1981 – MR. WATTS’ WILD RIDE – PART 9 – THE GAME
FiredUp Network Sports Writer
Sunday, October 30, 2022
MR. WATTS’ WILD RIDE – PART 9 – THE 1981 GREY CUP GAME
What can you say? What can possibly be said about one of the greatest games that was ever played for a national championship. The result was completely unexpected. And in the end, the right team won. Or did they? The favourite won, but, just as easily, the other team could have won as well. By the end of the game, it felt like everyone was left shaking their heads.
As that November Sunday morning broke in Montreal, everyone was sure they were about to witness a whitewash. The juggernaut 14-1-1 Edmonton Eskimos were going to throttle the upstart, patchwork 5-11 Ottawa Rough Riders and that was all there was to it. Teams in the West wanted to change the playoff structure so that teams like Ottawa could never qualify for the playoffs ever again.
And then they played the game.
The weather around Olympic Stadium on that championship Sunday was cold and grey. Snow had fallen just two mornings before. Ottawa’s practice field at Molson Stadium was under about four inches of the white stuff on Friday, cancelling their attempt to work out for the day.
But they had their game plans in place. They wanted to take away Edmonton’s big pass plays and they wanted to mix up their rushes on defense. On offense, the hope was that J. C. Watts’ unpredictability and his ability to throw screen passes at will would pay dividends for the team.
While many of the citizens of Montreal were going about their business through the week and on the Friday and the Saturday, visitors from Alberta and Ontario and the rest of Canada were gathering in the city for the annual Grey Cup festival as they do every year wherever the game is played.
One of the wonderful things about the Grey Cup is that, while fans of different teams may chirp at each other during the regular season, by the end of November, they realize that they share something special – a love of Canadian football. They are all on the same little island.
Everyone knows that a weekend in Montreal is a special trip. The bars and restaurants and the hours during which they are open have been like an enticing siren’s song for many of those from outside of Montreal and Quebec for decades. This week had been no different. Reports of people from all over the country had been in the papers all week long. By kickoff time on Sunday, many are as happy to see the game as they are that the week might be ending.
The Eskimos had flown into Montreal earlier in the week to a massive fanfare. Meanwhile, the Rough Riders rode on a bus from Ottawa and quietly arrived in the host city to a small gaggle of reporters. It was reminiscent of the scene in the Bugs Bunny cartoon when, at a wrestling match, The Crusher was introduced. When Ravishing Ronald was introduced after him and saw his muscular opponent, he scurried from the ring leaving only Bugs to take on the behemoth Crusher.
By the time the game got underway, the residual water and snow prints were still visible on the Big O carpet. There may have been a little over-excitement in the Eskimos as they took an offside penalty on the kickoff and had to do it all over again. Ottawa got the ball to start the game. On their first possession, J. C. Watts dumped the ball off impressively and efficiently and moved the ball inside the Edmonton 30. Gerry Organ kicked a field goal to give Ottawa a surprising 3-0 lead.
The Riders’ defense forced a three-and-out and got the ball back quickly. They got nothing and kicked the ball back to Edmonton. The Riders’ defensive formations confused Warren Moon enough to force a time count violation and another set of three Eskimos’ downs with nothing to show for it. In the early going, Watts looked like the experienced veteran and Moon appeared confused and jittery.
The next time Ottawa got the ball, Watts tossed a pass to Pat Stoqua for a substantial gain. They got the ball deep enough for another Organ field goal and had slapped the reigning champions in the face twice to take a 6-0 lead. Edmonton took the ball after that field goal. To this point in the game, they had not yet been able to get a first down.
Moon dropped back and fired the ball to his left. Unfortunately for the Eskimos’ quarterback, Riders’ linebacker Rick Sowieta was standing in the direct path of the pass and was able to intercept it, secure it and advance a few yards before going down. Years later, I remember standing with Sowieta at his popular Rick’s Cantina Gulf Coast Grill in Ottawa and I asked him about that interception.
