1981 – MR. WATTS’ WILD RIDE – PART 8 – GREY CUP WEEK
FiredUp Network Sports Writer
Sunday, October 23, 2022
1981 – MR. WATTS’ WILD RIDE – PART 8 – GREY CUP WEEK
The 1981 Grey Cup was held in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. It was a rematch of the first game of the CFL season between the Edmonton Eskimos and the Ottawa Rough Riders. Given the fact that this was the fourth straight Grey Cup appearance for Edmonton – they won the previous three – and that the Riders finished the season with a 5-11 record, the Esks were a huge favourite with the oddsmakers.
The Eskimos finished with a record of 14-1-1. They scored 576 points in 16 games. That’s an average of 36 per game. They gave up 277 points for an average of just over 17 per game. Conversely, Ottawa scored 306 points over the course of the season, averaging just over 19 points a game. Their defense allowed 446 points -- almost 28 per contest.
Over their last eleven games, the Rough Riders went 3-8 as they tried to find some kind of combination of players that could bring them some success. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats were still trying to figure out how they weren’t in Montreal for this game. But, for the Eskimos, these players in red, black and white were one more speed bump on the road to a fourth consecutive Grey Cup ring for Hugh Campbell, Tom Wilkinson and the other members of the green and gold who had been there for all of the victories.
The fact that this game was taking place between the teams from Ottawa, the nation’s capital and the seat of Parliament, and Edmonton, the capital of the biggest oil producing province in Canada, was not lost on a lot of people. The game would take place against the backdrop of a polarizing tension that had been taking place between the two, politically, since Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau implemented his National Energy Program in 1980.
The program was intended to give Canada national energy independence by 1990 but the oil companies felt that they would be receiving less for what they perceived was their share of the oil they controlled. Because most of that oil came from Alberta, they persuaded the provincial government in Alberta to rail against the program. Because the plan affected Alberta most, the people of Alberta felt as if Ottawa was unfairly targeting them and they felt disaffected and many lashed out against Ottawa specifically and people in Ontario and the East in general.
Ralph Klein was the mayor of Calgary in the late 1970s and early 80s before becoming premier of Alberta in 1982. Alberta was a boom province through that time and many people were heading there from the eastern provinces to find work and money. (I can tell you that some of my friends and I did just that in the summer of 1980 as we headed to Northern Alberta to work our butts off and make some filthy Alberta lucre.)
However, in that same time window, there were many convenience store robberies and bank heists that were being blamed on many of the people who were coming to Alberta from Ontario and Quebec. Klein labeled those perpetrators as “Eastern bums and creeps”. That sentiment was prevalent among many Albertans over that period. In fact, I can recall being asked at least once by an Albertan, “How do you feel coming here and raping our economy?”
My response was always the same. “I’m here to work.” And work we did. We worked twelve hour shifts, from 7 am until 7 pm on any day it didn’t rain. We were labourers working on a water pipeline for the Town of Swan Hills. Swan Hills is located about two hours north-northwest of Edmonton. The sun is out until almost midnight in the summer. We threw footballs and Frisbees outside of our bunkhouse on many evenings while we were there.
But the resentment that the people of Alberta felt toward Ottawa and people from Eastern Canada was real. Someone usurped Klein’s ‘Eastern bums and creeps’ line and created bumper stickers that read “Let those Eastern bastards freeze in the dark!” That bumper sticker and that sentiment predominated hearts and minds in Alberta. It was the first seed in the notion of Western Separation from Canada. We know it today as the ‘Wexit’ movement.
That was the feeling that hung over the country in November of 1981 as the Esks and Rough Riders prepared to play the 69th Grey Cup. But in Montreal, on the day before the big game, the mood was festive. The Grey Cup Parade went on as it always did in those days. And just after the parade, cops were out on street corners, mingling with the regular folks. Many of those who were not police officers could be seen holding the old stubby beer bottles of the time. Labels could be read that showed Laurentide or 50 (ou Cinquante, si tu veux).
But before we look at what went on in the Grey Cup game, let’s examine what happened in the week that led up to it.
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 16
As members of the league's front offices began to congregate in Montreal, ahead of the Grey Cup game, there was a lot of talk about changes to the playoff system. Teams in the West were upset by the fact that they had better records than teams in the East that had made it into the postseason tournament.
In the Eastern Division, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats had finished with an 11-4-1 record. Ottawa finished in second with five wins and eleven losses. Montreal had three wins and thirteen defeats and finished third. Over in the West, 9-7 Saskatchewan and 6-10 Calgary had more victories than either Ottawa or Montreal and felt they deserved to be in the playoff party more than two of the Eastern teams.
Eskimos’ general manager Norm Kimball was thinking of submitting a proposal to the league that would prevent any team with a record like Ottawa’s from ever being in the playoffs again. Part of his proposal had the Winnipeg Blue Bombers rotating from the East and West Divisions in alternating years. The other part would keep any team with a sub-.500 record from being allowed to participate in the postseason.
“There has to be some examination of the system and we’re not completely set in our plans right now, but we will be making a proposal,” Kimball told the assembled press corps. “I’m not opposed to say Ottawa or any team winning ‘x’ number of games, doing well in the playoffs and making the Grey Cup. But they (the Eastern teams) have to put their best product on the field earlier.”
“Historically, there is a tendency for Western clubs to be better prepared as the season starts. With five teams, you can’t afford to lose some early games and fall behind. The East, in many cases, can wait as late as NFL cuts and then make a late surge because a club only has to finish ahead of one team. That’s why we’re talking about moving one club.”
Calgary’s Jack Gotta looked at it as more of an issue of a Western team’s credibility with their players. “Look at a club like Saskatchewan. They came back from a 2-14 season to 9-7 and don’t get the chance for postseason play. Ottawa wins five games all season and now their players have a chance of earning around $8,000 a man if they lose Sunday and $13,000 if they win. How do you explain that to your players?”
There were general managers who wanted no part of Kimball’s plan. His proposal would put forward the possibility of an East-East or West-West Grey Cup game. Hamilton’s Joe Zuger, Saskatchewan’s Jim Spavital and Winnipeg’s Earl Lunsford disliked the thought of anything like that.
“If these people talking change are so serious about getting the best two teams in the Grey Cup, then don’t have any playoffs,” Spavital said. “Just play the regular season and then let them play.”
