1981 – MR WATTS’ WILD RIDE – PART 3 – THE TEAMS, THEY ARE A-CHANGING
FiredUp Network Sports Writer
Tuesday, September 6, 2022
1981 – MR WATTS’ WILD RIDE – PART 3 – THE TEAMS, THEY ARE A-CHANGING
The Ottawa Rough Riders were feeling much better about themselves after their one-sided win over the Toronto Argonauts. Jordan Case had suffered a rib injury in the game and tried to continue playing, but eventually gave way to Ron Calcagni. J. C. Watts was still in the working out stage of his time with the team and he watched the game from the press box.
Success has a way of allowing a team to put off making any big changes. Case would be the starter in their upcoming game against the Western ‘Riders but he would be wearing a flak jacket. Calcagni would remain as the backup. This became the quarterback hierarchy after the second week of the season in which the Rough Riders lost their second straight game and had given up 47 points for the second time in two weeks.
Giving up the 47 points wasn’t Calcagni’s fault at all, but the offense’s inability to move the ball with any kind of consistency in either game pushed Brancato and Keeling into moving Case into the starting position and Calcagni into the backup spot. The Toronto game had been the first time in the regular season in which the Rough Riders had been able to get all facets of their game working at the same time.
In the case of Watts, he had worked his body into a place where he was in football shape, but the whole idea of the Canadian game was completely different from the game he had played at Oklahoma. It was the notion of changing from a run-first, quarterback option game to a pass-first, and ‘run smartly’ type of offense that was causing Watts problems. Both Brancato and Watts were aware of the conundrum.
“He ran a wishbone offense in college and there’s a big difference between that and running a pro-styled offense,” Brancato said. “He ran into trouble when he had to sit in the pocket and read keys to pick out an open receiver. He has never had to do that before. He still could be a super quarterback but this is not the preseason.”
Watts was aware that he was having difficulty in picking up the intricacies of the Ottawa offense. “It’s the reverse of what I did in school. At Oklahoma, we ran 95 percent of the time and passed five. Here, it’s the other way around. I’m coming along, and learning an offense is all a matter of repetition. I haven’t had the work I needed and that’s understandable. Jordan and Ron have to get ready for the games.”
In practices during the week, Brancato said that he was watching both Watts and Calcagni closely to gauge which quarterback would be the better choice to back up Jordan Case. “Watts has been working out of the pocket and we feel that Calcagni is our next best quarterback,” Brancato told the beat reporters.
“He’s unsure of himself. (meaning Watts) He’s also a little hesitant with his cadence. We’re going to give him some extra work the next couple of days.”
Early in the week, the Riders learned that wide receiver Martin Cox had been cut by the Chicago Bears. Cox had spent half the 1979 season all of 1980 with Ottawa. In 1979, he caught 32 passes for 546 yards and seven touchdowns and was named the East Division Rookie of the Year.
As impressive as Cox had been in his two years in the nation’s capital, Brancato wasn’t in any hurry to get a hold of the receiver. The question for the coach was, given that Cox was an American, who would he replace? Brancato was quite happy with the job that Canadian Bruce Walker had been doing at wide receiver. And he wasn’t about to replace anyone else.
“If he calls, I guess we would bring him in on a 14-day trial, but I’m happy with Kelvin Kirk,” the coach said.
Meanwhile, linebacker Tim Berryman had missed time from what was thought to be mononucleosis, but now the fear was that it was viral hepatitis. He would be getting tested later on. But Brancato was still thinking about contingency plans.
“Even if he gets a clean bill of health, I doubt if he would be strong enough to play against Saskatchewan,” Brancato told the media. “He looks as if he has lost a fair bit of weight. He has been bedridden since the B. C. game.” Eventually, the coaching staff would decide to use Canadian linebacker Randy Fournier to replace Berryman.
Both sets of ‘Riders, Western and Eastern, Green and Black, came into the game with a record of 2-3. The first thing to mention was that it poured rain that day. The foul weather affected the attendance. 18,406 showed up at Lansdowne Park to see the Riders play the ‘Riders.
In the first quarter, Jordan Case found Bruce Walker on a 10-yard touchdown pass, and Gerry Organ and Paul Watson traded field goals. After fifteen minutes, Ottawa was leading 10-3. But Saskatchewan tied the game on a one-yard Lester Brown plunge. Watson kicked the extra point. Then he managed to get a single on the ensuing kickoff to give the Green ‘Riders an 11-10 lead going into halftime.