He was gracious and modest as usual. “I was lucky,” Sowieta told me in the late 1990s. “Moon threw the ball so hard that it stuck in my face mask. I just put my hands on it and fell down.” Of course, when you watch the video, you realize that he made a great play on it with his hands all taped up. But he was never a guy who wanted to take any of the limelight for himself.
Riders’ slot back Pat Stoqua spoke about the Sowieta interception to me in September of 2022 as part of a broad conversation we had on the Sports Lunatics Show on the FiredUp Network. “Rick was an outstanding linebacker. He was in the right spot at the right time. He had his drop zone, he got there. Moon didn’t see him. He made a great catch on a very hard throw by Moon. Rick’s a great athlete.”
On the subsequent series, Watts threw a pass downfield to Tony Gabriel, but Gary Hayes was called for interference. That moved the ball down to the Edmonton 7-yard-line. A pass to Stoqua in the end zone was ruled incomplete because his foot came down out of bounds. Replays showed that his foot came down in bounds. But Jim Reid pierced the goal line behind the outstanding Val Belcher on the next play and Ottawa was up 13-0.
David was in the process of hurting Goliath.
The hitting in this game was furious and ferocious in the early going. After the Riders’ touchdown, sideline reporter Brian Williams (yes, you read that right) asked Jim Reid if he and his teammates were surprised to be ahead 13-0 at this point. Reid appeared focused and serious when he responded.
“I think we’re working outside and with the ability of J. C. Watts to run the ball himself, I think Edmonton’s conscious of that. They’re leaving receivers in man-to-man coverage and I think that’s opening things up for us. We’re happy to be here, number one, and we heard a lot of the things that have been said about us and we just want to prove ourselves.”
Edmonton’s Hank Ilesic punted again as Moon finally picked up a first down, but nothing else. The Eskimos’ first three possessions were punt-punt-punt. Ottawa’s first three times with the ball went field goal-field goal-touchdown. The first quarter ended with the Rough Riders leading by a score of 13-0.
I remember being at a Grey Cup watch party at a friend’s place that day and we were absolutely giddy by this point. Mind you, beer was flowing as well. But what was unfolding on the television screen was contributing more to it than any liquid refreshment at that point. After fifteen minutes, Ottawa had 132 total yards and Edmonton had 8. That explains as much about that first quarter as anything.
The second quarter began with Watts throwing an interception, but on the subsequent series, Moon fired a ball that right defensive end Jim Piaskoski got a paw on. The ball caromed up into the air and Ottawa linebacker John Glassford won a jump ball with an Edmonton receiver and it was Riders’ ball once again well into Eskimos’ territory.
After an incomplete pass that was intended for Tony Gabriel, Watts used his speed to elude the Esks’ pursuit and move the ball with his legs down to the 15-yard-line. On the next play, Watts handed the ball to Sam Platt and with his dynamic running, darting and weaving between Edmonton’s James ‘Quick’ Parker, Mike McLeod and Dan Kepley, he managed to get the ball into the end zone.
In the broadcast booth, Pat Marsden, Mike Wadsworth and Frank Rigney were beside themselves. Ottawa was ahead 20-0 by this point. On the Edmonton sideline, coach Hugh Campbell had seen enough of Warren Moon. The veteran Tom Wilkinson would be coming into the game. Everyone was aghast at what had been unfolding in front of them, whether they were at Olympic Stadium or they were watching at home.
Wilkie’s first time with the ball resulted in no first downs and another Hank Ilesic punt. We were now more than twenty minutes into the game and the Eskimos had just a single first down to their credit. The broadcast crew was effusive in their pronouncements that George Brancato was getting way more out of his players than they actually had to give.
Brian Williams spoke to Val Belcher in the second quarter. He asked him how the Riders were moving the ball so easily against the Eskimos. “Well, we thought we could run the ball on them. We ran the ball on them pretty well last time we played them (in October). We ran a few traps and draws up the middle there and the guys are really working hard. We have confidence in what we’re doing and we’re really fortunate we got off to a good start in this game.”
