1981 – MR. WATTS’ WILD RIDE – PART 2 – THE EARLY SEASON

Howie Mooney
FiredUp Network Sports Writer

@HowieMooney

Monday, August 22, 2022


1981 – MR. WATTS’ WILD RIDE – PART 2 – THE EARLY SEASON

By the beginning of the 1981 Canadian Football league season, the Edmonton Eskimos had won the previous three Grey Cups and they had everything in place to challenge for a fourth.  There had been teams that had won three in a row before but never a team that had won four consecutive championships.  But stability seemed to reign in Edmonton and almost every piece was still in place over those years.  

Warren Moon was the starting quarterback and at the age of 23, he was possibly the best passer in the country.  Backing him up was the 37-year-old Tom Wilkinson, reportedly in the best shape of his life.  Waddell Smith and Brian Kelly were the wide receivers, while Tom Scott and Brian Fryer were his slot backs.  Marco Cyncar was the backup.

Jim Germany was the primary running back but Neil Lumsden, Angelo Santucci and Sean Kehoe were there to back him up.  The piece de resistance for Edmonton, though, was their all-Canadian offensive line.  Bill Stevenson, Hec Pothier, Eric Upton, Leo Blanchard and Ted Milian.  When other teams saw the success the Esks had with Canadians on their offensive line, they tried to copy it, but none had the sum of talent that Edmonton did.

On defense, they boasted a line of Ron Estay, James ‘Quick’ Parker, Dave Campbell and David Boone.  Dan Kepley, Dale Potter and Tom Towns were the linebackers.  In the defensive backfield, they had Pete Lavorato, Ed Jones, Joe Hollimon, Larry Highbaugh, Gary Hayes and Mike McLeod.  Emilio Fraietta was the backup safety.  And Dave Cutler was still there kicking with Hank Ilesic handling the punting duties.

As for the game on July 3 between Edmonton and the Ottawa Rough Riders, it would be impossible to describe it better than Tom Casey did in the Ottawa Citizen the next day.  His first two sentences summed it up perfectly.

“Edmonton Eskimos completed their first in a series of 16 instructional clinics on how to play winning football in the Canadian Football League Friday.  The pupils were the Ottawa Rough Riders and 22,023 took in the lesson in the form of a 47-21 whipping at Lansdowne Park which doubled as the regular season opener for both clubs.”

Back in the Riders’ third preseason game against Montreal, Alouettes’ quarterback Vince Ferragamo remarked that his biggest problem was that he and his receivers were not necessarily on the same page when it came to the patterns they were running.  Ferragamo was not yet sure when his players were coming out of their routes, when to release the ball and things like that.

For the Eskimos, that was the farthest thing from their minds.  Their offense looked like a well-oiled machine.  Moon was so precise with his throws all night and he made sure that he only threw to spots where his man was the only one who could catch it.  Citizen columnist Eddie MacCabe wrote that the Eskimos receivers caught balls “like they were sliding into second base”.

He continued, “They were throwing ‘out’ patterns to their left, and Moon was firing the ball before his receiver had made his cut, so the man turned around and the ball arrived.  Ricky Barden was being beaten to death and so they adjusted at the half to try to give him some help.”  Indeed, one of Moon’s objectives was to target the receivers that were covered by Barden.  

The only time that Edmonton did not look like they were in complete control of this contest was at the beginning of it.  The Rough Riders were able to move the ball under the authority of signal caller Ron Calcagni.  Calcagni was the beneficiary of a great play by Ottawa special teams player Peter Stenerson who throttled Esks’ kick returner Emilio Fraietta with a hard tackle on the opening kickoff that jarred the ball loose.

Ottawa had leads of 7-0 and 10-7 until the boys from Northern Alberta said ‘enough is enough’.  From that point on, the Edmonton defense gave the Riders very little and Warren Moon and the Eskimos’ offense put the Riders – and the rest of the league – on notice as if to say ‘Okay, here is how it’s done’.

Where Ferragamo and his teammates could not connect, Moon and his receivers were unstoppable.  George Brancato was asked after the game how he could have, or should have, slowed the visitors’ attack.  His answer was “I don’t know.”  He then took a moment and thought for a bit and continued.