There was one man who figured he had the ultimate solution. Montreal’s Bob Geary felt that private ownership was the big issue here. “Four millionaires run clubs in the East and the five Western clubs are publicly owned. We lose $300,000 and it comes out of one man’s pocket. They lose the same and they have one those $200-a-plate dinners.”
“I’m convinced the only way we can save the league is for private owners of the four Eastern teams to give up the clubs and let the communities operate them, the way it’s done out West.”
Alas, postseason reform would not be implemented from Kimball’s proposal, but in 1997, the crossover system would be officially used in the CFL. The 5-11 Ottawa Rough Riders of 1981 were the impetus for that change.
There was more news out of Edmonton that was castigating to the Grey Cup finalist from the East. There had never been a team, in the history of the CFL, to win four consecutive national championships. The last team to win three straight Grey Cups was the Eskimos club from 1954-56. In 1957, they were overwhelming favourites to win the Cup again, but they couldn’t get out of the West.
There was a general derisiveness over Ottawa’s record and some of it seemed to be coming from the Esks’ locker room. The Riders’ eleven losses were more than Edmonton had experienced over the previous four years. Warren Moon didn’t want to touch the issue of Ottawa’s record going into this championship game. “I don’t look at won-lost records in a game that’s as important as this one,” Moon said.
But there were players who wore green and gold who weren’t reluctant to express their lack of respect for their Eastern challenger. Offensive tackle Bill Stevenson was one of those. “That’s the difference between the Eastern and Western teams, the hardness of the games. The only team in the East that is really physical is Hamilton. Out here, you play B. C. and you know they’re going to hit you. Same thing with the other Western teams.”
“It’s going to be totally different against Ottawa. When you play the Rough Riders you have to chase their defensive linemen down to keep them out of your backfield. Against B. C., you know they’re going to be coming right at you.” Against Hamilton, Ottawa went with a wider rush to keep Tom Clements in the pocket. The Riders emerged victorious. Apparently, Stevenson saw that as a weakness as opposed to a strength. No one who was interested in this game thought Ottawa had any chance of winning this Grey Cup.
When it came to the Rough Riders’ injury issues, there was some resolution the day after the team’s win in the Eastern final. Tony Gabriel’s knee ligaments were still swollen and he would be kept out of practice through the week, but he would be fitted for a brace and was cleared to play on Grey Cup Sunday.
“I have pretty good flexibility up and down, so running forward shouldn’t be much of a problem but I might have difficulty planting and cutting,” Gabriel told reporters. “But this will be my last game and I’ll have a long time to rehabilitate in the off season. I’ll play.”
Wide receiver Bruce Walker was out with torn ligaments in his left wrist. He had surgery on it and would be in a cast for six weeks. The Riders brought Joe Taylor in on a 14-day trial as a possible replacement for Walker. Taylor had played with the Alouettes in the preseason, leading them in receptions. He began the 1981 season on the move list and was eventually cut by Montreal. But his speed and aggressiveness in a preseason game against the Riders impressed Ottawa’s coaches.
Mark Philp sustained a concussion on a hit he put on Hamilton’s Rufus Crawford. The hit caused Crawford to fumble the ball. Ottawa linebacker Rick Sowieta recovered it. Philp was expected to play Sunday. But free safety Randy Rhino would not play. His hamstring issue re-emerged and would keep him out of the big match.
Jerome Stanton’s hamstring was feeling much better. “I’ll know more after Tuesday’s practice. I plan to give it a good test. The problem was that I came back too fast the first time.” He was optimistic about being able to play in Montreal on Sunday. It was in Montreal, in the Riders’ final regular season game that he pulled the hamstring.
As the team began working out in preparation for the big game on Sunday, reporters began to gather not only from the Ottawa media, but from cities around the country. And because of his two-touchdown performance on the previous Sunday, reporters were congregating all around one of the quietest players on the Rough Riders, Pat Stoqua.
According to people who were in the locker room, Stoqua was reluctant to be the centre of attention. And, as guys would be, his teammates created more of a commotion around him in order to try to embarrass their buddy. But, as per the witnesses, Stoqua was patient, cooperative and sincere with everyone who wanted some of his time.
When Stoqua was selected as a territorial exemption by the Rough Riders in 1979, he was playing as a defensive back at Carleton University. But when he got to camp with the CFL team, his lack of speed prevented him from being able to cover some of the receivers he was going up against. The team cut him. The experience hurt him, mentally.
“Being cut was a great disappointment. Since I was a protected player, I figured the club had a lot of confidence in me. I guess it was a false feeling of security.” He went back to Carleton and decided that maybe being an inside receiver would be a better fit for him and make him more attractive to the Riders, or if necessary, another team in the CFL.
He began to train under the guidance of one of the best slotbacks the Riders had ever had, Jim Foley. “Jim was an All-Canadian, played in the pros, won a Grey Cup, was a great teacher, so I benefitted from having him as a coach,” Stoqua told me in September of 2022. When Foley played with Ottawa, he was not a flashy guy, he was not going to light up the stat sheet, but he would do the little things that would help his teammates succeed. Stoqua was made from that same mould.
“People compare us (Foley and himself) to each other because we are very similar,” Stoqua said. “We’re not going to outrun a lot of people, but we’re going to carry through with our assignment. If we have to block a linebacker or a defensive end, we’re going to do that happily. And we’ll play all specialty teams. We do what is asked of us. We do it in a way that doesn’t get a lot of accolades but when you watch the films, it becomes clear that we’re doing our job.”
His coaches said exactly that back on that Monday before the Grey Cup game in 1981. “The guy (Stoqua) is a worker,” George Brancato told Tom Casey of the Ottawa Citizen. “Maybe he doesn’t have great speed but when a guy works as hard as Patty, big things are bound to happen, sooner or later.”
Joe Moss absolutely appreciated the way that Stoqua played. “It couldn’t happen to a better guy,” Moss told reporters. “He does everything we ask from him. If it means he has to line up and block a defensive end, he’ll do it. As soon as someone catches the ball, he’s racing downfield looking for a man to block.”