But then, John Hufnagel came into the game in relief of Joe Barnes and he ignited the Saskatchewan offense. On their first drive in the third quarter, Hufnagel capped it with a 13-yard touchdown pass to slotback Joey Walters. Brown scored on a two-yard run on their next drive. Ottawa got a field goal from Organ to round out the scoring after 45 minutes.
Hufnagel connected with Walters again in the fourth quarter on a 30-yard touchdown pass. Ottawa got another Organ field goal to complete the scoring. Saskatchewan doubled Ottawa 32-16. Jordan Case only lasted until the end of the first half. His ribs would not allow him to compete at his full efficiency. Ron Calcagni came on in the second half, but he was just not effective. Brancato knew that he had to do some tinkering. Some might term it an airlift, but that would not begin in earnest quite yet.
It was clear and evident that, for everyone involved, some changes were necessary. It appeared that the Ron Calcagni era was over. In the first practice after the Saskatchewan game, Calcagni was working with the defensive backfield in drills and coverages. Jordan Case’s ribs were bad enough that he would be placed on the disabled list. That meant that Kevin Starkey would be getting first team reps and J. C. Watts would move into the back-up slot.
Also, it appeared that Martin Cox, or his people, contacted the Rough Riders, and wanted to re-connect. Because the game against the Green Riders went poorly, Brancato agreed to bring Cox in for a trial. Cox had been great in his year-and-a-half with Ottawa before he left. But there had been concerns.
The city of Ottawa lies across from the municipality of Hull, or what is now called Gatineau. In Ontario in 1981, the laws required bars to close at 1 a.m. In Quebec, however, bars closed at 3. It was not at all uncommon for males of a certain age to go out to the establishments in Ottawa until 1 and, once they closed, to head out across the river to the places that offered alcohol until the mandated hour of 3 a.m. They were, of course, in Hull.
According to the word on the street, and published reports, Cox really liked his time in Ottawa. He enjoyed his time over on the Hull side of the Ottawa River a lot. He was concerned that his old teammates might not accept him back, after his first iteration with the team. But he told Tom Casey, “I didn’t know how I was going to be accepted and I was nervous. But it was good. I was treated as a friend.”
As for the partying Martin Cox that people saw in 1979 and 1980, he told Casey that that guy was no longer around. “I’m a changed man. I’m no longer a free spirit and I’ve decided to dedicate myself to whatever I do. I’m getting a lot of satisfaction of doing things well. I’ve quit drinking and I’ve settled down. There’s much more satisfaction on being on a natural high and keeping your mind straight. It’s a whole lot better feeling. I didn’t realize that before.”
Indeed, on his first day back in the Rough Rider fold, he stayed after practice to work with J. C. Watts on his pass patterns and afterward, went into the weight room to get some extra reps in.
Another player that had returned to Ottawa was the former All-Canadian safety, Larry Brune. Brune had been a standout in Ottawa from 1977 to 1979, after moving over from Hamilton. He had spent the 1980 season in Minnesota playing with the Vikings. But in 1981, Brune didn’t make it out of training camp and, when he was cut, the Riders immediately got in touch with him.
Brune had to clear waivers before he could agree to anything with Ottawa, but once he did, he and Jake Dunlap figured out a two-year contract and Brune was quite happy to be a Rough Rider again. “It’s a two-year deal and I’m very happy. Now, I’m giving serious consideration to making Ottawa my permanent home.”
As for Cox, he and Dunlap were having trouble coming to any kind of consensus. They would not be able to agree before the team’s next game, which was Friday night at McMahon Stadium in Calgary against the Stampeders. The lineup was in flux as, with Cox not signed, that meant that Jeff Avery and former Carleton Raven, Gary Cook would share the slot receiver position.
With Brune signed, that meant that Calcagni, who had been working out with the defensive secondary was gone. Coach Brancato activated American running back Derrick Peels and the team would get veteran defensive end Doug Seymour back in time to take on Calgary.
Tight end Tony Gabriel was in his eleventh CFL season in 1981. He played his first four years with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats before joining the Rough Riders prior to the 1975 campaign. This upcoming game against the Stamps had the potential to be very special for the veteran pass catcher. It could be record-setting.