“We’ve never been hammered like that in an opener.  I thought we came out ready to play.  And we just met a better team.  We knew Edmonton was good but I never expected they would score 47 points on us.  The important thing now is not to panic and make a lot of changes.”

It doesn’t seem like the team panicked but upon further examination of the game film, everyone saw that the team did not play well at all.  

Early Saturday morning, the coaches got together in the bowels of the southside stands to go over the visual evidence from the night before.  The verdict from defensive backfield coach Bob O’Billovich was that the secondary needs to play better, the two corners, Ricky Barden and Sharay Fields in particular.  For the two rookies, the only thing that might be of benefit would be time and repetitions.  

The smartest Canadian football minds that I’ve spoken to have been quite unanimous in the assessment that it takes about two to three seasons before a defensive back can figure out how to play the Canadian game.  Are there some who can figure out the puzzle faster?  Possibly and even probably.  But on average, it takes an American DB about three years to learn how to play on the bigger field and acclimatize to the three downs.

O’Billovich spoke pretty clearly about what he saw on the film and singled out Barden and Fields.  “Our corners just have to play a lot better.  That’s all there is to it.  We have all good people back there and we have the coverages to look after all those things.  They’ll just have to play the coverages better...get away from all the individual breakdowns.”

O’Billovich was pleased with the newcomers Randy Rhino and Jim Burrow, despite their forced rapid indoctrination into the Riders’ playbook.  “Rhino and Burrow, they both looked pretty good considering that they only had two or three days to work with us.  Tim Berryman looked good.”

“The key to their whole offense is that Moon throws right on time.  He threw on the breaks, or when he was throwing into the seams (of the zone defense), he threw them knee high.  They grab it, roll over, first down.”

The feeling among the Riders’ coaching staff was that, yes, it’s one thing that Warren Moon was able to carve up the Ottawa secondary.  He’s incredibly talented and had a pretty amazing array of receivers to throw at.  What would it mean if, in their next game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, their offence was to cut through the Riders’ defense like it was so much Swiss cheese?

Hamilton’s quarterback was former Rough Rider hero Tom Clements.  Clements had played the 1980 season with the Kansas City Chiefs of the National Football League.  In Steeltown, he had a group of receivers like Keith Baker, Steve Stapler, Leif Petterson, Rocky DiPietro and Gord Paterson.  Even then, Brancato refused to express any form of panic.  “If we get torn up again, there’s no need to push the panic button right now.  But, if we get torn up again, we’ll have to look at some of those guys again.”

Whatever the Rough Riders were going to do against the Ti-Cats, they would have to do it without their star tight end, Tony Gabriel.  Gabriel was injured after a hit by Edmonton safety Ed Jones and suffered a cracked rib.  One of his lungs was also partially collapsed.  He would be forced to miss the game against Hamilton and the following contest against Montreal as well.  

Gabriel had a streak of 123 consecutive games catching a pass going into the game against the Eskimos.  He kept that streak going before the hit by Jones.  There was some concern that the injury would cause the streak to end.  But CFL spokesman Gord Walker assured anyone who was interested that the injury would not cause the end of Gabriel’s achievement.  

Harold Carmichael of the Philadelphia Eagles held the record with 127 straight games with a pass reception.  In all of Gabriel’s ten years in the league though, he had never missed a game.  This would be his first absence because of injury.

A couple of days after the Eskimos dismantled the Rough Riders, Clements and the Tiger-Cats became the only Eastern CFL team to post a victory in the first week of the season.  Hamilton scored 21 points in the last 3:56 of the fourth quarter to pull off a miraculous comeback as Winnipeg fans were leaving the stadium, thinking they had witnessed a Bomber win.

Hamilton trailed 17-0 with thirty seconds remaining in the first half but Clements connected with Leif Pettersen for a nine-yard touchdown to bring the Tabbies to within ten.  Winnipeg’s Trevor Kennerd and the Ti-Cats’ Bernie Ruoff exchanged field goals in the third.  Ruoff added a single and the score after 45 minutes was 20-11.  With three and a half minutes left in the game, it was 23-12 for the home team.

But Clements’ passes to Rocky DiPietro and Keith Baker put the black and gold ahead 26-23 with 1:04 on the clock.  And with 25 seconds remaining, Winnipeg halfback Jimmie Edwards, formerly of the Tiger-Cats, put the ball on the ground.  Leroy Paul scooped it up and rambled 66 yards for another Hamilton touchdown.  The final score was 33-23 for the visitors.