At the beginning of the year, heading into training camp, Stoqua had some concerns after seeing what the team had been doing in setting up their offense for 1981. “I was really worried when the club protected two inside receivers (Ian Beckstead and John Park, who became a fullback as time went on). That meant six inside receivers were fighting for two starting jobs,” Stoqua told reporters.
“All I was hoping for was to make an impression. I knew it was important for me to practice hard but the most important thing was to do well in the pre-season games. That’s where it counted most. I got off to a good start. By working hard in practice and having a good preseason, I was starting to get the confidence of the quarterbacks.”
“They started throwing to me and I was getting the chance to catch the ball. But the way things have worked out for me the last couple of days, even a dream couldn’t be this good.” Indeed, Stoqua’s day against Hamilton made the Riders’ appearance in the Grey Cup an unlikely story. But sometimes, stories have happy endings. The Riders would be facing an experienced heavyweight champion on Sunday. It would take one hell of a performance to upend them.
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 17
The lower fold of the front page of the Ottawa Citizen had a little piece in which they asked Edmonton Journal reporter Ray Turchansky to try to predict the spread of the upcoming Grey Cup game. In 1980, the Eskimos faced the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the national final. Turchansky predicted that the Eskimos would win by 40 points. They triumphed by a score of 48-10. He was off by two.
For this upcoming game, Turchansky figured Edmonton would win but he had to roll the numbers in his head. He spoke to Esks’ coach Hugh Campbell. “If I were a bookie, I wouldn’t touch the game,” Campbell told him. “Ottawa’s crazy. They could have a whole new team tomorrow.”
He was referring to the turnover in the Riders’ lineup as the year evolved. The Ottawa team that faced Edmonton in October had a bunch of different players in comparison to the team that played back in July. Turchansky was so sure that Edmonton would control the game that he made his prediction. “Okay, Eskimos by 24,” he wrote. His prediction was very much in line with the number the bookies had given out. The only way to know was to play the game.
When it came to playing the prediction game, sure, the Rough Riders were huge underdogs. The Western teams had had their way with the Eastern teams all year. And these were the Edmonton Eskimos, the three-time defending Grey Cup champions. There were people around the league that were fearful this weekend’s upcoming game could prove to be a huge embarrassment for the league.
Perhaps, the only people who believed that the Riders had any chance at all were the guys wearing the red, black and white in the locker room. After all, the team with the second best record in the league had been the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Ottawa managed to defeat them in the East final. The last time the Riders faced the Esks at Commonwealth, they put up 400 yards of offense against them.
Eddie MacCabe went through the Ottawa locker room and asked numerous Rider personnel about their chances in the upcoming game.
“We’ll have to be very physical,” said Mike Raines. “We’ll have to go harder than we did last Sunday. But sure, we can win it. Nobody thought we could win last Sunday either, but we did. Every man in this room believed all week we could win. Nobody believes we can win this Sunday either. But we do. Every man in here. And if we believe it, what else matters?”
“We have to start hitting right off the bat, and we have guys who can hit. Brune, Glassford, Philp, Mitchell, Rick Sowieta. Sowieta is an excellent linebacker and has played well all year and didn’t get the recognition for it. He is playing out his option. He had this big year and nobody paid any attention.”
“He should have won all-star or a Schenley nomination...something. I feel sorry for him. But he’ll be hitting. Jon Sutton is hitting people. (Billy) Hardee hits. I know they have a great team, but we might surprise some people.”
“It’ll be a dogfight,” said assistant coach Don Sutherin. “We can win it. If we can do a job on their receivers, if we can prevent that big bomb, sure we’re capable of making it a dogfight.”
Joe Moss added, “The main thing is to stay in the game. Don’t beat yourself. Then if you’re close, ten points one way or the other, coming into the last quarter, anything can happen. We’re decided underdogs, but we definitely have a chance. What they do, they send five men (Edmonton’s five-man all-Canadian defensive line) all the time.”
“So they have big (Dave) Fennell one-on-one with your centre. And they blitz. They bring everybody. They play man to man in the secondary and that free safety sits way back there and if anybody makes a mistake, he’s there to take up the slack.”
“They want to create pressure, cause confusion. They have a defense that attacks. But when we were out here (in October) we played giveaway. Two passes were hit and popped up into somebody’s hands and they went for touchdowns. You can’t give these guys a nickel!”
Jerry Keeling had his input. “Well, nobody thought we had any chance against Hamilton either. But the last time we played Edmonton, we moved the ball against them....more than 400 yards. They had 196 yards.”
John Glassford stressed the need for maximum effort. “We’ll have to play as good as we did last Sunday, or better. And we can. Edmonton is great. We all know them. But we’ve got people with big hearts and it’s going to be a very physical game.”
Bob O’Billovich talked about the swagger that had been building in the Rough Riders’ locker room over the previous few weeks. “I know what everybody’s saying, but don’t count us out. Look, B. C. could have beaten those guys last Sunday. Edmonton plays pitch and catch. They have good people. That (Dan) Kepley is as great a linebacker as I’ve seen since coming to Canada. But we have to get some pressure on their guy (Warren Moon) too. And these guys have confidence in themselves now. It’ll be a football game.”
Eskimos’ offensive tackle Bill Stevenson’s words from the day before made their way into the Riders’ room as well and at least one Ottawa player wasn’t taking too kindly to them. There was a likelihood that Stevenson would be lined up against defensive end Greg Marshall a lot on Sunday and Marshall was frothing after learning what his opponent had said the day before.
“I was up at five to get ready to drive my wife to the airport,” Marshall explained to reporters. “She’s going to drop the baby off at home (Seattle) so she can attend the Grey Cup. I picked up the paper shortly after six and I was so mad when I read that, I couldn’t get back to sleep when I got back home.”
Stevenson was saying that offensive linemen had to run around and chase Ottawa’s defensive rushers. Marshall explained how and why the Riders played the way they do. “Why bang heads when it’s my job to get to the quarterback? Look, Stevenson is a big, tough guy and it requires a lot more ability to move around him instead of banging heads. I’d like to see what he has to say after the game.”
One thing that we all have to remember is that the Eskimos’ offensive line was many degrees better than the one Ottawa had faced in Hamilton the week before. The blocking schemes that offensive line coach Cal Murphy had installed had his men protect an area instead of a man per se. That takes away certain angles that quicker defensive lines can try to rush from.