In the game against Saskatchewan, Jordan Case threw a ball to Gabriel on his first pass attempt which was also the team’s first play of the game. That reception tied the professional football record for consecutive games with a catch. The mark had been held by Harold Carmichael of the Philadelphia Eagles at 127 straight games. That pass from Case tied Gabriel with the Eagles’ receiver.
Case’s nagging rib injury would keep him out of the game against Calgary. Kevin Starkey would be slated as the Riders’ starting quarterback. But, before the Saskatchewan game, Case made sure to include a play for his star tight end. Gabriel took note of it as well. “Usually, each quarterback runs a series of four plays in the pre-game warm-up, but Jordan asked for an extra play,” Gabriel told Tom Casey. “It was the same play that tied the record and it was our first offensive play.”
For Gabriel, the streak began on August 22, 1973 when he caught five passes for 41 yards as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats handed the Toronto Argonauts their first defeat of that season. The final score was 38-4 for the Tabbies. The win evened Hamilton’s record at 2-2. The Argos stood at 3-1. (Ottawa was in the basement at that point with an 0-4 record but they would win nine of their last ten games to finish first in the East and would go on to defeat Edmonton 22-18 in the Grey Cup.)
Carmichael’s streak ended in the final game of the 1980 season against the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas dumped the Eagles 35-27 at Texas Stadium. The game was important because it meant that both teams finished the season tied with records of 12-4. They would face each other in the NFC Championship game with Philly coming out on top of a 20-7 result. The Eagles would lose in the Super Bowl to the Oakland Raiders, though.
Gabriel could remember at least a half-dozen times when he only had a single catch in a game along the course of his streak. There were a couple of times in which he had to wait until late in the game to pull in a pass reception.
“Four years ago (in 1977), Eric Harris (of the Argos) covered me one-on-one and he beat the hell out of me. I caught one pass for six yards and that was late in the fourth quarter. Earlier this year in B. C., I had two catches wiped out because of penalties and I didn’t catch a pass until late in the fourth quarter.”
“I’ve also been lucky. A couple of times, I’ve had to leave the game because of injuries but by then, I had already caught a pass.”
In the Saskatchewan game, after catching that pass from Case that extended his streak and tied the record, Gabriel had no reaction. At least one person wondered why. Val Belcher was a guard for the Riders and his wife Terri had a question for the tight end.
“She asked, ‘Why didn’t you keep the ball, at least?’” Gabriel told Tom Casey. “At the time, I never thought of it. Then she replied, ‘Well, you should have. You may never get 128!’ You know, she has a good point. This time, I’ll keep the ball, if they let me.”
There were things in the Rough Riders’ game against Calgary that were good. But there were also things, at key times, that were not good. Consistency seemed to be the issue with the team in this game. The Stampeders knocked off Ottawa 30-18. The game was close though until late in the fourth quarter.
Calgary was leading the game 19-18 late and had the ball on the Ottawa four-yard line. It was third down and the Stamps were going for it. Bruce Threadgill stepped behind centre and took the snap. He looked and found Mike McTague deep in the McMahon Stadium end zone for a touchdown. J. T. Hay was successful on his point after. Hay also added a field goal a few moments later to ice the game for the home side.
The coaches were the ones left to answer the questions as to why this team was sitting at 2-5. Sure they were in second place with that record, but it was not where the coaches thought they would be at this point in the season. Jerry Keeling tried to answer reporters when they asked him about it.
“Sure we’re a young team but this is the time of the season where we have to start stringing some wins together. We have to stop making those rookie mistakes. It’s getting too late for that.”
Then Joe Moss used the ‘c-word’. “We played just well enough to get beat. There was no consistency.” Bob O’Billovich chimed in. “Several times, we had Calgary deep in their end and we let them come out.”
Oh, and in case you were wondering, Gabriel did catch a pass to break Carmichael's record. By the end of the season, when Gabriel retired, the streak had reached 138 games.
National Football League teams were making cuts as they headed down to the final roster day. Players would be becoming available and perhaps, even by the next game, against Winnipeg, there might be some new players in this Rough Rider lineup. That game would mark Ottawa’s midway point in the season. A win would surely provide a bit of tonic for whatever was ailing this group.