The big story coming out of the Ti-Cats’ training camp had been the hiring of new head coach Frank Kush and the fact that he rubbed a lot of the veterans the wrong way.  Many of the players found some argument with his coaching philosophies and the way he ran his ‘rigid practice sessions’.  That all said, the team managed to get all their cats in a row to grab an unlikely road victory.

The following Saturday, Brancato and his boys headed down to Ivor Wynne Stadium in the Steel City to face those Cardiac Cats.   Clements put on a show in front of more than 22,000 in Hamilton and laid a beating on the team that he had broken into the CFL with back in 1975.  He completed 23 of 34 passes for 383 yards before leaving the game partway through the fourth quarter, because, well, he’d hurt the Riders enough.  Dave Marler finished the game for Hamilton.

The final score was 47-10 in Hamilton’s favour.

Keith Baker pulled in three touchdown passes from Clements.  DiPietro had a pass from him for a major score as well.  The Ti-Cats did the same to the Ottawa secondary as Moon had done the week before.  Ottawa’s only touchdown of the game came in the fourth quarter when Hamilton had all their reserves on the field.  Calcagni found Avery open in the end zone for a six-yard score.

If you think that it sounded ugly, consider that the score with ten seconds left in the first half was 23-0.  Gerry Organ kicked a field goal for Ottawa to end the half.  After three quarters, it was 40-3 for Hamilton.  In many ways, if you can believe it, the score made Ottawa look better than they played.

Hamilton racked up 30 first downs to Ottawa’s 15.  The Ti-Cats piled up 486 total yards on the Riders’ defense.  While Ottawa put together 241 yards of offense.  Calcagni and Starkey were picked off five times and the team fumbled the ball twice also.  It wasn’t good.  Clements told reporters after the game that this performance was one of the top four of his football career.  

He had praise for the men to whom he threw the ball as well.  “With the receivers we have, any time we have one-on-one coverage, our players will come up with the ball.”  The saddest man in the building had to be George Brancato, who was shocked at the result.  “I never expected to be beaten 47-10,” he told the Canadian Press.  “Clements did a great job.  The game was a combination of their good play and our poor performance.”

The result may have been a shock to the Ottawa coach but it would surely put his statement from after the Edmonton game to the test.  Was it now time for major changes?  Would he maintain the status quo?  Or, like many fans seemed to be doing, was this the time to push the panic button.  

The following Friday, Vince Ferragamo and those Montreal Alouettes were making the two-hour trek to Ottawa to play the Riders.  On Friday night of the second week though, the Als had come back to edge the Toronto Argonauts 23-22.  It was a love-hate game between Vince Ferragamo and the 35,281 Montreal fans who showed up at Olympic Stadium to watch the game.  By the end of it, they at least liked him again.

“We’ve been moving the ball, just not putting it into the end zone,” Als’ coach Joe Scannella told Herb Zurkowsky of the Montreal Gazette.  “Vince certainly can throw the ball, but he has to home in on the things he does well.  No doubt he’s a home run player, but he has to get used to everybody and know when to go with it.  The more he sees, the more he’ll do the things he wants.”

The Alouettes would be going to Ottawa without a couple of key men on their offensive line.  Both of their tackles were hurt in the win over the Argos.  Larry Pfohl left the game with a neck injury and missed most of the second half.  Doug Payton sprained his ankle and finished the game playing pretty much on one leg.  They also had some injuries in their secondary that would require some new bodies to be brought in.

Montreal traded with Hamilton to acquire Jerry Anderson to bolster the defensive backfield.  He was Hamilton’s nominee for the Schenley Award as the team’s outstanding player and outstanding defensive player in 1980.  But Anderson’s public criticisms of new coach Frank Kush meant his days in the Steel City were numbered.  The Als got the standout player for ‘future considerations’.  

Many wondered, even with his shots at his coach, how the Ti-Cats could allow themselves to trade such a player.  “The question is in my head too,” Anderson told the Gazette’s Dick Bacon.  “I guess I didn’t mean too much to them.”  When asked about his comments, he was reluctant to say anything concrete.  “I’d like to leave that behind me...anything I said about Frank Kush.”

