Lalonde for a 27 yard major and he ran one in himself from 35 yards out as well.
Later in the game, Mike Shearon received a kickoff on the Ottawa 10-yard-line between the hash marks. He allowed the Mariners coverage to run past him and he began his trek up the cleared portion of the field past any and all the Brooklyn players except one. Just as Shearon was about to meet the sole defender, Jamie Straw appeared out of nowhere to take out that last Mariner with a savage, but legal, block to allow his teammate a free gallop to the end zone.
The last Bootleggers’ touchdown was scored on a 40-yard off-tackle run by Neil Hunte. The final score was Ottawa 42, Brooklyn 14. It was as plain a victory as a team could have. Even the Mariners’ coach, Pudge Walsh, was clear in his praise of the Boots performance.
“We got thoroughly whipped by a better team. We played 12 other games this year and allowed just 46 points. Ottawa almost matched that in one game. They’re a good team who made the most of opportunities.”
The Bootleggers’ defense was tremendous on this day. In this game, there were sixteen different downs on which the Mariners scrimmaged the ball on or inside the Ottawa 3-yard-line. They scored on one of them. Ottawa’s defenders allowed Brooklyn just 142 total yards in the game. The visitors found the field as rough as the Boots’ D.
But Brooklyn’s mistake was in booting the ball to the middle of the field on punts and kickoffs, allowing the Ottawa returners a clean field to run on. When the Bootleggers kicked or punted, they directed the ball to the corners of the field, the icier parts of the playing surface. Footing was much less secure and a lot more difficult.
The win placed Ottawa in the national title game against the Racine Raiders. Three of the Raiders’ coaches were at the game and Mike White said that, after the game was over, they told him they had “never seen a team like you before”. White said, in a television interview, that the Racine coaches gave him the impression that they knew they would lose if they had to play Ottawa at Lansdowne Park.
The Mariners then launched a protest to AMLFA commissioner Eickhorst that the Bootleggers had iced the field and that they wore staples in their shoes. They also added that the field dimensions were incorrect and did not conform to American Football regulations or conventions.
As I mentioned earlier, a couple of the Bootleggers’ players had tried the staples but then discarded them after they realized they were puncturing their own feet. It seemed funny to White that they cited staples in Ottawa’s footwear because he had noticed some of the Brooklyn players wearing track spikes in the first half of the game.
There was a feeling that the Brooklyn protest was orchestrated on behalf of the Racine team. White speculated that the Raiders thought they would be playing Brooklyn in the final and since Eickhorst was from Racine, that it was all going to fall into place for the Raiders and Mariners.
If Eickhorst upheld the protest, then Ottawa would be out and the two American teams would play in Title Bowl I. If he disallowed the protest, then Racine would have to play the Bootleggers in possibly similar frosty conditions the following weekend in Ottawa.
Eickhorst eventually issued a statement on the Tuesday following the Brooklyn game. It read as follows: “I could find no concrete proof of the industrial staples in the shoes charges. And I’ve been aware of the field specifications all season and find no ground for protest in how it has been handled. Brooklyn even hinted Ottawa had watered down the field before the game so I checked with park authorities and am satisfied it never happened.”
It was now clear that the Bootleggers would be hosting the Raiders the following weekend and that the Title Bowl would take place on December 3, 1989 in 'Death Valley'!
The one thing that the Bootleggers did not want to do was to be forced to take a 13-hour drive to Racine for the final game. With Eickhorst’s decision, that would not be a concern. They were 12-0 and the Number 1 team in the AMLFA. Racine would have to make their way to Ottawa. They would end up flying to Montreal and then taking a bus to Canada’s capital.
One of the pitfalls of hosting the championship game was that the Bootleggers had to cover the travel and hotel expenses of the visiting team. That meant that Ottawa would have to be on the hook for about $22,000 for this game. Thankfully, local sponsors stepped up and offered to cover a portion of these expenses.
The crowd that attended the title game was estimated at about 6,200. The problem was that with all the walk-up traffic and the lack of actual staff at the doors to handle the crowd, many people walked in without paying for a ticket. Miles mentions in his book that there were people who were at the game, looking to give their money to someone but no one was there. The task was, as Warner wrote, ‘herculean’.
He also noted that the paid attendance versus the actual attendance would eventually come back to haunt the Bootleggers. Indeed it would.