The Riders travelled out to Winnipeg Stadium. There would be no tonic. They were trounced 31-8. Team president Terry Kielty spoke to someone at halftime. I don’t know if it was on the record or off the record, but it was simple and it was succinct. “It’s a long way to come to be blown out.”
A team’s general manager doesn’t always travel with his team on a road trip. Jake Dunlap was in Winnipeg with his players. He was not happy. In sports, the locker room is the players’ sanctuary. It’s rare for a GM to enter that space. The Citizen’s Tom Casey wrote that after the game in Winnipeg, Dunlap “stormed into the Ottawa dressing room”.
Dunlap promised that something would be done to amend what everybody saw on that evening. “That was awful. There will be changes. There has to be. Have you ever seen such awful tackling? It was awful.” With all the NFL cuts impending, the potential for changes were obvious. George Brancato was not as emphatic as his GM, but he was at least pragmatic.
“It’s always difficult to assess players on 14-day trials. You just don’t know how good they are. It’s a gamble to use them, but I’m prepared to gamble more than ever.” The Rough Riders couldn’t move the ball on offense and they couldn’t stop a banged-up Dieter Brock from doing whatever he wanted when the team was on defense. Brock talked after the game about his plan coming into it.
“It was my intention to run the ball. I was surprised to start, but once I got in there, my plan was to run the ball. We knew we could run against Ottawa’s three-man front. My offensive line also has been encouraging me to call more running plays and tonight, they blew Ottawa right off the ball.”
Indeed, they did. Both Winnipeg running backs, Obie Graves and William Miller, ran for more than 100 yards. After the first half, the Blue Bombers were leading 22-8. They controlled the ball for most of that first half and amassed 448 yards of offense in the game. The Riders defense had given up more than 400 yards to their opponents in every game in 1981 to that point. The Bombers also accumulated 29 first downs in the game, 20 of which came in the first half.
Jordan Case started the game at quarterback for Ottawa but gave way to Kevin Starkey late in the third quarter. He couldn’t get anything going either. Early in the third quarter, the Riders had a chance to make something happen when they had a third down and 1 on the Bombers 35. The Winnipeg defense stuffed them.
Case was frustrated. “That should never happen. We were in a power-I, a short yardage formation, and if you can’t get a yard off that, you’re in trouble.” Ottawa’s only touchdown came off a Case throw to Kelvin Kirk in the second quarter. Other than that, there wasn’t much to be happy about if you were an Ottawa fan.
But other than taking the loss on the scoreboard, it looked like the team would be without two members of its linebacking corps for the next game. Ron Foxx pulled a groin muscle in the loss and Rick Sowieta was suffering with a pulled calf muscle. Sowieta was not as severely injured as Foxx and could possibly go in their next game but everyone would have to wait and see.
During the time that George Brancato was coach of the Rough Riders, the period around Labour Day was always the time for roster upheaval. The reason was that it was around this time each year that the NFL cuts were all finalized and hordes of new players all became available at the same time. 1981 was no different.
If there was anything the team could take solace in, it was the fact that their next game was at Lansdowne Park. The bad news for the team was that it was against a club that had run wild on them earlier in the season – the 7-1 B. C. Lions. If Dunlap was serious about bringing in a lot of new American players who have never played the Canadian game before, he may have wanted to listen to Ti-Cats’ coach Frank Kush and Alouettes’ quarterback Vince Ferragamo. They both agreed, the CFL and the Canadian game was “a different world”.
But Kush and Ferragamo differed on how they looked at the game north of the 49th parallel. Ferragamo’s transition from the NFL version of football to the Canadian one had been a rocky road. Kush, though, was seeming to enjoy the larger field, the motion, the three downs and the offensive and defensive lines starting a yard apart.
The fact that the Als had won just one of their first seven games had to be frustrating for the former Los Angeles Ram. It also had to be upsetting for team owner Nelson Skalbania who spent a lot of money on the basket of American stars on his payroll only to see such poor results. The fans in Montreal weren’t exactly thrilled with what they were seeing either.
“You have to be strong and tough about this,” Ferragamo told United Press Canada. “The boos don’t make it uncomfortable for me, but they make it uncomfortable for the team. The fans have a right to be vocal. Our job is to provide them with exciting football.”