Joe Scannella was happy to have the ex-Oklahoma Sooner in his lineup.  “He sure can hit and maybe that’s just what we need to get our defense going,” the coach said after Anderson’s first workout with his new team at Olympic Stadium.  The question would be ‘How would his addition work out for Montreal in their game at Lansdowne Park on Friday night?’

There are people who look at Ottawa as a sleepy government town but there has always been a strong sporting community there.  The people who love their football LOVE their football.  They just want to see the team play competitive games.  Championships are fine, but just play competitively on both sides of the ball and give the people something to cheer about on game day and something to look forward to between games and, for the most part, they will be happy.

On Friday, July 17, the Ottawa fans went home happy, but they may have chewed a lot of their fingernails away by the end of this game.

The Rider faithful had been critical of the team’s defensive backfield after consecutive blowout losses to Edmonton and Hamilton.  Both Warren Moon and Tom Clements picked on rookies Rickey Barden and Sharay Fields in those games.  Vince Ferragamo might have been wise to follow the same game plan as the other quarterbacks did.

It was a back and forth game all night and at the half, the Alouettes led by a score of 20-15.  But the third quarter belonged to Ottawa as Jordan Case was good in moving the team and helping his team to a couple of quick touchdowns.  Gerry Organ added a sixty yard punt single and after 45 minutes, the Riders had a 30-20 lead.  The locals felt the relief of a different kind of air in their lungs for the first time in a while.

Organ and Montreal kicker Gerry McGrath traded field goals in the fourth quarter and it was a still a ten point game with Ottawa in the lead.  But then Ferragamo began moving the ball for the Alouettes.  He eventually found Billy “White Shoes” Johnson for a 44-yard touchdown and as Johnson danced in the end zone, the Ottawa fans felt that collective angst again.  

Ferragamo got his team rolling once again but was thwarted when Ottawa linebacker Ron Foxx picked off one of his passes on the Riders’ 35 yard-line.  Case wasn’t able to get anything going on offense and so the Als had one more chance as time was dwindling down.  With less than a minute remaining, Montreal had the ball on the Ottawa 35 again and on third down, McGrath was sent out to try a 42-yard field goal to tie the game.  

His kick went wide for a single.  The game was all but over.  The Ottawa partisans could finally breathe once again and celebrate a 33-31 victory.  The most relieved man in the city had to be the man who had also been the most criticized in the city for the previous week or so, George Brancato.  

“We needed the win badly.  We would have been in tough shape heading to B. C. next week with three losses,” Brancato told the Canadian Press.  “The guys needed the win badly to gain some confidence, especially the cornerbacks.”

The defensive backs bent but did not break in this one.  Mike Davis had been one of the best members of the secondary to this point in the season and he managed to intercept Ferragamo and take it back 30 yards for a touchdown.  He was eventually injured and had to be replaced, but it was certainly a better night for everyone on the defensive side of the ball.

Another guy who had a big night was receiver Kelvin Kirk.  He caught five balls from Case for 119 yards and a score.  And when Davis and Jim Burrow had to leave the game, Kirk did double duty and played on the corner in the defensive secondary.  Brancato singled Kirk out after the game for his performance.

“I don’t know why Calgary Stampeders let Kirk go,” Brancato said, referring to how Kirk had been cut in training camp by the Stamps.  “He’s got good outside speed and it showed on the second touchdown pass when he won the footrace with Montreal deepback Woodrow Wilson.”

Ferragamo had a pretty good night but he didn’t have enough to come out with the win.  He completed 26 of his 40 passes for 353 yards.  The Als totalled 454 yards on offense.  Those numbers dwarfed the stats put up by Jordan Case and the Rough Riders.  Case managed 12 completions on 23 attempts for 151 yards.  Ottawa’s total offense was just 196 yards.  Kirk had 119 of those on his own.

On Saturday morning, the coaches went over the film and as relieved as they were with the win, they still knew that there was a lot of room for improvement.  Bob O’Billovich looked at what Ferragamo did and had concerns, definitely.  “That’s still too much yardage,” he told the Citizen’s Tom Casey.  “But I was pleased to see improved play of our cornerbacks (Fields and Barden).”

In O’Billovich’s rating system, Barden had seven unassisted tackles and was the highest rated member of the secondary with 21 points.  