Mike Raines was certainly impressed with the quality of the Edmonton offensive linemen and the way they played together. But he was not impressed with the 6’4”, 280-pound Stevenson’s popping off about it.
“What we do is called pursuit. Stevenson is too fat to know anything about pursuit. If you don’t run into Stevenson, he won’t block you. It’s much easier to run around a fat guy than it is to run over him. Greg (Marshall) and I are finesse players. I found out a long time ago that you can’t always line up and run over people. It’s the easiest thing in the world for an offensive lineman to block a guy who is running right into him.”
The day before, Stevenson lauded the Hamilton Tiger-Cats as being the only physical team in the East and derided the Ottawa defensive line for being a group that rushes wide. Raines asked the media this question. “Why aren’t the Tiger-Cats in the Grey Cup if they are so physical?”
Leave it to Ottawa’s defensive line coach to insert some sanity into all this hullabaloo. “Regardless of what Stevenson said, we have defenses that come right at people. Those remarks infuriated my people because they have a lot of pride in themselves. But I’ve learned not to get into shouting matches. All they do is add fuel to the fire.”
The Rough Riders got a bit of news about Tony Gabriel’s injured knee. In the Eastern final in Hamilton, it was learned that Gabriel had torn some knee ligaments. On Tuesday, he received a brace that would allow him to play in the Grey Cup game. The thought was that Gabriel at 60% was better than anyone else in the lineup at 100%. Also, the idea of Gabriel out there would require attention from the Eskimos’ secondary. That would take some coverage away from other Ottawa receivers, creating openings for J. C. Watts to complete passes.
Even though, Gabriel had not practiced to this point in the week, George Brancato was declaring decisively that his All-Canadian tight end would play on Sunday. One of the other injured Rider players, Jerome Stanton, gave his previously pulled hamstring a full run during Tuesday’s workout and pronounced himself ready to play in the title game.
Bruce Walker was going to be out of the lineup and Brancato and the other coaches were suitably impressed with former Northern Arizona State University receiver Joe Taylor that they signed him to play in the game on Sunday. In the papers, much was made of the fact that, by playing in the game, he guaranteed himself at least a $4,000 payday. Players on the losing team of the Grey Cup game received $4,000. Those on the winning team got $8,000.
Brancato noticed the 22-year old Taylor in a preseason game when the receiver was trying out with the Alouettes. “He scored a long touchdown against us in a pre-season game in Montreal and I saw him jump into a crowd to catch the ball on other occasions. We were going to go after him in the off season at any rate.”
Taylor would be making his CFL debut in the Grey Cup game. The last player to do that was a defensive tackle named Tony Petruccio. He had played with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the 1980 Grey Cup against the Edmonton Eskimos. Hamilton lost to the Esks by a score of 48-10. Just leaving that right there.
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 18
The big news of the day on Wednesday was announcement of the spread for the Grey Cup game. The prevailing wisdom floating around was that this iteration of the Edmonton Eskimos was the strongest team ever assembled in the history of the Canadian Football League. And many of the Eskimos’ players held that very feeling.
“This is certainly the best team I’ve ever been associated with,” Esks’ linebacker Dale Potter told reporters. Potter was an Ottawa native who went to Hillcrest High School in the city’s south end. This Grey Cup game would be the seventh for Potter. “Guys like Dan Kepley, Jim Germany, Dave Fennell, Brian Kelly, Neil Lumsden and many others are in their prime. We’re an experienced team, yet, we’re still young.”
“We set a scoring record for the second straight year and we lost only one game but everyone was disappointed when we didn’t beat British Columbia by a big score in the Western final. I’m a school teacher and when I returned to school the next day, everyone was asking me what happened. They thought we had a bad game. The fact is B. C. played well.”
Potter talked about one advantage that Ottawa had – being the big longshot. “Ottawa is going into the Grey Cup as the underdog and it’s a good situation for them. If we beat them by only 25 points, everyone will think it will be an accomplishment. All the pressure will be on us. Ottawa can afford to try reverses, fake punts, anything goes because nothing is expected from them.”
“Ottawa is, by far, the most difficult team to prepare for. I hate to say it, but their offense never seems set. We don’t know what to expect. It’s a bit of everything.” The thing the Eskimos did on defense was to send five men at the quarterback on every play. There are times that they would send nine. But J. C. Watts’ mobility could cause Edmonton some trouble, just as he did against Hamilton the week before.
Potter continued. “In the West, there isn’t a running quarterback in the lot. They’re all classic drop back passers. We don’t have to worry about guys like Dieter Brock or Joe Paopao running, but Watts is different. If we turn our backs to drop back on passes, he’ll take off on us. Ottawa’s offense is unique because of Watts.”
“Just from looking at the films, we can see he has improved a lot. We can see Ottawa is playing with more confidence and Watts has a better grasp of the offense. Another thing we realize is we won’t be able to knock him out of the game. Hamilton gave Watts some great shots and he just bounced back up.”
In the October game between the two teams, the Eskimos needed two defensive touchdowns to beat the Rough Riders. Potter pointed that out to the reporters as well. He also disagreed with Bill Stevenson’s opinions about the way the Riders played defense. Although, he did acknowledge that his team was supposed to be better than Ottawa.
“On paper we’re better. The key will be the first five minutes. If we don’t score quickly, it’s going to be a long, tough game. Every Grey Cup has a lot of pressure attached to it, but because there’s so much expected from us, there might be a little more than usual. But there’s a particular reason why I would like to win this one. I’d hate like hell to explain why we were beaten when I go home to see my parents in Ottawa at Christmas. I could do without that.”
On Monday and Tuesday of the week before the Grey Cup game, Tony Gabriel had had difficulty getting in and out of his car, given that he had partially torn ligaments in his left knee in the game against Hamilton on the previous Sunday. He had not practiced with the team until Wednesday. And he only did so on that day while wearing a specially fitted knee brace.
“It feels much better than I thought it would,” Gabriel told reporters after the workout. “Granted, the thing feels awkward and I had trouble to manoeuvre but there was no pain.” On Wednesday, Gabriel ran some pass patterns but none at anything close to real game speed. And he wouldn’t be getting anywhere close to game speed through the week of practice.
“We won’t let him run hard until the pre-game warm up,” George Brancato told inquiring reporters.
