1981 -- MR. WATTS’ WILD RIDE – PART 7 – THE EASTERN FINAL
FiredUp Network Sports Writer
Monday, October 17, 2022
MR. WATTS’ WILD RIDE – PART 7 – THE EASTERN FINAL
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 9
There were elements of both satisfaction and relief emanating from the Ottawa Rough Riders’ 20-16 Eastern semi-final victory over the Montreal Alouettes on that second Sunday in November of 1981. Bob O’Billovich, the team’s defensive secondary coach termed the game a “super aggressive” effort. But George Brancato seemed more relieved than anything else after his charges pulled out the win.
“I was reluctant to watch it (the game film) because I didn’t think we could do it again. After stopping them on the 20 (yard-line) with two minutes to go, then to do it again a minute later... Montreal was a good club and they played well, but we came out and played tough football. If we are going to beat Hamilton, we’ll have to play the same way.”
How tough was the game against Montreal? Mike Peerman, the defensive tackle for the Riders, had some evidence. His helmet was Exhibit ‘A’. One side of it was cracked. The ear hole on the other side was pulled such that there was a slit from the bottom of it to the bottom of the helmet and his face mask was pushed and bent inward.
Football can be a brutal game and matchups along the line of scrimmage can go a long way in dictating the outcome of a game. Brancato loved what he saw from his Schenley Award nominee for outstanding offensive lineman, Val Belcher. “He was laying people out everywhere. If there was any doubt about who should win the Schenley, that game should have settled it. Belcher had a hell of a game.”
The coach also had praise for Pat Staub, who returned from injury to play offensive tackle. He was face to face all day with Montreal’s defensive end Keith Gary, who had enjoyed a monster day the week before in Montreal’s runaway victory over Ottawa in the regular season finale. “I didn’t see much of Keith Gary in there,” Brancato told reporters. “Staub did a job on him.”
O’Billovich was proud of the day that Larry Brune had. The Alouettes liked to run the ball and depended on David Overstreet to carry that load. But their success on the ground depended on the blocking ability of tight end Peter Dalla Riva. Brune was basically shadowing Dalla Riva and taking him out of the play allowing others to come up and stuff Overstreet before he could get rolling.
In the end, the Alouettes accumulated just 48 yards on the ground the entire day.
And, speaking of Montreal, a couple of local songwriters there came up with a ditty that chronicled the failures of their football team. Andy Nulman and Ian Cooney put some lyrics down to a country beat and got mixed reviews.
They called the team’s quarterback Vince ‘The Prince’ Ferragamo and in their song, made comment about his propensity to throw interceptions, noting that “Vince had all the hero assets, good looks and endless charms. Too bad most of his passes met opposition arms.”
They also tossed some snark at Nelson Skalbania and his flirtation with high-priced players from the National Football League. “You’d figure these new players would make Als watching fun. The only thing that thrilled us though was the bang of the game-end gun.”
The pair also hurled some of their satire at the coaching staff and the mid season change that saw Joe Scannella fired and Jim Eddy brought in to replace him. “Jim Eddy then replaced him, promised changes at all cost. The only real change next game was the score by which they lost.”
Nulman and Cooney even had some thoughts on the fans in Montreal, whose numbers began declining as the Alouettes’ losses began piling up. “The fans, they started faithful. They roared like grizzly bears. Before long they were showing up, disguised as empty chairs.”
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 10
The game film from the win over Montreal had been perused. It was now time to begin preparations for the upcoming Eastern final game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The Ti-Cats finished the season with a very good 11-4-1 record and there was no doubt that they were salivating at the fact that they were playing the 5-11 Ottawa Rough Riders.
Ottawa’s fullback, Jim Reid, knew all about the Steeltown ‘attitude’ and games in Hamilton took on a particular feel. Reid started his Canadian Football League career as a member of the black and gold but was traded in 1980 after a knee injury required his leg joint to be rebuilt. The Ti-Cats saw the former Wilfrid Laurier University product to be expendable and dealt him, along with linebacker Bill Banks, to Ottawa in exchange for offensive lineman Ray Honey.
In the 1980 season, Reid, playing with Ottawa, got a bit of revenge against his former team. He told the Ottawa Citizen’s Tom Casey about it as the Riders were getting ready to play the Ti-Cats in their playoff game. “I got great satisfaction last year when I caught a pass for 62 yards and my first pro touchdown against Hamilton. It showed them that I wasn’t finished.”
He also spoke about his aspirations for the approaching Sunday in ‘The Hammer’. “There’s a certain cockiness about the Ti-Cats when they play at Ivor Wynne Stadium. I know. I played there. I’d like to put that to rest.”
Going into the game, the oddsmakers had the Rough Riders as a 13-point underdog against the Tiger-Cats.