One thing that Wilkinson appeared to do for the Eskimos that Moon wasn’t was to expose the Riders’ inability to cover the short passes. He managed a couple of first downs on the Esks’ next possession and, even though they ultimately had to punt, Wilkinson, Hugh Campbell and the rest of the Edmonton team were able to see that there may be a way out of this hole they had dug for themselves.
With less than six minutes remaining in the first half, Ottawa had 211 yards of total offense, Edmonton had 39. An illegal procedure penalty and a couple of plays that resulted in nothing forced the Riders into punting. The Eskimos got the ball at their own 46-yard-line to start their next possession. There were less than five minutes left in the half.
Edmonton began to control the ball and on a couple of separate third-down-and-inches, Moon came in to pick up the first downs. Wilkinson was dinking and dunking his way down the field on short passes. Ottawa was taking away Brian Kelly and Waddell Smith and the long passes, so the wily veteran Wilkinson was taking what the defense was giving him in the open passes underneath the coverage.
Eventually, the Riders stopped the Eskimos progress. A 23-yard field goal attempt by Dave Cutler with just over a minute left in the second quarter went wide right. The score was now 20-1. That was how the first half would end.
Brian Williams made a comment just before the end of the half that was interesting. He said to play-by-play man Pat Marsden, “Patrick, prior to the game, several Rough Rider players told me that if they went into the dressing room trailing by ten points or less, they’d be happy. This is beyond their wildest expectations.”
The half ended with the crowd of more than 53,000 fans giving the Ottawa Rough Riders a standing ovation. They were holding a 20-1 lead going into the room. This was the time when important things happened on both sides. Pat Stoqua talked about what the atmosphere was like in the Riders’ room.
“Everything in the first half, we could do no wrong, offensively, defensively. Warren Moon started for them, we sacked him, they intercepted him. The offense, we got a lot of first downs, It’s just like, adrenaline was running and momentum’s a funny thing. Once it’s on your side, it’s wonderful. Somebody pinch me! When it’s not, everybody’s scratching their heads.” Yes Pat, but how was the room?
“You know, we were in uncharted waters there,” Stoqua told me in September of 2022. “Edmonton won handily in the first game of the season in Ottawa. We played them tougher in Edmonton in the fall but they still won. To be up 20-1 in the Grey Cup against the same team, I think everyone was surprised. I don’t think anybody thought that would happen.”
“Everything seemed to go right for us and everything seemed to go wrong for them and I think they adjusted at half time, and we did too. Billy Hardee, God bless him, he intercepted a ball in the third quarter and gave us great field position and we thought the momentum was going to continue.”
The wonderful thing in those days, where the Grey Cup was concerned, was the cooperation between the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the CTV Network. CTV did the first half of the Grey Cup game and the CBC did the second half. It was almost the most Canadian thing about this game. Pat Marsden handled the play-by-play duties in the first half and we were greeted by Don Wittman’s voice when the teams came out for the second half. And no one thought anything of it.
Wittman was a distinguished broadcaster who was synonymous with the CBC. He was born in Herbert, Saskatchewan. He embodied the prairies and Western Canada. Pat Marsden was an Ottawa boy who went to St. Patrick’s High School and the University of Ottawa. He started his radio career at CKOY in the nation’s capital. It was somehow fitting that while Marsden was doing the first half, Ottawa was doing well and when Wittman took over, the tide turned.
Edmonton got the ball to start the third quarter. It took a little while to get going but halfway through the third quarter, the Eskimos began to get things going. Warren Moon was back in at quarterback and Tom Wilkinson and Hugh Campbell had used the half time intermission to talk to Moon about the usefulness of the short pass against the Ottawa defense. Moon got the message.
The half started in a rocky fashion for Edmonton at first. Moon, who had completed only one pass in his time in the first half of the game, threw a long pass directly into the hands of Ottawa’s Billy Hardee on the first series of the third quarter. Hardee returned the ball into Eskimo territory.