After the Eastern final on Sunday, Gabriel’s knee had swollen up considerably. By the following Wednesday, the swelling had reduced. His biggest problem with the brace was that it kept slipping on him. On game day though, the brace would be taped on securely, so that it would not move, by team trainer Dave Smith.
“First of all, the brace feels foreign and it will take time to get used to,” Gabriel said. “I won’t lose speed, because I don’t have any speed to lose. But there’s no doubt I will be restricted in some of the things I can do. I won’t be able to ignore the brace. It will be a hindrance.” Gabriel had been icing his knee and doing ultrasound treatments daily since the Hamilton game.
He was well aware that this would be his last Canadian Football League game. And, given that it was a Grey Cup game, he was doubly eager to participate in it. “The fact that I badly want to play is, no doubt, a reason for all this enthusiasm. But the knee has improved so much the last couple of days and this is only Wednesday. The game isn’t until Sunday.”
If there was one thing that the Rough Riders succeeded in doing, even well before the game on Sunday, it was to make a lot of sports editors, prognosticators and advertisers wear egg on their faces.
Carling O’Keefe Breweries scheduled massive ads in the Edmonton Journal and the Hamilton Spectator celebrating those cities’ football teams and their presence in the Grey Cup. It took a while, but as the week went on, Caledon Advertising, who handled the brewery’s newspaper campaigns placed an ad in the Ottawa Citizen to salute the Riders.
The Citizen ran an editorial in the paper on the Friday before the game in Hamilton. The headline read “Riders fumbled away their fans”. In the text, it stated that “If the local football team isn’t giving people a bang for their buck, they’ll put their money into video games or golf or baseball tickets.”
A supplement to the Wednesday Citizen called Today Magazine ran an ad that called the Tiger-Cats “The East’s best football team”. There was also a story in the magazine by Earl McRae whose headline referred to Hamilton’s Frank Kush “The Toughest Coach in Football”. The subheadline went “That’s why the Hamilton Tiger-Cats belong in the Grey Cup”.
Today’s managing editor, Peter Sypnowich, was asked how this piece could make it into the magazine. “We thought, like everyone else, that Hamilton would be in the Grey Cup. In hindsight, we might have done a different story, but I don’t know what it would have been.”
Sypnowich said that Kush was chosen as the story subject because he was “one of the most interesting subjects in Canadian football” at that time. He may have been interesting, but he would be at home watching the game on TV come Sunday.
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 19
These days, the CFL conducts its annual Awards Night on the Thursday of Grey Cup Week. Back in the day, and 1981 was part of that ‘day’, they also held their big bash on the Thursday night. In 1981, in Montreal, the party was at Place Des Arts. Given the way the West dominated the East in the regular season, it probably should have been no surprise to anyone that the Western nominees for all the individual awards swept their categories.
The Schenley Award for Most Outstanding Player was given to Winnipeg quarterback Dieter Brock. The Most Outstanding Canadian Player was the Bombers’ receiver Joe Poplawski, who bested the Riders’ tight end, Tony Gabriel. Another Bomber, guard Larry Butler beat out Ottawa’s Val Belcher for Outstanding Offensive Lineman.
The CFL’s Top Rookie was Saskatchewan’s linebacker/defensive lineman Vince Goldsmith. Edmonton wasn’t completely shut out of the award voting. Their great linebacker, Dan Kepley was named the league’s top defensive player for the second year in a row.
For Belcher, it was his second consecutive nomination. It was also the second straight time, he did not win. After the ceremony, he was clearly not very happy. He talked at length about what he felt was wrong with the way the nominations and the selections were handled.
“How can three guys be named the top players in the league when their team doesn’t even make it to the Grey Cup game? I can’t understand that. There was a total disregard of the talent in the East. It’s not the majority of awards going West. The fact is that the players in the East were totally ignored. I know the West had great superiority over the East.”
“Look at Tony. He was second in the East in receptions even though he had four or five quarterbacks throwing to him. That wasn’t taken into consideration. I was shocked when he didn’t win, much more than I was losing to Butler. Sure I wouldn’t be saying all this if I had won. I’m disappointed and a lot more disappointed than last year after losing to Mike (Wilson of Edmonton).”
There are 96 writers and sportscasters who covered the league across the country that voted on the nominations for the Schenley awards. Neither the coaches, the general managers nor the players in the league had any say in which players received nominations. Belcher had an issue with this.
“Unfortunately, some of the nominators don’t know what’s going on,” Belcher added. “I had a good season and, while I can always improve as a player, this will be a tough season to repeat.”
At the end of the 1980 season, Butler had decided to retire. Then, before the 1981 preseason had ended, he came back to rejoin the Blue Bombers. He played a quarter of the team’s final exhibition game. The Bombers were happy to have Butler back. He played in every offensive play for his team during the regular season. Winning the award for outstanding lineman was important to Butler, but he did feel at least a pang of jealousy for someone.
“It’s a great honour and I imagine people are envious of me at the moment, maybe even Val Belcher,” said Butler. “But I’ll tell you who I envy. Val Belcher. He’ll be playing on Sunday. I’ll be watching.”
For Gabriel’s part, he may have been disappointed with not winning the award as the top Canadian player, but he didn’t show it. Then again, he already had his fair share of Schenleys and could afford to be less disappointed than Belcher.
“Poplawski was my pick. He had a better season than I had. If I had won, it would have been for sentimental reasons. This was my last year as a player and just getting the Eastern nomination was a big thrill.”
Gabriel’s health was a concern to the coaching staff. Even though Gabriel would have to be locked in a cage to keep him from playing, Joe Moss persuaded George Brancato to take a look at 31-year-old Steve Mazurak, the former Saskatchewan tight end who was cut by the green ‘Riders after training camp at the beginning of the season.
When Mazurak heard that both Bruce Walker and Tony Gabriel had been injured following the game against Hamilton, he placed a phone call to Joe Moss saying that he was available. Moss had spent a season with the Western Roughriders as an assistant coach. At the end of the 1981 season, Mazurak was the executive director of the CFL Players Association and was going to be in Montreal anyway.
But Brancato really wasn’t that serious about using Mazurak in the Grey Cup game on Sunday. “I brought him in as a favour to Joe. But he has no idea of our plays and I saw he wrapped his hamstring before coming out with us. I don’t like that a bit.”