While Brancato, O’Billovich, Moss and the players were busy preparing for Hamilton, there was some consternation in the front office as league attendance figures for the season were released to the media. Of course, Edmonton, with their amazing team and the massive Commonwealth Stadium, led the league averaging more than 45,000 per game. Ottawa attracted about a third of that. And the fallout from the numbers was disconcerting.
It’s hard to discern if Riders’ general manager Jake Dunlap was posturing, but he spoke with the Ottawa Citizen’s Rick Mayoh and his tone was quite somber. “It leaves me with a serious doubt that Ottawa citizens want football. Unless I see a substantial increase in attendance next year, we’ll have to explore the possibility of moving elsewhere. How long can you go on? If the people don’t want football, we have to do something.”
At this point, Dunlap had filed nothing with the league about moving the team. Presumably, he was speaking for the owner, Allan Waters. But Waters wasn’t really thrilled with the numbers he saw either. “We’ve discussed many things. You can’t keep a franchise playing forever. I was very disappointed last weekend when only 17,500 turned out for the semi-final. And it was a great game. Too bad the fans missed it.”
But Riders’ president Terry Kielty saw some other possible explanations for the low attendance numbers including constant roster changes, a lot of lousy weather and a new league schedule that was confounding for the team and their fans.
“We were hit with a half dozen home dates that turned out to be disastrous for weather,” Kielty told Mayoh. “And we went into a weekend configuration of games for television to bring back-to-back East and West games. We thought it was a very good marketing plan and then the (CBC) television strike wiped out a major portion of the schedule.”
“We drew several Friday dates and they are not the first choice in Ottawa, but you have to accept some dates you don’t really want. The biggest conflict is working around the baseball schedule.”
Injuries and constant roster moves didn’t help the situation either, according to Kielty. “We never had the same team on the field two weeks in a row. We got off to a sluggish start and then the injury factor was just incredible. Fans like to be able to identify with the players.”
The reality of the situation was fairly obvious though. With so many injuries and roster moves, it was difficult for every player to get used to what the guy beside them was going to do play in and play out. That continuity is important. Without it, it’s difficult for a team to mesh and succeed. When the team is losing more than it is winning, the fans, especially in Ottawa, will wait until the following year to see what the team does. It was true in 1981 and it’s true more than forty years later. Ottawa fans love their football, but they want it to be on their terms.
The weather system that rolled through the nation’s capital for the previous weekend and turned the Lansdowne Park field into a muddy slog created a healthy topic of conversation. It wasn’t just sports fans talking. It went much higher than that. One member of city council, Alderman Don Reid said the conditions in the Ottawa-Montreal game left him “completely embarrassed” and came just short of asking for artificial turf for the city-owned facility.
With a natural turf field, the city’s annual financial outlay was about $40,000 to $50,000. And every August, the Central Canada Exhibition would roll into Lansdowne Park and surrounding environs. A massive stage was erected on the field for the two weeks of the annual fair and it would kill the grass on which it stood.
An artificial turf field would cost the city approximately $1.1 to $1.2 million to install. The life of such a field would be about eight years. But Reid postulated that the extra cost of the field could be returned in increased usage by high schools and amateur teams. What to do? What to do?
On the football front, there was a possibility that Carl Brazley would not be able to play against Hamilton after suffering a hip pointer against Montreal. He was expected to be able to play by Sunday, but in the event he couldn’t go, the team brought Mike Ulmer in on a 14-day trial to replace Brazley. Ulmer had spent some time with the Toronto Argonauts and Calgary Stampeders in 1981.
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 11
On the second day of Ulmer’s 14-day trial with the Riders, he went down with an injury. It was, wait for it, a pulled hamstring. Carl Brazley’s hip was responding to treatment and it looked like he would be able to participate in the game on Sunday in Hamilton. Randy Rhino and Jerome Stanton would both still be out. With Brazley in the lineup, that would mean that the team would field the same lineup for two consecutive weekends for the first time in 1981.
In Hamilton, Tiger-Cats coach Frank Kush and general manager Joe Zuger acknowledged that they had to make some adjustments to their offense and their defense ahead of their meeting with Ottawa. Zuger felt that Ottawa had the ability to come up with explosive plays at different times in their games and he wanted his team to be ready for them.
“You just can’t let them (the Riders) lull you to sleep, which they did against Montreal. All of a sudden, they hit two big plays to Avery and Gabriel.” For the Ti-Cats, there was also a feeling that their offense had stagnated a bit and Zuger and Kush recognized that in their season finale, a 21-11 victory over the Argonauts. This was despite having Tom Clements as their quarterback. He was one of the best in the league.
“At the start of the season, nobody really seemed to know what we were doing,” Zuger told United Press Canada. “But after a while, we’d developed our own tendencies and the other teams were able to pick up on them. Pretty soon they discovered we didn’t have much of a running attack and they were just waiting for the pass.”