The Ottawa win combined with Hamilton’s 26-6 loss to Calgary meant that both Ottawa and Montreal were just a game back of the Tiger-Cats after three games.  The Argos were at the bottom of the East at 0-3.  Ottawa’s next game would be eight nights later in Vancouver against the British Columbia Lions.  In their first two games, the Leos had scored 80 points.  That stat alone could give the Riders and their fans cause for some nightmares over the next week or so.

In the Alouettes’ loss to Ottawa, David Overstreet had been a big contributor.  The former Oklahoma Sooner gained 68 yards on 17 carries.  He also had a pair of touchdowns on carries of three and 21 yards.  He could possibly have had more but he had to leave the game in the second half with an injured left ankle.  

Another former Sooner, linebacker Keith Gary, had a pretty good game for Montreal as well.  While the game was being played on that Friday night, another ex-Oklahoma player was watching the contest on his television down in the Sooner State.  The sight of his former teammates playing in an exciting game lit a fire under him and seemed to spark his desire to play football once again.

No one in Ottawa had heard much from J. C. Watts since he left the Rough Riders’ training camp after the first day back in June, but, after seeing his former mates out on that field, he got the itch to come back to the team he had abandoned several weeks earlier.  On the Monday after the Riders’ win, Watts spoke to the Citizen’s Casey about his rekindled desire to play football again.

“I still don’t know if the decision to leave was the right one or not.  At the time, the Ottawa club was better off without me but I miss the game now.  For the first time in a long time, I’m truly excited about playing football.”  He was still working at King Energies in Tulsa, but the job would always be there.  As he would age, football might not be.

“The job has gone super.  I feel secure in my job but playing quarterback in pro ball has been a boyhood dream.  I want to give it at least a try.  If I don’t make it, I can at least say, I tried.”  He acknowledged that his work schedule had not allowed him to work out much, if at all, but he said he was willing to do whatever it took to get back into football shape.

“I’m about eight pounds overweight.  I haven’t thrown a ball in weeks so it will take a little time to get ready.  If it means working out twice a day and running five or six miles, I’ll do it.”  The interesting thing about Casey’s conversation with Watts was that Watts had yet to contact either general manager Jake Dunlap or coach George Brancato to that point to let them know of his desires.

Brancato never really saw Watts in person to evaluate him.  It was Jerry Keeling who had recruited Watts and worked him out.  When Casey contacted the coach, his reply was somewhat terse.  “Although he was a great college quarterback, I still haven’t seen what he can do.”

Keeling, though, was excited by the prospect of having the former Sooner back in Ottawa.  “He didn’t show us anything that day in camp,” he told Casey.  It’s important to remember that Watts made his reputation as a running quarterback in that Oklahoma offense, but Keeling saw him throw and liked what he saw.  “This guy has a strong arm and a good touch.  He’s also a bright kid.”

Eventually, Watts’ and his people would be in touch with the Ottawa braintrust, and it would all happen fairly quickly.

An actual useful piece of good news that greeted the Ottawa coaching staff was that Tony Gabriel would be medically cleared to return to the Rough Riders’ lineup.  He would possibly be able to start the game on Saturday night in Vancouver.  Gabriel had wanted to play against the Alouettes but doctors would not allow that.  

The morning after Casey’s piece about J. C. Watts had appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, the quarterback was in Ottawa to start to try to work his way back into a spot with the Riders.  It would not happen right away, but the intention was to work him out twice a day to get him back into shape.  

As the week of practice for the game against B. C. wore on, injuries in the secondary were piling up for the Rough Riders.  Mike Davis and Jim Burrow went down in the Montreal game.  Sharay Fields had been dogged by a nagging foot injury.  There was possibly a fracture in there.  Then, as practice was occurring on Wednesday, Randy Rhino was walking back to the defensive huddle, he stepped in a divot and turned his ankle.  Immediately, he was disabled.

Rhino spoke to the media who were present after the workout.  “It doesn’t look good,” Rhino said, after talking with Ottawa's trainer Dave Smith.  “They’ve packed it in ice but already the thing has started to swell.  Granted, we won’t know how bad it is until the morning, but I bet the thing will balloon right up.”