Mazurak was hyped to play though. “This could be a dream come true,” the former Saskatchewan receiver said. The truth of the matter was that he didn’t come close to playing.
There were several Rough Riders who would be perceived as key performers this coming Sunday. Defensive back Larry Brune was one of them. 1979 had been his option year in Ottawa and he played it out. He left the Riders and made the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings roster in 1980. In 1981, Brune needed a place to play again and he went back to the nation’s capital.
In the year away, he had grown as a player and a person. He was now a leader. Bob O’Billovich was the defensive secondary coach. He was happy to have Brune in his defensive backfield. “He has his limitations as a defensive back, but he makes up for it with enthusiasm and intelligence.” Also, when he hit someone, they knew they had been hit.
When he left the Riders after the 1979 season, he made some statements that were not kind to the coaches of the team. He thought that there was a lack of discipline with the club. The attitude was too relaxed. While he praised Joe Moss and talked of his respect for Bob O’Billovich, he didn’t say anything that was complimentary toward the head coach, George Brancato.
“The club should define what is expected from us,” Brune said in 1979. “Make up a set of rules at training camp. If the rules are broken, there has to be consistency in the penalty. Players are like anyone else, they’ll test and stretch things as much as they can and see what they can get away with. The players have to fear the penalty and there can’t be a double standard, one for a win and another for a loss.”
“There are players who are late for practice, or who arrive five minutes before a meeting but too late to be taped. That has to be eliminated. Six or seven times this year, we were short of players on our special teams and that’s just a lack of discipline.”
“Practices should be repetition of the game plan and major changes shouldn’t have to be made the day before a game. Every player should know his assignments without excuse. But you can’t get that type of atmosphere if you’re always asking questions in practice because you’re not sure what to do.”
“The ship needs a tighter organizer. Ottawa has been spoiled with success and I feel complacency has set in. That includes the coaches too. Ottawa has always been known as a carefree lot where the players have a lot of fun. But the players have to get a greater respect for the coaching staff.”
“It’s not just me. I’m reflecting the feelings of most of the guys. It’s not the rookies who are complaining but the veterans, the nucleus of the team. Ask any of them and they’ll say the same. I love Ottawa and I’m speaking from my heart. I feel something had to be said.”
Brancato wasn’t happy with what Brune had said back in 1979. But he had the ability to see how a player that he may not get along with could still make his team better. Brune contended that his remarks were intended as constructive criticism. He wanted the team to play as well as it could. Brancato was asked if he construed Brune’s remarks as positive or constructive.
“No, I don’t. We had just lost to Montreal (in the Eastern final in 1979) and he was upset. But you don’t say those things. Anyway, he wrote me a letter of apology and I talked to him about it before he came back. Larry has leadership traits, and with a lot of new guys back there, Hardee and Brazley and all, he pulls it all together.”
There are people who talk about a player as being like ‘a coach on the field’, and Brune could have been seen that way. The year in Minnesota allowed Brune to mature as a player. He learned what it was like to win. For many athletes, they have to figure out ways to emerge victorious. Brune preached about how his defensive backfield had to prevent the opponents from pulling off a big play.
“I appreciated the opportunity of playing a year for an organization like Minnesota. They have been successful. But, Sunday, we have to take away the big ones (plays) and still not forget about the little ones. Winnipeg (October 3) nickel-and-dimed us to death. But we haven’t given up any big ones in about five weeks.”
“The game will be decided in the trenches. It always is. If the defensive line gets to Moon, if Watts is given a little time....we might surprise some people. On paper, I know. No way. Edmonton is a super club and they make only a couple of changes a year. But if we get something like that Stoqua play, a few interceptions, a blocked punt, something like that, we’ll compete.”
Time would tell if Brune would be prescient.
Another player who was gauged to be a crucial player was Julius Caesar Watts. Watts was the quarterback whose unpredictability was praised by Hamilton coach Frank Kush. You never knew when Watts was going to tuck the ball in and take off for a rush for a significant gain. And it helped the Rough Riders to a win over Hamilton in the Eastern final.
Watts didn’t care that the spread against the Tiger-Cats was 13 points and he also didn’t care that his Riders were more than a 22 point underdog to the Eskimos for the upcoming weekend. He figured that he was “the guy who goes out in a rowboat going after Moby Dick and brings along the tartar sauce”.
In his time in college football, Watts admitted that his team was rarely an underdog. “I guess maybe four or five times in my five years at Oklahoma, we were underdogs. No more than that. And we always managed to win those.” In high school back in Eufala, Oklahoma, he does acknowledge that his teams were more often the team expected to lose. But he told Eddie MacCabe that his teams won more of those games than they lost.
So, experience taught Watts how to win, even in times when he wasn’t expected to come out on top. And, interestingly enough, despite the fact that he played in four Orange Bowls and played every Saturday in front of crowds of 70,000 and 80,000 people, he said that the upcoming Grey Cup game “is the biggest of my whole career. This is the first time I’ve ever played for anything like a national championship.”
“And to be here in my rookie year, win, lose or draw, I can’t help but be pleased. But the thing I’m most proud of in the whole season is the fact that I’ve learned more in the past two months than I learned in all the years I played. I’ve learned in Ottawa that good things happen to those who don’t give up, no matter how bad it looks. This team in Ottawa has never given up.”
Football has been called the ultimate team game, but within that team concept are three different units -- the offensive team, the defensive group and the specialty teams. Inside the team contest is the reality that, just as in boxing where styles make fights, in football, it’s the individual matchups that often determine the outcome of a game.
One of the key matchups in the upcoming Grey Cup would involve Ottawa’s cornerback Carl Brazley and Edmonton’s receiver Waddell Smith. If J. C. Watts moved the offense and Tony Gabriel and Kelvin Kirk made their catches and if Sam Platt and Jim Reid ran the ball well and Gerry Organ made his kicks, it seemed as if none of that would matter if Brazley couldn’t contain Waddell Smith.
Brazley was a reluctant Rough Rider having left the team earlier in the year, but he told George Brancato and Jake Dunlap that if they really needed him, he would come back. A short while later, he got the call, and was back with the team. But, for Brazley, playing football was far from his first choice of sports.