But the Riders couldn’t muster anything against some ferocious Eskimo hitting and they went three and out on that possession. It was on this set of plays that Moon began to demonstrate that he had absorbed the words of Campbell and Wilkinson at halftime. Ottawa was not allowing him anything deep but that left the short pass plays open and Moon began to take advantage.
A nice play by Billy Hardee ended an Eskimo threat on a second down and ten to get Ottawa the ball back. Hardee had played fifty games with the Toronto Argonauts and at the end of each of the seasons he played there, he went home after the last regular season game. He had played six games in the nation’s capital and he was now finding himself playing a prominent role in the Grey Cup.
On the subsequent Ottawa series, a Watts completion was negated by a holding penalty. The Eskimos started to intensely pursue the Ottawa quarterback and with Hank Ilesic’s superiority in the punting department, Edmonton was starting to win the field position battle. The Gerry Organ punt was taken by Emilio Fraietta and he carried it into the Rider half of the field.
As Moon was moving his team deeper into enemy territory, sideline reporter Bill Stephenson had a quick chat with Eskimos’ defensive lineman David Boone. “First of all, we want to win the second half,” Boone said. “The thing we’re doing is, we’re trying to overcome our mistakes and play as a team. Maybe in the first half, we came out a little bit too much individually minded. Now, you’re going to see us gel as a team.”
While Boone was talking to Stephenson, Moon dumped a little pass off to fullback Neil Lumsden who ran it down to the Ottawa 15-yard line. Then Moon hit Tom Scott inside the Riders’ five. It was then Jim Germany’s turn. He carried the ball to the two. Moon gave him the ball again and this time he dove over the goal line for the Esks’ first touchdown of the day. There were a little more than four minutes remaining in the third quarter.
It was now 20-8. There was a feeling of foreboding in the pits of the stomachs of the Ottawa Rough Riders’ fans. Everyone knew how the team in green and gold could strike and do it quickly. Tom Towns hit Carl Brazley hard on the kickoff return and it took Brazley a long time to get off the turf. The Eskimos were beginning to feel their oats.
It had taken the first forty minutes of the game but it finally looked like the Eskimos had become emotionally invested in this game. That seemed to be confirmed when Stephenson spoke to Jim Germany on the sidelines while J. C. Watts was being sacked by Dave “Dr. Death” Fennell.
“We needed that touchdown. I hope it will set the team on fire and hopefully, we can come back and try to pull this game out. Ottawa came out and surprised us.” On the next play, as Watts was trying to evade the endless sea of rushers in green, a simultaneous hit by Dan Kepley and James Parker knocked the ball out of his hands. Dale Potter pounced on the loose orb to give Edmonton possession on the Riders 3-yard-line.
The air was quickly leaving the Ottawa balloon the same way that people were jumping on lifeboats on the Titanic.
On the first Eskimo play, Moon gave it to Neil Lumsden who was completely stuffed at the line. But an illegal motion penalty moved the ball back to the 8-yard-line. Moon hit Marco Cyncar on an out route to the right and the ball sat at the three again. Moon then tried to run left around the corner but Rick Sowieta pursued the quarterback and Jon Sutton moved up to stop Moon. Sutton and Moon went head to head on the hit and Sutton was slow getting up.
Third down, goal to go.
This time, Moon kept the ball and dove over the top for the score. Just like that, Ottawa’s hold on this game was slipping away. With a minute left before the teams switched ends for the final frame, it was now 20-15 for Ottawa. The Eskimos scored two touchdowns in less than three minutes. Carl Brazley was back in the game for the return and he ran the kickoff back close to his team’s 40.
On the first play, Watts hit Tony Gabriel for a twenty-yard gain. On the next play, Watts tried to throw long for Pat Stoqua. Stoqua explained what happened. “I went up for a pass (near the Edmonton 20) and I had the guy beat and Larry Highbaugh left his cover to come over behind me for the interception. I didn’t think there was anyone behind me. We would have had a long gain but.......kudos to him.”