Frank Kush agreed with his general manager. “What’s happened to us is an inability to run. Every team has recognized our inability to run and they don’t worry about it. They merely build up their pass defense. The linebackers can play loose. To win, we have to be able to run the ball. We have a good passing attack but for it to remain that way, we must make our opponents respect the run.”
Evidently, Kush and the Tiger-Cats were not taking the Rough Riders lightly, despite being heavy favourites in the upcoming Eastern final game.
In Ottawa, the team’s attendance issues had become a huge point of conversation among the talking heads and the people who followed the Riders. One man who had an opinion was the director of recreation for the (then) City of Hull. Jean Cadieux had a somewhat informed take on the subject, having played football for the University of Ottawa and even experiencing a brief stint with the Riders in 1954.
For twelve years he was the colour commentator for the Rough Riders’ French radio broadcasts on radio station CJRC. 1981 was the first year that the games were not done in the French language and Cadieux believed the team was missing out on a good chunk of football fans by ignoring Western Quebec.
“Despite what the club says, there is football interest in Western Quebec,” Cadieux told Tom Casey. “We talk football every day in the office but I get the attitude Riders don’t need this side of the river. The proof of the interest is that every time Montreal plays in Ottawa, there’s an extra 5,000 fans in the stands.”
Cadieux was not just pulling numbers out of the air. The attendance numbers for the five previous seasons indicated that when the Alouettes would play in Ottawa, there would be 5,000 more people in the seats than the seasonal average. The team also did very little marketing or advertising in French media. In fact, CJRC was running a promotion over the last month or so of the 1981 season offering tickets to games in Montreal.
“The promotion got off the ground because the Als approached us about it,” said CJRC station manager Marc Lavoie. “They called me for a meeting and they came to Ottawa. Montreal made about 300 tickets available to us over the last three Montreal games. We made a deal with the bus company and a sponsor to transport the people to Montreal.”
“We would have had a similar promotion with the Riders but they never approached us. We hardly hear from them. I get the impression that the club is not at ease with the French element.” Indeed, the only place on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River that existed to sell tickets for Riders’ football games was the Sears store at Les Galeries de Hull. They sold between six and fifteen ducats per game.
From 1975 to 1980, the Riders averaged 26,355 fans per game. In 1981, that number fell to 19,666. Their biggest crowd of the season was 24,872 back in July when the Alouettes visited Lansdowne Park. Their lowest attendance of the year came out for their final regular season home game against Calgary. Just 15,002 folks showed up for that one.
Couple these numbers with the fact that the team got none of the concession or parking moneys and paid the city of Ottawa to use the stadium and it all added up to the fact that the team would lose about $200,000 for the season. In 1978, the Riders had a season ticket base of about 14,000 fans. By 1981, that number had fallen to just over 10,000.
At that time, it was acknowledged that the Rough Riders provided their season ticket holders with the best package of benefits in the CFL. The team also had the lowest ticket prices in the league in 1981 as well. But the team didn’t seem to want to go out of their way to market to areas outside the city limits.
The Ottawa Valley was once a good source of fans for the club. At one point, the Valley area made up about eight per cent of the Riders’ total attendance. By 1981, they accounted for just two per cent of the gate.
Also, while the league’s move to mid-summer weekend games has worked well everywhere except in Ottawa, there were reports that a lot of season ticket holders hated the weekend games. It cut into their cottage time. Many threatened to forego their season seats in the future if the schedule was not changed back.
There were complaints about the half-time shows, the entertainment and the game experience at Lansdowne Park. Local businesses were not canvassed for tickets and there seemed to be just a general creativity vacuum when it came to marketing the team to the people who may have otherwise wanted to go to the games.
“The football club has lost contact with the community,” a prominent Ottawa businessman, who wanted to remain anonymous, told Tom Casey. “Sure the entertainment dollar is tighter than ever before but the high tech industry has brought a lot of new people into Ottawa. The club has to attract these people into the ballpark.”
A team that had been a similar situation to Ottawa was the Saskatchewan Roughriders. In 1979, the team lost $432,000 and had to adjust how they presented the team to the city of Regina and the province of Saskatchewan. In 1980, the team went 2-14 but came out ahead on the financial ledger by $140,000.
Sean Quinlan was the ‘Riders director of marketing at the time and he outlined what he had the team do to get people back into the Taylor Field seats. “We had to bring the club back to the people. We organized pep rallies, pre-game breakfasts on weekends just hoping to cover our costs. We tried to turn games into social events. If you sit back and wait for things to happen, you’re going to have a long wait.”
It looked like the Ottawa Rough Riders would be forced into some kind of similar move. They may have had to step into the ‘80s with their marketing approaches in order to survive. But that was for the people in the front office. George Brancato and the coaches and the players had a more immediate issue on their minds. The Eastern final was coming up very quickly.