Being born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, his first sports idol was certainly not a football player. “I guess, growing up in Louisville, every kid wanted to be like Muhammad Ali. In the sixth grade, I remember growing up bopping people on the side of the head and saying ‘I am the greatest, I am the greatest’, just like him. But my true love was basketball. I just didn’t grow enough.”
He played football in high school but he didn’t become a starter until halfway through his senior year. After high school, he received no scholarship offers so he went to the University of Western Kentucky in Bowling Green. He didn’t go there to play football though. He ran track. His time in the 400 metres was 48.5 seconds. He then turned to football.
“The only reason I made the team was one of the backup players broke his leg,” Brazley told the Citizen’s Bob Elliott. “Then, the next year, the seniors had graduated so I managed to stay on and play.” Brazley modestly left out that, as a junior, he was a conference all-star. He missed a lot of his senior year with injuries and as a result, wasn’t drafted by any NFL team.
Several of his friends and ex-teammates had heard about a free agent camp put on by the Montreal Alouettes in Durham, North Carolina. They wanted Brazley to go with them and they badgered him and badgered him to come with them. He wasn’t sure he wanted to go, but the capper for him was that he couldn’t afford to attend with the other guys.
Then, the day before the group left for Durham, Brazley’s income tax refund arrived. He figured he would go. “I knew playing at the small school and really only starting the one year, I wouldn’t get drafted. So I wanted to go, but I couldn’t afford to make the trip. My friends kept saying come on with us and I kept saying no.”
Then the cheque came in. “I thought I’d go for the good time, anyway. There were about fifteen of us who they kept, talked to and said ‘We’ll get in touch with you if we want you’.” The Als called the day after the NFL draft. Brazley continued, “’We want you’ they said, ‘and we’re doing you a favour by only inviting four players to camp, so you have a 50-percent chance of making it. We’ll send you the contract. Hurry up and sign. We don’t give a signing bonus.’”
“Well, I didn’t know any sports agents and, from some stories I’d heard, they could rip you off. So I got to camp and found the average guy signed for one or two years. I had signed for almost four – three, plus an option.” He got into three games with Montreal in 1980 and ten more in 1981. He became a Rough Rider more than halfway through the 1981 season and was waived. That was when he decided to go home.
“I never had a star studded career. You hear about all this glitter in pro football but there is very little.” When he got to Ottawa and hoped to renegotiate his contract, only to find out that he could not, that was it.
“That’s when I said to myself ‘this isn’t for me’, but they had cut someone and would have had to go into the game against Hamilton a player short, so I played. I don’t know about next year.” Once the season was over, he wanted to go home and talk with his family about his future, whether it would be in football or the real world.
He had a degree in communications in television production, but he had other options as well. His mother was a head nurse. His father had died of leukemia in June of 1981. He had other family members who had real jobs and were doing well though. If he stuck with football, his contract would pay him $31,000 in the final year.
“I’ve tried football. I don’t want to get older and sit there moping, wishing I had tried this or that.” He spoke of his father’s fight against cancer as well. “Even though I knew of the disease, it was still quite a shock. They had told us if he could survive a third remission, he’d be in good shape and he’d just gone through all that. He never saw me play a pro game.”
Brazley had lived up to his part of the bargain by coming back to play for the Riders when Randy Rhino went down and he stayed when it appeared that Larry Brune couldn’t go. He’d made it through the first two rounds of the playoffs and was now preparing for the big test against the best team in the league. He didn’t agree that he was in any kind of pivotal position.
“Everybody says that Jon (Sutton) and I are on the hot seat. Does that mean we weren’t on the hot seat in the eastern semi-final or the final?” Brazley was able to stay with James Scott in the game against Montreal and Keith Baker for Hamilton. The cornerback is a man on an island. He is like a defenseman in hockey. No one ever really notices them until they make a mistake and the receiver gets a big gain or maybe a long touchdown.
“When you get beat deep, there is a certain moment long before the guy catches the ball that you know you’re beat. You know you’ve backpedalled too long or you didn’t turn quickly enough and you know the coach is going to say ‘I told you not to get beat deep’. Then the crowd roars and the guy is gone for a touchdown. The feeling? I’d compare it to dropping a heavy weight on my foot.”
If Larry Brune was right, there wouldn’t be any long gains or big plays against the Ottawa secondary. Time was counting down to kickoff. Then, finally, we would see.
FRIDAY NOVEMBER 20 & SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 21
When the Rough Riders showed up for practice at Molson Stadium on Friday morning, they were greeted by a fresh snow fall and an artificial turf field that was pretty much unusable. Four inches of snow had fallen over night and into the morning and even though the team had been dressed and ready to work, the conditions prevented them from running through any last minute plans.
Kevin Starkey grew up in California and had never seen this much snow before. He had been finding the Canadian weather brutal since October. According to people who were there at the Friday ‘practice’, Starkey walked up to offensive backfield coach Jerry Keeling and, with his tongue planted in his cheek, declared, “I want to renegotiate and add a clause that I don’t play in the snow.”
It wasn’t long before everyone was making snowballs and firing them at each other. There was an attempt at trying to get some stretching and a warmup started, but it seemed to degenerate into more snowball fighting. Starkey was fighting off the incoming snow missiles with his helmet. It became a day for tomfoolery.
Some onlookers (Father Francis Mulcahy, of M*A*S*H fame, perhaps) might have been unimpressed by all this jocularity. George Brancato was okay with it all. “I like the relaxed attitude. We came here and accomplished what we wanted to do and it was done well. You couldn’t do much on this field anyway.”
Ottawa’s rookie linebacker Bill Mitchell liked what he saw from his teammates as well. “I think it’s good. It shows a feeling of confidence. We realize how tough Edmonton will be but also know we can beat them.”
Since the team had arrived in Montreal, they had been free to pretty much do as they pleased. There had been no curfew for the players until Thursday night. They had to be back in their hotel rooms by midnight on that evening. This was, after all, supposed to be a business trip. On Friday night, they were expected to be in by 11 p.m.
For the Riders, Joe Taylor would be in the lineup on Sunday. Steve Mazurak would not. Jerome Stanton was feeling like he was ready to go, but because of the addition of Taylor, with the rules about the number of Americans allowed in the lineup, there was no spot for the returning defensive back.