Highbaugh explained his play to Bill Stephenson. “We were in a halfback blitz and I just happened to read where the quarterback was throwing the ball and I just went for it. I just hope we can get a couple more (plays) here. Ottawa is playing very well. This is the best they’ve played all year and they deserve to be here right now. They’re playing really, really good football.”
The teams exchanged punts and on the Eskimos’ next possession, Greg Marshall knocked the ball out of the hands of Warren Moon and it rolled around until Ottawa’s Doug Seymour fell on it. “One of our ends hit him and knocked the ball loose and I just happened to be there to fall on it,” Seymour told Brian Williams.
When Williams asked him why the team seemed to be ‘sleeping’ in the third quarter, Seymour replied, “I don’t know, we’re just not playing ball like we were playing in the first half. We just got to smarten up and play harder.” After a couple of Rider plays got the ball down to the Edmonton 20, Gerry Organ booted a field goal right down the middle of the goal posts to give his team an eight-point lead. It was 23-15 with eight and a half minutes left.
If you believed the CBC crew of Lancaster and Cahill, the swagger was back in the Riders’ stride. A couple of plays by Jon Sutton and Larry Brune then forced an Eskimos’ three-and-out. Ilesic kicked the ball from his own 20 to Kelvin Kirk at the Riders’ 40. He returned it well into Edmonton territory. But an Ottawa block from behind took the ball back into their side of the field.
The situation and the score seemed to force the Eskimos to play with even more intensity. They sacked Watts on second down and forced another Ottawa punt. When Warren Moon evaded an Ottawa rush on the ensuing series, he found Tom Scott and moved the ball for a 33 yard gain. A Moon-to-Cyncar pass got them down to the Ottawa 25.
He then completed a pass to Neil Lumsden who lumbered down to the Ottawa one. It was the ninth pass Lumsden caught in the game. He had picked up 81 yards on those receptions. Moon kept the ball on the next play and it was suddenly 23-21. Edmonton was going to go for two points on the conversion.
Moon was forced to roll out to his right. He threw against his body. It looked like Moon was throwing to Brian Kelly, but Cyncar stepped back in from the sideline and caught the ball in front of Kelly in the end zone. The score was tied at 23-23. There were just under four minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Ottawa took the kickoff and scrimmaged the ball at their own 33. Watts’ first pass was incomplete. Then came a play that changed the course of the game.
It was second down and ten to go. 3:28 was left on the clock when the ball was snapped. Watts was scrambling around the backfield. He rolled to his right and then back to his left. As he was running, he spotted Tony Gabriel. Gabriel was pushed a couple of times by Gary Hayes. Gabriel lunged back toward the ball and caught it at the 55-yard-line. But a flag was thrown.
There seemed to be confusion on the field. Officials consulted. Maury Mulhern was the official who threw the flag. He called interference on both Gabriel and on Hayes. Double interference. The fans were shocked. The Riders were shocked. At home, viewers were asking ‘what the heck was going on?’
In the broadcast booth, Leo Cahill was pointing out that Hayes had shoved Gabriel twice downfield before the ball was thrown. By rule, that was interference. Ron Lancaster agreed but thought there should be no call. The Riders were having trouble generating any kind of offensive momentum in the second half and when they finally get a huge positive play, it was ruled a penalty on both sides and the down was replayed back at the Ottawa 33.
Gabriel explained it this way. “I was jostling with Gary Hayes, their defensive back, and I still catch the ball around mid-field or better. And then the flag comes out. It’s called for double interference.” J. C. Watts was asked if he had ever seen a double interference call before. “Hadn’t seen it before and haven’t seen it afterwards.”
Pat Stoqua explained how that play changed the entire complexion of the game for the Rough Riders. “I think it rocked everybody, including everybody in the stadium and everybody watching on TV. I don’t think there’s been one (a double interference call) before and I don’t think there’s been one after. I don’t think that referee has worked another game since.”
“It’s a game changer. If we get the call, I know we’re on their side of centre-field. I think we’re close to field goal range. It’s like three minutes left in the game. We’ve got a helluva kicker in Gerry Organ. He’s got a great leg. It would have been first down. If we could have scratched out a first down or two, you know, milked the clock for a bit, and have Gerry put one through the uprights, then now, they need a touchdown to win.”