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 12
The happy cheer coming from the bowels of the South Side stands at Lansdowne Park was just the coaching staff confirming that Carl Brazley would indeed play on that coming Sunday against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. His assignment was pencilled in to be covering the Ti-Cats’ great receiver Keith Baker.
His hip pointer hadn’t 100 per cent healed yet, but he had full flexibility in the joint on Thursday during the team’s workout. He had yet to run at full speed since the game the previous weekend against Montreal but he was sure he would be at full strength by game time on Sunday.
Defensive backs’ coach Bob O’Billovich was very happy with that news. Earlier in the season, Brazley left the team citing disillusionment with professional football. He had other avenues in his life that he wanted to explore and he wasn’t really sure he wanted to play anymore. But he did tell the coaches that if they really needed him, he would come back.
“He has played well – real well,” O’Billovich said. “When he left, I told him that he had a lot of talent and I thought he was giving up a lot. While he is a quiet person, he plays the game with a lot of emotion. He’s very intense on the field and I feel he has an excellent future in football either as a safety or cornerback. His speed allows him to play either position.”
Brazley conceded that the team had been extremely fair with him. But even at that point in the season, he still wasn’t sure how committed he was to the game. “Even when I walked out on the club earlier in the season, I was well treated by Ottawa. I felt obligated to keep my promise to come back but I haven’t made any promises about next year.”
“I have a year left on my contract plus an option year and Ottawa said it might be prepared to re-negotiate. But I still have my doubts about playing pro football. I have other things I want to do in life. Law intrigues me and I have given consideration to a career in advertising. I have to sort out what I want to do in life and if I’m prepared to devote so much time to playing football. That’s the big problem and I’m the only guy who can make that decision.”
Earlier in the week, Hamilton coach Frank Kush had said that he wanted to revive his team’s running game against Ottawa. The Riders had always respected the arm of the Ti-Cats’ quarterback, Tom Clements. Given the way that Brazley shut down the Alouettes’ James Scott the week before, they knew that with Keith Baker running routes for Clements, they would need Brazley to be healthy and in the game.
Out west, the Edmonton Eskimos were getting themselves ready to host the B. C. Lions on Sunday afternoon. The Eskimos had a bye in the final week of the regular season and, having been the top team in the West, they had a bye in the first weekend of the postseason as well. This upcoming game would be their first in 22 days.
Of course, the rest versus rust argument was omnipresent as reporters were asking players their thoughts on the long layoff between games. “It’s no big thing. It doesn’t concern us at all,” Esks’ receiver Brian Kelly said. “In three weeks, we could have put in a whole new offense if we wanted to.”
Of course, Kelly was just trying to make a point about what the team could have done. He didn’t mean to imply that the team had actually done that. But someone went to the Eskimos’ offensive coordinator, Cal Murphy, and asked about Kelly’s comment. “We’re not going to change our offense. That would be silly,” Murphy responded.
The Eskimos had to be happy that the Lions had upset the Blue Bombers in the Western semi-final on the previous Sunday. Winnipeg had handed Edmonton their only defeat in the regular season back in July. Edmonton won both of their matchups with B. C. in 1981. In September, at Commonwealth Stadium, the Esks bested the Lions 38-21. Then, in October, at Empire Stadium in Vancouver, the visitors won again. It was a closer game this time, 22-12.
The Western final game was scheduled for 4 pm Eastern time on Sunday. It would be shown on CBC network stations. The Eastern final would kick off at 1 pm and be broadcast on the CTV network.
The topic of the field at Lansdowne Park came up again on the Thursday. Apparently there was a lot of talk about it at Ottawa’s city hall. The City of Ottawa had taken over the operation of Lansdowne Park and the land that surrounded it from the Central Canada Exhibition Association back in 1973.
Until then, the CCEA had run the park and all of the land and posted a profit every year. Since the City took over, it had managed to produce an annual loss. Given how the field had been managed and the resulting quagmire that resulted, there was talk among city aldermen to perhaps explore going back to a group similar to the old CCEA to operate the park and everything around it.
Back in 1973, when the City told the CCEA that they wanted to take it over, the Association tried to put off the takeover by offering to put in an artificial turf field at no cost to the taxpayers but the City told them no. Eddie Friel had been the groundskeeper at Lansdowne Park for more than fifty years. He was appalled by what he saw on the previous Sunday.
“There was no reason for that field to be in the condition it was last Sunday. No reason at all,” he told the Ottawa Citizen’s Eddie MacCabe. “That could have been rectified. They should have covered the field with polyethylene at the beginning of the week. It would have slicked off the rain and caught the snow and the field should have been bone dry on Sunday.”
“We did that all the time. The poly doesn’t cost much. You can use it for a season and throw it away. I don’t know why they don’t use ordinary common sense.”