Tony Gabriel had looked good running on Thursday. The swelling in his knee had gone down tremendously and a new taping regimen made him feel a lot better. “I had the knee taped along with the brace and I felt there was a lot more support. The swelling has also gone down quite a bit. I plan to start (on Sunday).”
If you listened to George Brancato in his joint media conference with Hugh Campbell, you might think he had given up on any hope of winning the game on Sunday. He was happy about the way his team had played in their playoff games to this point. But, it seemed that any chances of victory for Ottawa were based on hopes rather than any solid foundation.
“I can’t see how we could have played better (in the Eastern semi-final and final games). Even if we continue to play as well as we have been, it will be tough to beat Edmonton. We’re hoping Eskimos will come out and play a good game but not a great game. Otherwise, we might not stand much of a chance.”
The Citizen’s Tom Casey looked at nine areas on each of the teams and made an evaluation of each club in those categories. He looked at the quarterbacks, wide receivers, inside receivers, running backs, offensive lines, defensive lines, linebackers, secondary and special teams. Based on his ratings, Brancato may have been right.
The Riders’ only two areas of superiority, according to Casey, were along the offensive and defensive lines. The special teams were deemed to be a tossup. The Eskimos were the better team at every other position. Perhaps the oddsmakers were correct in making the Western finalist a 22 ½ point favourite. Maybe everyone was right and the Riders didn’t belong in this game.
Leave it to Larry Brune to at least have some thoughts on that. “We have to hold Edmonton to a maximum of 20 points,” he said. That might be a tall order, given that they averaged 36 points per game in the regular season. That said, the Eskimos did have to scratch and claw to come back and defeat the B. C. Lions the week before. They won that game 22-16.
Brancato figured there was one way that his team could come out on top and Brune would be a part of it. “Defense is our key. We have to play like we did in our last two playoff games. We have to get the same kind of pass rush as we’ve been getting. It’s essential. And, the deep backs can’t give up any long touchdowns early. If Eskimos strike early, it seems to give them a snowballing effect and you can’t stop them after that.”
Bob O’Billovich perceived a lack of patience on the part of Edmonton’s quarterback Warren Moon. He also had an appreciation for Moon’s ability and the strengths of the targets that Moon could throw to. “He likes to air the ball out and go deep to his wide receivers, and they are good ones.”
Yes, Edmonton did enjoy a tremendous paper advantage over their Eastern opponents in the game on Sunday, but, if there was one thing that their coach might have been concerned about it would be complacency. Hugh Campbell didn’t think that would be any factor for his club in this one.
“Complacency usually hits a team that has won three or five games in a row and isn’t used to it. I feel the B. C. Lions are a good example. A championship club knows what it takes to keep winning,” Campbell said. He did, however, have some concerns about the Rough Riders.
“They’ve made tremendous improvements in their secondary since the start of the season. They’ve peaked at the right time,” said Campbell. Eskimos offensive line coach Cal Murphy had his own feelings about Ottawa’s defense. “They like to show a lot of looks. They’re tough to prepare for. Clearly, the key to their football team is their front four.”
The two teams last hooked up on October 12 at Commonwealth Stadium. Edmonton won that game 24-6, but it wasn’t necessarily as one-sided as that score might indicate. The Eskimos had two defensive touchdowns in that game. And Ottawa’s offense was able to move the ball up and down the field, even if they couldn’t necessarily punch it into the end zone.
Hugh Campbell picked up that narrative. “Remember when we beat them recently in Edmonton, Ottawa accumulated over 400 yards total offense. Watts is going to be a great player next year. I continue to be surprised by his passing skills. And the addition of Joe Taylor will improve Ottawa’s offense.”
The thing that Ottawa had to be mindful of was the power and the potency of Edmonton’s defense. They led the league with 73 sacks in sixteen games and they tied a CFL record with 36 interceptions. Joe Moss was very aware of what the Eskimos’ defense could do to any opponent at any given time if they ever chose to be nonchalant.
“They have excellent personnel and they have an intelligent approach to defense. Edmonton likes to gamble and we have to be very alert,” Moss said. Ottawa centre Larry Tittley was very respectful of the Edmonton defense’s potential. “The key to handling the Edmonton pass rush is to know who to block. They do an excellent job of confusing blocking schemes and they bring on so many people.”
One of George Brancato’s biggest concerns was coughing up the ball and in doing one’s best to prevent any of that. “Offensively, we can’t turn the ball over and give Edmonton any easy points. J. C. will have to run the ball and control the ball to give our defense a break.”
Brancato felt somewhat blessed to be where the Rough Riders were. And yet, he was trying to keep his feet on the ground and not lose sight of what he wanted his team to focus on. “I didn’t expect to get this far,” he told the Citizen’s Tom Casey. “Yet, I have confidence in our guys and I expect us to play well.” The big question hung out there though and Brancato voiced it. “But will it be good enough to beat Edmonton?”
A straw poll of former CFL luminaries would suggest that, no, it would not be enough. Here’s a sample of some of their thoughts.
Earl Lunsford, general manager of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers: “The key is the first five minutes. That’s all it should take to decide it.” Edmonton by 14.
Bobby Ackles, general manager of the B. C. Lions: “Eskies are too deep everywhere.” Edmonton by 11.
George Dixon, former Alouette, Montreal broadcaster and former Schenley winner: “The point spread is right on.” Edmonton by 22.
Jerry ‘Soupy’ Campbell, former Rough Rider all-star linebacker: “Ottawa doesn’t spend any money.” Edmonton by 18.
Jack Gotta, general manager of the Calgary Stampeders, former Ottawa coach: “Edmonton is too strong in too many places.” Edmonton by 19.
Ray Jauch, coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers: “The favourite will win.” Edmonton by 6.
Tony Pajaczkowski, former Calgary Stampeder, Montreal Alouette and Schenley Award winner: “The power will show in the second half.” Edmonton by 20.
Brian Kilrea, coach of the Ottawa 67s: “Riders have been better against tough opposition.” Ottawa by 4.
Ray Fortier, former star at University of Ottawa: “Riders don’t lose Grey Cups.” Ottawa by 3.
All there was to do now was wait for the kickoff just after 1 p.m. on Sunday.
* * *
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.