“Double interference. People will talk about that until the cows come home!”
“I look at what goes on today and there’s a lot more pushing and shoving and grabbing that goes on and there are no calls.”
Stoqua was indeed correct. Mulhern never worked a CFL game on the field again. A look through the 1990 CFL Facts, Figures & Records book shows every official and all the supervisors. He worked as an on-field official from 1964 until 1981. In 1985, he became an officiating supervisor. So, after that Grey Cup Game, he never worked another CFL game as an official. What is not known is whether it was his choice or the league’s.
The down was replayed. Watts was sacked. The Riders had to punt. The wind was out of their sails.
There were still less than three minutes to play. Anything could still happen but those of us watching at home had a very strong feeling that we knew how things were going to turn out. The punt was returned by Hayes to the Edmonton 43. There was a boatload of time for the Eskimos to move into Dave Cutler’s field goal range.
Eskimos’ defensive lineman Ron Estay spoke to Bill Stephenson while his offense was on the field. “I think the momentum’s coming our way and I just hope that we can pull this thing out because we’ve been working hard all year.” Estay was almost in tears as he told Stephenson that he wanted to tell his young child ‘hello’ from the sidelines.
With 2:18 remaining, the Eskimos had the ball on the Ottawa 51-yard-line. Second down and ten yards to go. Moon was tackled after running for two yards. It was third down for the Eskimos. Ilesic punted it as deep as he could in an attempt to score a single point. It made it into the end zone, but Kelvin Kirk ran it out to the Ottawa 12.
On second down, Watts fired the ball deep to a streaking Kelvin Kirk. If he caught it, he would have had a very good chance of taking it to the end zone, but it fell between his fingertips. An incomplete pass. Ottawa was forced to punt. Fraietta returned the ball to the Ottawa 51. On the next play, Jim Germany ran for nine. Moon took the ball down to the 39 on a plunge for a first down with 1:15 left.
Next, Moon handed to Germany who carried it down to the 30. Germany carried it again, this time down to the 22. He got the ball again and brought it two yards to the 20. Six seconds were remaining. It was time for Dave Cutler to kick the ball through from 27 yards out. The old-style, straight-on kicking Cutler booted it right down Main Street for a 26-23 lead with scant seconds left on the clock.
The decision to have Cutler kick the game-winning field goal was, apparently, not an easy one. The other alternative was to have their punter Hank Ilesic, who had boomed massive punts out all day, kick a ball through the end zone for a single point and win the game that way. Hugh Campbell talked about that decision making process after the game.
“We were arguing on the sidelines, quite heatedly, whether to punt or try the field goal. We would have had to punt the ball 42 yards to get it over the dead-ball line for the single. The wind was swirling, plus they might have blocked it. But with a field goal, they couldn’t rush (Riders had three men in the end zone) and they can’t kick it back out if we make it. It was an argument, but I won.” He did win, and, ultimately, so did the Eskimos.
The game’s final play saw Watts scramble around in the backfield trying to find a receiver. At one point, as he was being chased by a couple of Eskimos, the back judge was in his way. Watts, in his effort to flee the blitzing defenders, put his hand on the official’s chest and pushed him out of the way. He then rounded the corner and ran. When he was given no easement downfield through an Eskimo wall, he lateraled the ball to Pat Stoqua but he had no room to move either and the game was over.
The Edmonton Eskimos had won their fourth consecutive Grey Cup championship.
J. C. Watts was named the game’s outstanding offensive player. John Glassford took the honour as the game’s outstanding defensive man. The game’s best Canadian player was Neil Lumsden. After the final gun sounded, Watts sat on the Ottawa bench on the sideline. He couldn’t move. Players from both teams came over to congratulate him but he was inconsolable.
Gerry Organ witnessed what he saw on the Ottawa sideline. “Two or three of the Edmonton players went over to console J. C. He was still sitting on the bench with his head down.” Watts told Brian Williams years later, “They were saying, ‘Hey. You’re gonna have a good career here’, but that doesn’t ease the pain.....one bit!”