At this point in 1981, the people in power at the City of Ottawa knew something had to be done with the field, the park and the land surrounding it. They just didn’t want to have to absorb the cost of it all. Some wanted to have a private board run the park and some, who knew the value of the land along Bank Street, were very reluctant to cede control of that land to a group of businessmen. It would be a fight that would linger for a long while.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 13 & SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 14
As kickoff time approached, the bulk of the talk, thankfully, went off the subject of the field and the possibility of moving the team out of Ottawa and reverted to the actual upcoming game itself. Both sides had expressed a plan to the media. The Ti-Cats were the superior team in many facets and, even though they had shown an excellent passing game throughout the entire season, they planned on working on improving their running game for the Eastern final on Sunday.
George Brancato had heard the pronouncements coming from Frank Kush. The Ottawa coach was skeptical. “I wonder if it’s all a smoke screen,” Brancato pondered to members of the media. “Hamilton has been winning when Clements moves the ball with his passing. That’s why they’ve been so successful.”
1981 had been the best statistical season of Tom Clements’ career. He completed 301 of his 523 pass attempts for 4,536 yards. He added 27 touchdown passes to his list of career highs. Bob O’Billovich figured that the main way of keeping Clements from being successful was to keep him in the pocket and not allowing him to roll out and take extra time to find his excellent corps of receivers.
“We’ll have to be disciplined in our pass rush,” O’Billovich said. “We can’t afford to let Clements outside or he’ll kill us.” Brancato added to what his assistant had said. “Give him the time and he’ll find secondary receivers and that’s what he does best.” But Clements believed he had grown past that old stereotype of his play.
When Clements broke into the league with Ottawa in 1975, the Alouettes found success by not allowing him to get out of the pocket. The Montreal braintrust compared his throwing motion to that of a javelin thrower. Their rationale was that he had to roll out of the pocket to be able to throw the ball successfully. But Clements refuted that hypothesis when talking to reporters on the Friday before the big game.
“Although last year in Kansas City was a wasted season for me, I had a chance to work on my technique. My motion is a lot different now. I also went on a weight program and I feel I’ve strengthened my arm considerably. I have more velocity on passes and I work out of the pocket better and more than before. I’m also a more experienced quarterback and I think I can dictate what goes on in a game.”
Ottawa’s offensive line coach Joe Moss was very impressed by the Tiger-Cats’ defensive group. “I like Hamilton’s personnel on defense but they’re a well-drilled team. They disguise their defenses particularly well and what they do is sound. Nothing fancy. When they get in trouble, they come at you with the blitz.”
Moss was particularly intrigued by the potential battles between Hamilton’s defensive tackle Ecomet Burley against Ottawa guard Rudy Phillips and defensive end Grover Covington against Riders’ tackle Kevin Powell.
Brancato figured that the best way to put a clamp on Clements was to try to keep him off the field as much as possible. That meant playing a deliberate ball-control game by any and every means possible.
“It will be very important for us to keep Clements off the field as much as possible if we’re going to win. The onus will be on the offense to control the ball and I don’t care how we do it, either with the run or the pass. Give Clements enough chances and he’ll hurt us.”
Kush reiterated the fact that he planned to emphasize the running game in this contest. He planned to take out David Green and replace him with Rufus Crawford. Six weeks previous, in the Hamilton game in Ottawa, Green had a very difficult day against Ottawa’s attack. Kush liked Crawford’s versatility.
“(Green) ran hard but he picked up only 21 yards on eleven carries,” Kush said. “Consider the defense has to play a yard off the ball. That meant Ottawa gave us eleven free yards. In other words, Green busted his butt for ten yards. The only reason we’re using Crawford is because he can do more things.”
As much as Moss was impressed by the Tiger-Cats’ defensive personnel, Kush was equally enamoured by Ottawa’s defensive linemen. “Guys like (Greg) Marshall and (Mike) Raines are not only quick but they’re also big. Raines is a very good player and he’s experienced just like Marshall. They are physical and they could wear us down.”
Something that concerned Kush was his feeling that his team had begun to stagnate after they clinched first place on September 26 after defeating Ottawa 30-16. The Ti-Cats experienced a couple of bad losses at Ivor Wynne Stadium to Saskatchewan (28-12) and the B. C. Lions (34-7). “The thing that bothers me was we didn’t improve offensively in that period. We didn’t progress, but fortunately, our defense held. It has been good all year.”
J. C. Watts was the guy who could potentially be the wild card according to the Hamilton coach. Although Brancato was concerned with Watts’ inconsistency, Kush saw the Ottawa signal caller as a potential source for trouble for his team.
“You don’t know what to expect from him and so how do you prepare? His ability to run and the fact that he throws on the run makes it tough. That accounts for a lot of Ottawa’s big plays. Offensively, Ottawa is a big play team and we must avoid those at all cost.”
Tony Gabriel had announced long before this game in Hamilton that 1981 would be his final CFL season. He spent his first years in the league as a Tiger-Cat. He grew up in Burlington, which is a suburb of the place many refer to as Steeltown. The Riders’ hotel for this business trip was in Burlington. On an overpass on the highway that led to their hotel was a banner that read “WELCOME HOME, HOTDOG!” referring to the Ottawa tight end.