Championship Sunday came. December 3. The Racine Raiders came into town and they demanded that their travel expenses be deposited into their account before they took the field. This delayed the start of the game significantly. Was it gamesmanship? Was it genuine? It didn’t matter. About a half hour went by from the time the kickoff was supposed to take place until it actually did.
The fans who were in the stands during all this were absolutely heroic.
In fact, it was Eickhorst who actually took the money to a bank machine to verify the transfer had taken place. The temperature at the stadium that day was about -15 degrees Celsius. With the wind chill, it was about -25 degrees. Snow was falling and blowing. Needless to say, the conditions were brutal for players, coaches and fans alike! Ron Wilson though, the Ottawa centre, true to form, was out there with no sleeves. The ‘gun show’ was alive and well in 'Death Valley'.
The Bootleggers had their quarterback-receiver combination with Moors and Straw. The Raiders, who were an older team than Ottawa was and had been together longer than the home side, had Charlie Bliss and Ron Daugherty.
The Ottawa fans were treated early when the Boots opened the scoring. Moors hit Straw on a 62-yard pass for a touchdown to put Ottawa up 7-0. The Raiders answered when their running back broke through for an 80-yard run off-tackle for a score. Fortunately for Ottawa, they blocked the extra point try. Late in the half though, Racine kicked a 24-yard field goal to take a 9-7 lead.
Early in the second half, the Raiders fumbled the ball and Ottawa’s Dwight Beckford pounced on it on the Racine 1-yard-line. A couple of plays after that, Mark Brown rumbled in for the touchdown. The extra-point try was blocked but the Bootleggers led the game 13-9. Early in the fourth quarter, Bliss hit Daugherty on a 50-yard pass-and-run to put the Raiders up 15-13. That was how the game would finish.
Miles, in his book, said it wasn’t a pleasant game to play and he gave us a little extra perspective on what goes on sometimes in line play. The guy he was blocking was less than sportsmanlike.
“On the first play of the game, the defensive tackle I was playing against jumped to block the pass and put in a little extra effort to boot me in the groin. On the next play, he jumped again, but I persuaded him to keep his hands down by punching him where it hurts. This set the tone for us. We didn’t like them and they didn’t like us.”
Miles talked about, in the end, how deflating the final result was for him and his teammates. “The loss was devastating for us, made worse by how much the Raiders savoured the win. I can only describe the way the Raiders carried on after the game as obnoxious. Enough said about that.”
Sadly, for the Bootleggers and their fans, the game didn’t end up the way they wanted it to. But it had been a great year, a few different things notwithstanding. They went 12-0 before the championship game and held the top spot in the national rankings for the second half of the season.
There was a clamour for the city of Ottawa to recognize the achievements of the Bootleggers. Earl McRae went to bat in numerous articles for the team. Mike White opined that the city should honour the fans who came out and cheered through all the inclement weather. Alas, nothing came.
When looking at the individual achievements of certain players, the 1989 season that Jamie Straw had must be highlighted. He had 22 touchdowns in 13 games. According to Miles, he had a dozen “scintillating” kick or punt returns. He had the, as Miles termed it, “Block-To-End-All-Blocks” to spring Shearon on his amazing return for a touchdown in the elimination game against the Brooklyn Mariners. For all his efforts, Straw was chosen as the AMLFA Offensive Most Valuable Player.
In the 1989-90 scholastic year, Dave Naylor was a journalism student at Carleton University. He, along with the local Skyline Cablevision, put together a video documentary titled ‘Close To Perfect’ that chronicled the Bootleggers’ season. It’s on YouTube and it is a must-watch for anyone who is a fan of the Bootleggers, local football or a good story.
Naylor is now the football insider for TSN, the national sports television network in Canada. It was a perfect way to end the 1989 season for this edition of the Bootleggers.
This is the end of Part 2. If you would like to get a copy of Warner Miles’ book, Ottawa Bootleggers – Real Men Wore Black, you can order it via this web-link, https://www.lulu.com/en/ca/shop/warner-miles/ottawa-bootleggers-real-men-wore-black/paperback/product-1jq4p8jv.html?page=1&pageSize=4
You can listen to Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast. It appears on more than 181 different platforms or right here on the FiredUp Network.