When asked to compare the two editions of the game, Ferragamo was emphatic about the differences. “You can’t look at it as the football we know in the States. They should call it something else. With the four downs, the narrower field, the shorter end zone, the game is completely different in the States. It’s not the NFL. It’s not the American Football League playing in Canada. It’s the CFL and it’s a different game.”
When asked about his decision to leave the NFL to come to Canada to play, whether or not he regretted it, he told the reporter “if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.” But he did sound a little frustrated. “I weighed everything before I made up my mind. I knew it would be a different game, different personnel and I was prepared for the changes. You can’t predict the future, but I knew it would take some time to make the transition.”
The Alouettes’ poor record was wearing on everyone there differently. Als’ backup quarterback and the Top Canadian player in the CFL in 1980, Gerry Dattilio, was quite unhappy. “I was prepared to be the backup before the season began but being prepared and sitting, watching the team lose so much now are two different things.”
“There are a lot of things in this place (the Alouettes’ organization) that aren’t right. If they trade me, I won’t mind. I’ll be sad because Montreal’s my home town, but I’ll be glad that I’d get to go somewhere I can play.”
Frank Kush was making headlines for his gruff demeanour and the way he pushed his players. But what was undeniable was that whatever he was doing seemed to be working to this point in the season. His Tiger-Cats were 5-2 after seven games and had looked by far like the best team in the East. But even he knew that the adjustments from one game to the other were not easy.
“I was watching the National Football League the other night and I kept waiting for something to happen and it didn’t,” Kush told UPC. “After watching Canadian football, I find it much more interesting.”
One of the first things Kush noticed about the Canadian game was the high priority the kicking game held. “Kicking is so much more important up here and that makes it real fascinating as far as strategy is concerned. It is the greatest difference I can find. But Canadian football emphasizes passing and that has always been my philosophy. By using motion, you can take advantage of the wider field and you can run an open field offense even near the goal line.”
These two men came to this game at the same time with diverging feelings about it. Only time would tell which would be the more successful of the pair.
Jake Dunlap kept his promise. New players were brought into the Riders’ fold in time for their game against the Lions. Right away, the team added running back Sam Platt, defensive tackle Ron Simmons, linebacker Eric Manns and offensive lineman Rudy Phillips. Phillips would eventually stay with the team and play in Ottawa for eight years.
Of these newcomers, it looked like Platt was picking up Ottawa’s offense the quickest. If anyone was going to be ready to play against the Lions, Platt would most likely be that guy. He compared the system in Ottawa with the one he had been playing with the Cowboys in the pre-season.
“Surprisingly, everything was clicking,” Platt told the Citizen’s Tom Casey. “I just came from the Dallas camp and they have a lot of motion in their system too. A lot of things are the same.”
Pat Stoqua had been sidelined with an ankle sprain that had caused him a lot of aggravation. He looked to be about ready to rejoin the team. Peter Stenerson, another slot receiver, had missed the previous six weeks with a shoulder separation, but was also getting closer to being able to play.
Behind centre, Brancato was looking at moving J. C. Watts ahead of Kevin Starkey on the depth chart, but behind Jordan Case, who remained the starter.
Simmons had been a star with Bobby Bowden’s Florida State Seminoles. He was a late cut from the Cleveland Browns. Ottawa brought him in and immediately, Brancato was impressed with his strength and couldn’t figure out why the Browns would cut him. The Cleveland coach at the time was Sam Rutigliano and he and Brancato had been personal friends for a while. Brancato called Rutigliano to ask about the prospective new defensive lineman.
“Sam told me Simmons was too short (he was 6’1”) and his lack of height hurt his pass rush. But Sam told me that Simmons was super strong and went from sideline to sideline as well as anyone they had in camp.” One of the hurdles Simmons would have to get over was playing a yard off the line of scrimmage.
The other thing that may have stood against Simmons was his lack of technique when it came to rushing the quarterback. When Don Sutherin worked him out against Canadian offensive guard Malcolm Inglis, Simmons was able to push Inglis back, but he wasn’t able to shake him off. Inglis was able to hold his block.
Manns had arrived in Ottawa the week before, but the coaching staff didn’t think he was ready to face the Blue Bombers, so he remained out of the lineup for the game in Winnipeg. One other player rejoining the team was Jonathan Sutton. Brancato was keeping his options open as to who would play on the Friday night at Lansdowne.