Fasten your seatbelts, Hamilton. This could be a bumpy ride.
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 15
The day broke brightly with the sun shining. There was a chill in the air, but by kickoff time, the temperature was about 9 degrees Celsius at Ivor Wynne Stadium for the Eastern final. The Riders wore their white jerseys and white pants. J. C. Watts wore a white long sleeved t-shirt under his equipment and uniform.
Ivor Wynne had often been a graveyard for the hopes of the Ottawa Rough Riders and their fans. As Ottawa Citizen columnist Eddie MacCabe wrote before the Eastern final, “year after year, when Russ Jackson was the boss man, they (the Tiger-Cats) would tee off on him, abuse the whole Rider lineup and win for fun, until one year, after a brutal mauling, the indomitable Jackson sat in the dressing room, tears coursing down his face, and said ‘Every year it seems. Every damn year.’”
In this game, the visitors arrived as 13-point underdogs. In the two games between these two clubs in 1981, Hamilton outscored Ottawa 77-26. There wasn’t a single soul that thought the Riders even had a chance. The Ti-Cats held advantages in so many of the matchups between the two teams that everyone, the people in the stadium and the folks at home watching their televisions, figured they knew who the winner would be. The only question was ‘What would be the margin of victory for Hamilton?’
The one area in which the Rough Riders had an edge was along the defensive line when Clements was under centre. But how could that possibly be enough?
Both sides had strong defensive lines and they made the opposing offenses work for every yard they could gain. In the first quarter, there was no scoring until the last thirty seconds of the frame. Ottawa had managed to move the ball down to the Hamilton 10-yard-line. Watts dumped the ball off to his check down man, Pat Stoqua who ran it in for the first score of the game. The quarter ended with the Riders leading 7-0.
“We were big underdogs,” Stoqua told me on The Sports Lunatics Show on the FiredUp Network in September of 2022. “I don’t think anyone except the guys on our own team thought we had a chance. I ran an out with a six or seven yard run to the end zone and that put us on the board.”
The second quarter was much like the first. Both teams could move the ball but couldn’t punch it in for a touchdown. Ottawa’s defense manhandled the Ti-Cats’ offensive line, especially Marshall and Raines. They used a wide rush to prevent Clements from being able to get out of the pocket and gain time to find his receivers.
On the other side, when Ottawa had the ball, Grover Covington and the Hamilton defensive line made life difficult for J. C. Watts, Sam Platt and the Ottawa offense. Hamilton recorded the only points of the second quarter. Bernie Ruoff booted a field goal with just over two minutes remaining in the half. Less than a minute later, Hamilton got the ball back and he kicked a single. It was 7-4 for Ottawa after thirty minutes.
That first half was low-scoring and hard-hitting. Everyone was feeling it after it was over, some more than others. Early in the first quarter, Rufus Crawford was carrying the ball and Mark Philp and linebacker Bill Mitchell teamed up to crunch the Hamilton running back. The hit resulted in a fumble, which was recovered by Rick Sowieta. The play didn’t result in any points but Philp was lost for the rest of the game.
Bruce Walker was pushed from behind in the end zone and went down on that hard Ivor Wynne artificial turf. But as he braced himself for the fall, he suffered some damage in his wrist. There were torn ligaments and possibly a fracture. “As I was pushed, I reached down with my hand to break the fall and as soon as I landed, I knew something was wrong.”
Early in the second quarter, Pat Stoqua was rocked by a hit and was knocked out. He missed the rest of the half and part of the second half as well. He was able to return to the game although there were varying opinions as to the degree of his level of consciousness. In the papers after the game, it was written that he suffered a mild concussion.
According to Eddie MacCabe, Stoqua didn’t remember scoring the go-ahead touchdown in the first quarter. Bruce Walker described his teammate’s condition after the game. He said that Stoqua wasn’t sure how much of the game had elapsed while he was sitting on the bench. “You’d tell him and he’d keep asking questions, and two minutes later, he’d ask all the same things.”
“It was a physical game and they had some heavy hitters at the time,” Stoqua told me when we talked on The Sports Lunatics Show. “Ben Zambiasi, Harold Woods, they were very physical. There was head contact and I remember getting hit in the helmet and I was a little woozy. I started to get it back together again as the afternoon went on and they let me go back in.”
In the third quarter, the Tiger-Cats began to assert themselves. Halfway through that third stanza, Clements and his mates went on a drive and capped it off with a ten-yard connection to Rocky DiPietro to give Hamilton the lead. Ruoff kicked for a single on the last play of the quarter to make the score 12-7 for the home side after 45 minutes. In the fourth minute of the fourth quarter, He added another single to make it 13-7.