Rhino’s absence would create a desperate situation for Brancato and O’Billovich.  Deep backs don’t grow on trees and, given the fact that Ottawa used more imports in their defensive backfield than other teams, they wanted to replace the injured men with other imports.  Finding some was proving to be a challenge for Brancato.  

There were a couple of late training camp cuts that were still available in veteran Maurice Tyler and rookie Bill Schoepflin, but Brancato seemed to be cool on that idea.  “I’m not particularly keen on that possibility.  Neither Tyler nor Schoepflin has played much and I have to wonder what kind of shape they’re in.  I’d rather get someone who has been playing.”

If the Ottawa coaches were concerned about their situation, they could at least take some solace in what was happening with the Toronto Argonauts as they were facing Tom Clements and the Tiger-Cats at Ivor Wynne Stadium in Hamilton.  Their secondary looked like so much soft butter as Clements threw for almost 400 yards in a 57-17 demolition of the Boatmen.

Clements hooked up for touchdowns with Rocky DiPietro, Steve Stapler, Leif Pettersen and Keith Baker.  On the ground, the Tabbies got scores from Rufus Crawford, Mark Bragagnolo and Dave Graffi.  Argos’ coach Willie Wood was concise when it came to his comments after the game.  “I feel embarrassed about the whole damn thing,” Wood told the media.

Meanwhile, in Montreal, the visiting Eskimos worked the Alouettes for a 33-17 win.  Warren Moon had four touchdown passes in the game in front of 45,835 fans at Olympic Stadium.  The interesting thing about this game was the fact that Montreal was leading 17-16 going into the fourth quarter.  So, maybe the Als weren’t that far away at this point in the season.  Or maybe they were......only time would tell.

As far as Ottawa was concerned, their defense looked to be developing.  Lions’ quarterback Joe Paopao connected on 19 of his 31 throws for 254 yards.  Lui Passaglia was four-for-four on extra points to set a Canadian Football League record with 166 consecutive successful converts to this point.  The problem for the Rough Riders was that B. C. defeated them 31-17.  

At halftime, the score was 14-3 in favour of the Lions.  After a Passaglia single made it 15-3, Jordan Case hit Bruce Walker for a short touchdown pass to bring Ottawa to within five points at 15-10.  But after that, it was all British Columbia.  Not long after the Walker score and just before the end of the third quarter, the Lions’ Larry Key took off on a 60-yard run to make the score 22-10.

Key scored another touchdown in the fourth quarter that was sandwiched between a couple more Passaglia single points.  In the last minute of the game, Richard Crump scored a touchdown on a 4-yard run, but that was pretty much academic.  The Lions in general and Key in particular ran wild on the Ottawa defense and the score, once again, made the game look closer than it really was.  

As the fourth week of the schedule came to an end, in the East, Hamilton was the only team to record a win.  Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto all lost.  The Argos had yet to post even one victory and things were looking bleak there.  Nobody would say it out loud, but there had to be a Willie Wood-watch going on in Toronto.  Oh well......on to the fifth week of the CFL schedule!

Almost a blessing, the Ottawa Rough Riders had a scheduled bye in that fifth week of the 1981 season.  Hamilton had been feeling good about themselves with a 3-1 record, but their opponent was the Edmonton Eskimos.  It provided them an opportunity to measure themselves against one of the best teams in a very strong Western Division.  After that measurement, they came up short. 

Well short.

*

What this balanced ‘interlocking’ schedule was proving to everyone who may not have been aware of it before, the West was best and the East was least.  Nowhere was that point driven home hardest than at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium where the Eskimos hosted the best team in the East, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Eskimos’ running back Jim Germany wasn’t necessarily a workhorse, but he did score four touchdowns, all on the ground, in a 41-5 rout of the team from Steel City.  Warren Moon scored Edmonton’s other touchdown and their kicker, Dave Cutler, added a couple of field goals and converted all five of their touchdowns.  In the second half, the Esks allowed the Ti-Cats just 46 yards of total offense.

It was sheer domination.

In Montreal, the Saskatchewan Roughriders marched into Olympic Stadium with the former Alouette Joe Barnes as their quarterback and they seemed to have a chip on their shoulder.  Montreal, and their owner Nelson Skalbania, with prized (and high-priced) players like Ferragamo, “White Shoes” Johnson, Cousineau, Overstreet, Keith Gary and James Scott were no match for the Western ‘Riders on this day.