One man who was no longer taking first-team reps on the offense was veteran running back Richard Crump. With the speed with which Sam Platt had been picking up Ottawa’s schemes, Crump was feeling like the odd man out. He’d been around the league and the game long enough to understand what this was all meaning as far as he was concerned.
“I guess I’ll be cut the next couple of days,” he told Tom Casey. “I can see it coming. I’m not involved in the offense as much and the coaches are on me more than they were before. That’s enough to tell me I’m on the way out and I’m feeling the pressure. You have to.” Crump was leading the East in rushing at this halfway point in the season. That said, Brancato had a differing opinion on the veteran.
“Richard has everything to be a great back,” Brancato said. “He has the size, the speed and he’s a smart player. Rarely does he miss an assignment. The problem is that he doesn’t produce enough. He has been on-again, off-again for the last two years. There’s no consistency to him and we can’t wait any longer.”
Brancato also felt that Crump’s weight was an issue, while Crump thought that the fact that he was in his option year was the real problem. “I’m not the only reason why we’re 2-6. I think they want to get rid of me because I’m in the option year of my contract and they don’t want to pay what I’m worth.”
The coach wanted the player to come in at 200 pounds. Brancato said that Crump had been playing at 213. Crump said that he had been playing at 206. But the coach said that Crump lacked that initial step. “You can see that he doesn’t have the same quickness.” In 1980, Crump had been the only back in the East to rush for more than 1,000 yards.
But, in 1980, he had expressed a wish to get out of Ottawa. He wanted to try to play in the NFL. “It has been a boyhood dream,” Crump said. He felt that if he was a bit heavier, he was better. “I feel stronger when I’m a little heavier but I’m not any slower because of it.” He still wanted to play, but he knew it might not be in Ottawa. “I know there’s a lot of good football left in me. I’d like to stay in the East but if things don’t work out, I’m ready to give the NFL a shot.”
Crump was prescient. The next day, he was given his outright release. Martin Cox, who had played the game against Winnipeg, and Mike Peerman were also told ‘goodbye’. Simmons, Platt and Manns were now in the lineup. Stoqua and Stenerson were both re-activated. Defensive back Ricky Barden was placed on the 60-day disabled list and Jon Sutton would take his place on the corner.
In what Brancato called “the biggest shakeup I’ve ever undertaken as a head coach”, quarterback Kevin Starkey, slotback Gary Cook and defensive tackle Ian Ward were placed on the move list, joining defensive back Mark Philp. Brancato felt that this was his only real alternative.
“I felt I had no other choice. We were 2-and-6 and it’s ridiculous to believe that we are still in second place. We weren’t going anywhere. I know there is a lot of squawking among the players. I told them before practice the changes were coming. And more could be made. If we were 4-and-4 and in second place, I might have been more tolerant.”
He was asked about Crump. “Crump is not the scapegoat, as he might think, but the fact is he’s not quick enough. Platt is a breakaway back and he has looked good.”
About the release of Cox, Brancato thought it was a no-brainer. “I can’t justify benching (Bruce) Walker for Cox any longer. Walker is our second-best Canadian receiver behind Tony Gabriel. If we are going to use another import as a wide receiver, he would have to be considerably faster than Cox. I get the impression Cox has lost half a step from last year and he didn’t play well against Winnipeg.”
Would the changes pay off? Everyone would find out in a couple of days.
Going into the game against the Lions, it looked like Ottawa was going to use ten American players on defense. That was almost unprecedented. The only Canadians scheduled to start on D would be linebacker Rick Sowieta and lineman Jim Piaskoski. All the changes that the Riders had made potentially could be a problem for B. C. Their coach, Vic Rapp, said it made preparing for the game difficult.
“I’m worried by all the changes that Ottawa has made. It has negated a lot of our preparations and when a team makes so many changes, the new players go out and try to make an impression. Last week against Winnipeg had to be the low point in the season for Ottawa. It’s easy to be misled after watching the Winnipeg game and I’m worried we might be taking Ottawa for granted.”