On their next possession, Clements was driving again. All day long, the Riders used some trickery to try to confuse the Hamilton quarterback. The Ti-Cats had the ball on the Ottawa 20-yard line and was looking to go up by 13 points. Brancato had his defense show blitz, but then they backed out of it. Clements lobbed the ball into the end zone but it was intercepted by Ottawa’s Glenn Cook who ran the ball out to the 8-yard-line. That was the third interception by the visitors on the day and it allowed the Riders to breathe a sigh of relief.
By this time, Pat Stoqua had been coherent enough to come back into the game. The process for detecting and treating concussions was far different in 1981 from the way it would be handled today. Stoqua told me about just how much times have changed when we talked on The Sports Lunatics Show.
“The protocol now, they have eyes in the booth on everybody. At the least sign of somebody showing any kind of concussion, they’ll pull him right out, they’ll take the helmet away and if there’s any question whatsoever, he won’t go back in the game, which is the way it should be. Back then it was a little more lenient.”
“I’m not saying they didn’t care, but once they hold up fingers and I say ‘five’ and it’s three and they say ‘close enough’ and they send you back out there,”Stoqua said with a laugh in his voice.
The first play from scrimmage after the Cook interception was an incomplete Watts pass. The second play was monumental. It was simply called ‘76’. Stoqua picked up the story in our conversation.
“A lot of people don’t know. Clements was picking us apart. They were on our 20. He throws an end zone pass. If they score the game’s over. If they score a touchdown, it’s a longshot that we can come back. Glenn Cook, a Canadian defensive back intercepted the ball and ran it out to about the ten-yard-line.”
“So now we’ve got to go 100 yards. The first play was an incomplete pass to Jimmy Reid. The second play was a pass to me. Kelvin (Kirk) cleared the area and I hooked at about 18 yards. I was fortunate enough to catch the ball. I was coming across the field and two Hamilton players tried to hit me simultaneously.”
“They kind of glanced off each other and took themselves out of the play. So, it gave me a head start and I got rid of these two-guys and I got all this open field ahead of me. I’m running down the sideline just hoping that my ten-yard head start would be enough. I was running by the Ottawa sideline and I was getting threatened that if I didn’t get there to the end zone, then don’t come back,” he said while laughing.
(Stoqua was not the fastest player in the league. His 40-yard dash time was in the range of 4.7 or 4.8 seconds according to George Brancato. Stoqua himself told me that he was closer to a 4.9. His teammates and coaches roasted him after the game, but it was all in fun.)
That touchdown tied the game. Gerry Organ’s extra point made it 14-13 for the Rough Riders. Ottawa had the lead in the fourth quarter in Hamilton. The 30,000 rabid fans at Ivor Wynne were gobsmacked. Jim Reid’s dream of going into Hamilton and winning might come true. Was it too early to dream? There were still 6 minutes and 40 seconds to play.
But Ottawa’s defense held strong and kept the Ti-Cats off the scoreboard the rest of the way. The only other points in the game came, on the Riders’ next possession, off the toe of Organ, about five minutes after the Stoqua touchdown. The final score was 17-13. Ottawa fans went into this one hoping that they would stay within the 13 points the bookies said would be the margin. They did far better.
The result was an absolute shocker. This rag-tag bunch was going to Montreal to play for the national championship! Brancato was never one to hide his emotions and he was beside himself with joy and disbelief after the game. “If someone would have asked me a month ago if we would be in the Grey Cup, I would have said ‘NO! NO WAY!’”
“But, you know, the team has been coming on the last three weeks. The players deserve the credit. They have played with great intensity. They’ve gained confidence in themselves and they started to believe in themselves. And, you also have to look at the leadership J. C. Watts has given us at quarterback.”
Pat Staub was one of Ottawa’s offensive tackles. He said Watts was the lynchpin for the team’s win. “He took a lot of knocks in there but he got up every time. The only way to get him out of the game is to knock him out.”
The Ti-Cats’ outstanding defensive end, Grover Covington, gave Watts a lot of credit when this one was over. “Everytime we got to Watts, he ran out of trouble. He’s Ottawa’s best runner and he can take a lot of punishment.”
Jake Dunlap, said about his quarterback, who was making $45,000 for the 1981 season, “He is really a quality individual, a fine young man. And Hamilton has $300,000 in quarterbacks. They have Dave Marler on a $100,000 no-cut and Clements is at least $200,000.”
Watts outplayed his $200,000 counterpart on this particular Sunday. He completed 19 of his 39 passes for 311 yards. 138 of those yards went to Tony Gabriel while 123 went to Pat Stoqua. Stoqua only had three passes thrown his way. He caught them all, but the most important one was obviously the game tying touchdown. That score caused several accolades to be tossed his way.
“I ended up winning Player of the Game and they gave me a framed...it was five 100-dollar bills in it and it was in Hamilton Tiger-Cat colours, so, obviously, they were sure that someone from Hamilton was going to win it,” Stoqua told me. “I got ‘Panasonic Play of the Week’ and they used to give away little TVs.”