For John Glassford, it was “flat-out heartbreaking. We had absolutely given everything we had on the field”.
“It’s the win that should have been,” Watts told Williams. “Instead of talking about the win that was, we’re sitting here talking about the win that didn’t happen.”
When Pat Stoqua sat down with me in September of 2022, I asked him if, after all these years, he and his teammates are able to derive any satisfaction at all from having taken that incredible Eskimos team to the final seconds of the final game despite not coming away with a victory. His response was positive.
“I do and I think everybody on our team did and, you know, they’re still talking about it 35 and 40 years later. It’s forgotten by many but a lot of people in Ottawa still remember it. And certainly, if they remember me, they always associate me with that one play in Hamilton that got us to the Grey Cup.”
Football is such a game of emotion. And, as would be expected, emotions were on display in the Ottawa locker room after the game. J. C. Watts told the assembled reporters after it was all over, “We didn’t come here to be second in the country. We came to win the championship. We should have won it.”
Defensive tackle Mike Raines was livid about the officiating in this game. “There should be a lot of pressure put on (commissioner) Jake Gaudaur and the whole CFL about their bull**** officials. This game is seen all over the States too, and it’s an embarrassment to Canada to see bull**** officials like that in a national championship.”
“They tackled Piaskoski...no call. Stevenson tackled me, right in front of the official and pulled my shoe right off. I had to leave the field, and no call. On that same play, they call our defensive end (Greg Marshall) for holding and the fullback was blocking on him. Now you tell me how a defensive end can be holding when a fullback is blocking on him. It’s a f***ing shame to have officiating like that. It cost us $5,000 apiece too. And it’s not only this game.”
Bob O’Billovich was unhappy about the officiating as well, but he was not as intensely transparent as Raines was. “Edmonton has a great team. They showed a lot of character coming back like that. But they had a lot of help out there. And they don’t need that kind of help. They should get busy to improve the officials instead of the playoff structure.”
General manager Jake Dunlap was beside himself, but with sorrow. “Aw, I just feel so bad for all these guys. They played their guts out and I’m just so damn proud of every one of them, and to have officiating like that...it’s just so...” After that, he turned away and wiped his eyes and his nose. “I just hope the city, everybody at home, appreciates these guys.”
If you’re wondering about how the Rough Riders’ performance was viewed by the people on the other side of the field, their coach, Hugh Campbell told the press that Ottawa had played a “tremendous game”. He added that “it was not unexpected. What matters is how you’re playing now, not how you played early in the season. And Ottawa has been playing very well for weeks.”
There were a few adjustments that the Eskimos made at halftime to try to compete more successfully against the shocking Riders. One was for Wilkinson and the coaches to convince Warren Moon to think more about taking what the Riders were giving him. Instead of trying to go deep, he should concentrate more on short passes underneath the coverage. When Moon found Neil Lumsden on short routes in the second half, the Eskimos surged.
Another adjustment was for the Eskimos defense to transition from a zone defense to man-to-man coverage. What that did was to take away Watts’ affinity for the screen passes that were going for decent gains in the first half. It left the Ottawa signal-caller without his favorite option in the third and fourth quarters. “That took away our big bread and butter play,” Watts told reporters.
For Tony Gabriel, it would have been nice to win, but he already had a couple of Grey Cup rings. In the game, Gabriel finished with six catches for 76 yards and was Ottawa’s leading receiver. There were people who doubted he would even play in the game at the beginning of the week because of his torn knee ligaments. He ended up playing the entire game except for the final five Ottawa plays.
He had to come out because of cramping in his calf. Gabriel chose to see his glass as half full. “Sure, I’m disappointed we didn’t win, but I’ve taken personal satisfaction in the way we played today. It was a great feeling to be part of this team and playing in a Grey Cup. All that was missing was four more points.”