When Barnes played for Montreal from 1976-80, he was booed mercilessly.  On this day, he played like he had something to prove to the 33,209 fans at the Big O.  He completed 22 of 39 passes for 394 yards and five of those went for touchdowns in a 43-23 Saskatchewan victory.  Four David Overstreet fumbles helped the Green Riders’ cause.  

“I think I played with more intensity today than I have in my entire career,” Barnes told members of the media after the game.  “I’m excited I could show the people of Montreal that I can still play ball.”

Over at CNE Stadium in Toronto, the Argos looked like they might actually win a game when they held a tenuous 10-7 lead after three quarters.  But, a minute into the final frame, Winnipeg’s Dieter Brock hit Eugene Goodlow on an 85-yard pass and run play for a touchdown to give the Bombers the lead.  

A little past the halfway mark of the quarter, Brock connected with Goodlow again for a 34-yard touchdown to make the score 21-10.  The Argos got a touchdown back in the final minute when Condredge Holloway completed an eight-yard pass to Terry Greer.  The bottom line is that Toronto lost again, this time by a score of 21-18.  36,102 fans showed up to watch their team fall to 0-5.

So, given the fact that Hamilton, Montreal and Toronto all lost while Ottawa didn’t play meant that Ottawa was now a game up in the loss column on the Alouettes and lost no ground to the Tiger-Cats.  Having the bye week was almost like a win for the Rough Riders.  But fans were divided not with regards to the way the team had performed to this point in the season, but rather with how they should be treated by the media.

*

Eddie MacCabe wrote in the Ottawa Citizen on August 6 about two letters he said were hand delivered to the paper.  One letter writer accused the media of being too hard on the team by talking only about the faults of the Riders and felt that if the pundits showed some support for the players and coaches, that they might feel better and perform better.

The other letter said that the media were being too soft on the team and that “it’s about time you stopped coddling the Rough Riders and called a spade a spade.”  With the team at 1-3, it was easy to feel queasy about their prospects.  But a look around the division would show that there were other teams in the same boat as the Riders.  There was nothing to do but press on to the next contest.

*

After the loss on the west coast, the Rough Riders were back at Lansdowne to face the 0-5 Toronto Argonauts.  The day before the game, though, it was announced that Ralph Sazio would be leaving the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to become president of the Argos.  Sazio had been serving at the Tabbies’ vice-president and general manager but chose to go to Toronto and succeed Lew Hayman as president of the club.

Sazio had been with the Ti-Cats since 1950 as a player, coach and an executive.  “It was the toughest decision I have had to make since 1963 (when he became coach of the team instead of taking a position with an insurance company).  Back then, I didn’t want to go through the rest of my life wondering how I might have done as head coach.  It’s the same situation here.”

Sazio was concerned with how Tiger-Cats’ owner Harold Ballard would take his decision.  His worries were unfounded.  “There was no animosity, although I was worried it was going to be a real tough situation.  But my wife said to me, ‘You and Harold have a certain chemistry between you and he’ll wish you well,’ and she was right.”

Ballard wasn’t necessarily upset with Sazio as much as he was with the Argos.  “I’m losing the smartest football executive in Canada and I’m sorry.  But we had no contract and he was at liberty to go.  At least he had enough class to come in and tell me what he was going to do.  The Toronto club didn’t let me know what’s up.  It’s funny.  The Argos have been taking players from us all along and now they come to us to get a guy to manage them.”

Going into the game, it was expected that Jordan Case and Condredge Holloway would be putting the ball into the air a lot.  Ottawa had given up a league-worst 39 points per game to that point, while the Argos, whose defensive group was described as ‘totally confused’ by their coach Willie Wood had allowed the most passing yards per game in the league.

At least one of the quarterbacks would have a pretty good night.  

Neither team was able to get on the scoreboard in the first quarter but Ottawa did put up the first points of the game, after a Randy Rhino interception of Holloway, when Gerry Organ booted a 34-yard field goal in the first minute of the second frame.  The Riders extended their lead after Case marched his team down to the Argos’ 9-yard-line.  There, they executed a double reverse that flummoxed the Toronto defense and allowed Kelvin Kirk to run the ball into the end zone.