At that point in the 1981 season, the Lions had the best record of any team in the league. But they had yet to play Edmonton or Winnipeg and their only loss had come against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. At 7-1, the Lions had shown the best rushing attack in Canada. They also had exceptional receivers in Tyron Gray and Ricky Ellis and they had added Harry Holt to that pair.
In their first meeting, B. C. had dismantled Ottawa 31-17. In doing so, they rushed the ball at will. Joe Paopao was able to throw the ball wherever he wanted. It all had looked so easy. Surely, the fans in Rider-land had to be concerned that Rapp’s team could do all of that all over again.
Ticket sales had not been brisk and the losses were not helping the team’s attendance. There was potentially a lot at stake for the Rough Riders in this game. It can be assumed that a lot of fingers were being crossed on this Friday evening.
The “biggest shakeup in the history of the club” seemed to have paid off.
Anyone who has lived in Ottawa for any period of time and is a sports fan knows that the fans’ decision to go to a football game will depend on the weather report. Jo-Anne Polak, who was general manager of the Rough Riders from 1989-91, emphasized that to me in an episode of The Sports Lunatics Show in May of 2022.
On that early September Friday night, the weather was dreadful. Rain cascaded down on to the players on the field and those sitting in the stands, but it wouldn’t dampen the spirit of those in attendance. They got to see their Riders knock off the vaunted Lions from Vancouver by a score of 17-7.
In those days, Lansdowne Park always played host to the Central Canada Exhibition. It took place from the second last Thursday until the last Sunday of August every year. Part of the ‘Ex’ was the stage that would be placed on the grass football field for the numerous and various concerts that were always a part of the summer festival. Once the ‘Ex’ was over, that stage would be dismantled and that area of the field where the stage was would always be dead.
In 1981, the stage was bigger and when it was taken out, there was more damage done to the field than any year previous. The rain that fell on Friday, September 4 made the field quite treacherous. The area where the stage had been was even worse. The grass surface became a slick mud theatre and made it very difficult to move the ball up the field.
The conditions made throwing the ball a chore. Running on the field, which had been the Lions’ forte to this point in 1981, became very difficult. Ottawa’s defense, which had been quite generous to opponents in their first eight games, suddenly became a gang of predators and held the pair of Larry Key and John Henry White to just 42 rushing yards.
On the other hand, Ottawa’s running attack was renewed by the pair of the new Rider, Sam Platt, and the existing team member, John Park. Platt carried the ball 18 times for 123 yards. Throwing the ball was especially difficult though. Jordan Case made 23 pass attempts, completing 14 of them for 129 yards. Joe Paopao completed 18 of 39 for 228 yards.
With five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the score was just 7-7. The Lions had the ball deep in their own zone. Greg Marshall hit Paopao who fumbled the ball. The Rough Riders’ Doug Seymour recovered it. They moved the ball down to the Lions’ 3-yard-line, but were stuffed there. Gerry Organ kicked a 10-yard field goal to give Ottawa a 10-7 lead.
On the ensuing Lions’ possession, as time was running out, the Ottawa defense held and Paopao had just one last chance to advance the ball. From his own 30, he tried a desperation pass which one of the Riders’ newcomers, Jon Sutton, knocked down to give Ottawa the ball.
Jordan Case then faked a handoff into the line and he bootlegged, carrying the ball down to the Lions’ 8-yard-line. He was hit hard by a couple of B. C. defenders and knocked a bit woozy. Case then handed the ball to John Park twice who got the ball down to the Lions’ 1. At that point, Case was taken off the field. J. C. Watts came in. The clock was running down toward the end of the fourth quarter.
On the last play of the game, Watts took the snap and optioned to his right. He managed to get into the end zone to score his first professional touchdown and give Ottawa a ten-point win. The loss hurt the Lions. It kept them tied with the Edmonton Eskimos at the top of the Western Division. But for Ottawa, the win was huge.
George Brancato couldn’t contain himself in his praise for his team’s performance. “The defense had just a super game,” he told the assembled reporters after the win. “And Platt gave us over 120 yards. The most we’ve had all season. That win will really give the team confidence.”
The win gave Ottawa a 3-6 record. It put them four points ahead of third-place Montreal. The Riders had nine days now until their next game and their opponent would be the last-place Toronto Argonauts. The opportunity for two straight wins was beckoning! Could this team take advantage of the gift that was being presented to them? We would have to wait nine whole days to find out.
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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.