The Rough Riders spent the entire 1981 season trying to find players who could play in any particular game in any particular week. Their player turnover throughout the season was almost ridiculous. The first time they had the same lineup for two consecutive games occurred in the East semi-final and the East final. Coincidentally, this was the time the team seemed to come together into a cohesive unit.
Over in the Edmonton locker room, there were two players who were about to receive their very first Grey Cup rings – ten-year veteran linebacker Bill Manchuk and defensive back Gary Hayes. Manchuk had played his previous nine seasons in Regina with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Winning the Grey Cup for the first time brought out the adolescent in Manchuk.
After the win, in the victorious Eskimos’ locker room, a naked Manchuk was walking about the room drinking from the trophy. He drank as much as he was able to and then, when he tired of the taste of whatever was in the Cup at that final moment, he poured the contents of it all over himself. Boys will be boys, I guess.
Dave Cutler had some complimentary things to say about the Ottawa defense after the Grey Cup was over. The Eskimos amassed only 333 yards of total offense. According to the Edmonton kicker, “We’re used to rolling up 500 yards offense. They took so much away from us – our deep passes, our ground game.”
The Rough Riders went into the game hoping to limit Moon’s downfield passing ability and they accomplished that. Their two most potent weapons, Waddell Smith and Brian Kelly, were limited to a total of five receptions for a total of 51 yards. Jon Sutton and Carl Brazley each had incredible performances against formidable competition.
Another Rider who performed exceptionally was John Glassford. In fact, the Ottawa defense played one of their best games of the year. Mike Raines, Greg Marshall, Jim Piaskoski and Doug Seymour all made significant contributions to the team’s performance in the 1981 Grey Cup. Glassford was named the game’s outstanding defensive player. His interception was no doubt a contributing factor.
Their play was one of the reasons Campbell pulled Moon from the game in the first half and replaced him with the veteran, Tom Wilkinson. Wilkinson completed ten of his thirteen passes for 80 yards, but he showed Moon that Ottawa was leaving the short passes available and Moon took advantage of that in the second half.
Moon spoke about his own adjustment while Wilkinson was on the field with reporters after the game. “The time on the bench allowed me to regroup mentally. Ottawa’s pass rush, and they rushed only four, was the best I’ve seen all year.” What the Eskimos realized in the time that Wilkinson was in the game was that there was a way to move the ball against this pesky Riders’ defense.
“In the room, a lot of stuff was being said,” Jim Germany told reporters. “Then Wilkie stood up and it got quiet. He said we had come too far to let it end on a bad note. We’ve had the best season ever in the CFL and we could make Grey Cup history.”
In that narrow window of time at the intermission, Wilkinson, quarterback coach Bruce Lemmerman and Moon all got together to figure out how they would proceed against the Rough Riders in the second half. Hugh Campbell was in on the discussions. Campbell spoke about how the period of time in the room between the second and third quarters went.
“I’d say about halfway through the intermission, the attitude changed to ‘we’ve got a job to do’ from some of the rah-rah stuff that was going on. Wilkie knew he was only going in there for a few series when he went in. He knew Warren was starting the second half and he did his best to help him.”
Neil Lumsden spoke to a scrum of reporters. “This game was important for all the obvious reasons, and it was important for the reason we had to win for Wilkie and Stu Lang and Bob Howes – this might be their last game.”
Wilkinson was happy to have been able to do what he could for his team, to help them win another Grey Cup. But he also acknowledged his opponents on this Grey Cup day. “Everyone said all week we were playing a 5-11 team. Well, that was the best team in the East. They should be very proud.”
Hugh Campbell spoke of how his veteran quarterback altered the landscape of that first half. “Wilkie did exactly what we wanted him to do. He changed the tempo of the game, got us back into it. He is a tremendously unselfish player. We’ve had great players here and we’ve had unselfish players here. I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone with the combination of a Tom Wilkinson.”
Meanwhile, there was Tom Wilkinson sitting in his stall, stepping out of his gold ochre football pants, wiping his teary eyes and, for one last time, spitting his chewing tobacco into a styrofoam cup.
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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.