Just before the end of the half, Case fired a ball to Tony Gabriel for a 21-yard touchdown that finished off a 42-yard drive.  Gabriel would end up with three touchdowns on the evening – two from the arm of Case and one from Ron Calcagni, who came in when Case had to leave the game with a rib injury, in the fourth quarter.  Ottawa also got a touchdown from an unlikely source.  

Early in the third quarter, defensive tackle Greg Marshall scooped up a Condredge Holloway fumble near midfield and, as Chris Berman might have said, went rumblin’, stumblin’ and bumblin’ for a 54-yard score.  There is always something enjoyable about seeing a defensive lineman going on a long run, especially when you see them make it to the end zone.

With three minutes left in the game, Ottawa led 38-3 but they allowed a late Holloway touchdown pass to slotback Paul Pearson.  Cedric Minter ran the ball in for a two-point conversion.  The final score was 38-11.

*

For Greg Marshall, this day was another point in the upward trajectory of the career of the second-year defensive lineman.  1980 was not a flashy first year for Marshall, but his play was consistently strong.  His defensive line coach Don Sutherin told Tom Casey, “Marshall is the best defensive tackle in the CFL.”  But it wasn’t only Ottawa players and coaches who were singing his praises.

The Alouettes staff looked at him as the best defensive tackle in the league against the run.  At least one of their players did as well.  “He anticipates so well,” Montreal centre Mike Hameluck told Casey.  “He’s quick and he’s always moving during the cadence and winds up in the right spot.”

Marshall played his college football at Oregon State and was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the seventh round.  He was a late cut by the Eagles and was picked up by the Baltimore Colts.  The Colts later cut him in 1978 and he went back to school as a graduate coach.  But he still had the urge to play some football.

“I was hoping to land a teaching-coaching job,” Marshall told Casey.  “Ottawa has always shown interest in me from the time I graduated but I wanted to give the NFL a crack first.  I was so close to making it in the NFL, I decided to give pro ball one more try.  I didn’t feel I had to prove myself and make an immediate impression and that was a big help.”

Adapting to the Canadian game was not easy though and it took Marshall that first season to really get acclimated to three-down football, the wider field and playing a yard off the line of scrimmage.  He realized the importance of speed over size and for 1981, he dropped fifteen pounds, coming into camp at 235 pounds instead of the 250 he had played at in his first season.

Brancato felt that losing that weight benefited Marshall and was a big reason for his improvement.  Marshall also said that he felt like he had better quickness and stamina on the field by shedding that extra cargo.

“We must not forget that Marshall was out of football for a year before he came to us,” Brancato said.  “It takes a while for everything to fall back into place.  Marshall is a disciplined player.  He won’t gamble like a Mike Raines and that’s why you don’t notice him that much, but he’s a good one.”

One key thing about the 1981 season was the fact that each team was playing a home-and-home against every other team in the league.  The schedule was not weighted to the division as it had been in previous years.  That was something that Marshall was enjoying.  “I like the new interlocking schedule.  It makes for more of a challenge.  You’re not always playing the same team over and over, the same guy and that keeps you sharper.”

As a kid in Massachusetts, Marshall played hockey until high school.  He admits that he wasn’t the greatest skater but he apparently had decent hands and could put the puck into the net.  In 1981, the Rough Riders were quite happy that he chose football over hockey.

*

So, the Rough Riders looked good in dismantling the Argos on the Friday night.  In Winnipeg on Saturday, the Blue Bombers were handing the Alouettes their worst ever loss, 58-2.  Hamilton was getting past the Calgary Stampeders 28-16 at Ivor Wynne Stadium.  And on Sunday, the B. C. Lions were edging the Saskatchewan Roughriders 28-24 at Taylor Field in Regina.

After the sixth week of the season, the Tiger-Cats were separating themselves from the pack in the East in raising their record to 4-2.  Ottawa was alone in second place at 2-3.  Montreal was at 1-5 and the Argonauts were winless and in the cellar at 0-6.  Ottawa’s next game would be at Lansdowne Park against Saskatchewan on Saturday, August 15.

*     *     *

You can listen to Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast, right here on the FiredUp Network, or on 208 different platforms wherever you find your podcasts, including Alexa.  Howie also hosts Like Father, Like Son with his son, Reese, here on the FiredUp Network and those same platforms as well.