“And then that play became ‘Panasonic Play of the Year’. So I got a stereo and some other stuff. It probably took me ten seconds to run down the field but I got all this gratuitous stuff.....it was great! I could see it being ‘Play of the Week’, but ‘Play of the Year’? But, hey, it got us to a Grey Cup!”
Frank Kush felt that Watts’ play on this Sunday was one of the factors that made the difference in the outcome. But he also blamed himself. “It’s my fault,” Kush said after the game. “I just didn’t kick their butts hard enough. They thought all they had to do was show up. So, they didn’t make anything happen and Ottawa did.”
Clements threw 41 passes on the day and completed 22 of them. He was picked off three times. He was somewhat productive, but, as Kush put it, “This wasn’t one of Clements’ classic performances. We had the chances but we failed to convert them and there were times when he had more than adequate time to get the ball off. But Watts gave Ottawa some big plays.”
Kush lauded more praise on Ottawa’s young leader. “His inconsistency was his greatest asset. If there’s nothing open, he’ll tuck it in and take off. Maybe, when he gets older, he’ll learn to eat it. I hope so.”
The Hamilton head coach also had compliments for Ottawa’s defensive performance, especially their front four. “As I said going into the game, Marshall and Raines were the key. They had a tremendous afternoon and had pressure all the time.”
The Rough Riders now had to wait and see which team they would be facing in the Grey Cup game. The B. C. Lions had travelled to Commonwealth Stadium to face the Edmonton Eskimos in front of more than 52,000 green-and-gold-clad fans and the Leos were making life miserable for them.
This one started out like a heavyweight title fight with both teams feeling each other out for the first fifteen minutes. That quarter ended with the score 6-3 for Edmonton. Dave Cutler and Lui Passaglia accounted for all the points in that opening stanza. The Lions began to take over the game in the second quarter though.
After Cutler added another field goal in the first minute of the second quarter, the Lions got two Passaglia field goals and a 16-yard touchdown pass from Joe Paopao to Ricky Ellis to go into the intermission with a 16-9 lead. The Lions had punched the bully in the face. It was a reminder of the old Mike Tyson quote. “Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth.” The key thing is how the other person reacts to that punch.
Warren Moon had completed just seven of his 20 passes in that first half. The Lions came with a really strong rush. Moon finally found his game in the fourth quarter. The Eskimos finished the third quarter trailing by a score of 16-15. But halfway through that final fifteen minutes, Moon started getting it all together.
He completed three straight passes and shook off an eight-yard sack. He marched his team 71 yards. The final play was a 33-yard pass to Brian Kelly for the go-ahead touchdown. Then the Eskimos’ defense showed their mettle as they allowed the Lions nothing. In fact, they surrendered no B. C. points in the second half. The Esks prevailed 22-16.
Lions’ coach Vic Rapp called the Moon pass to Kelly ‘perfect’ after the game. “It was the perfect call for our defense. We were in a three-deep zone. It was a case where nobody got beat. Moon just happened to call the perfect play.”
Edmonton coach Hugh Campbell had raised an eyebrow when he watched the play unfold. He had different feelings about the play call. “If I had been in the huddle, I would have called for a similar play about 23 yards shorter. I would have played for the first down and a Cutler field goal.”
The Grey Cup had its two teams now. The matchup was set. The game would take place at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. It would be the Edmonton Eskimos representing the Western Division. They had suffered just one loss all season. They would face the team with the worst record to ever compete in a Grey Cup game. The 5-11 Ottawa Rough Riders.
But Greg Marshall would have none of that after the Riders’ victory in hostile Hamilton. “Five and eleven?! Forget it! How about two and oh?!!” he shouted in the jubilant Ottawa locker room after the game. Before 1981, the team with the worst record to play in the Grey Cup game was the 1970 Montreal Alouettes, who finished 7-6-1.
The players celebrated after the game and were justified to do just that. They had no idea, however, how their victory affected the faithful fans in Ottawa. They found out when their plane arrived back in the nation’s capital just before 7 pm that evening. About 1,500 football fanatics had jammed their way into the airport to greet their heroes.
They stood on lobby seats, plastic plant holders, dividers, stairways and even on the railings. They loudly shouted and chanted things to greet the team and amuse themselves. Fans started arriving at Ottawa International before 6 pm and they were waving Rough Rider pennants, throwing confetti, drinking beer and ringing cowbells. Christopher Walken would have been pleased.
There were fans there who were comparing Ottawa’s current defensive line of Mike Raines, Greg Marshall, Jim Piaskoski and (in this game) Doug Seymour to the Capital Punishment line of the mid 1970s. That line had Wayne Smith, Piaskoski, Tom Laputka and Rudy Sims. But the fans really started getting jubilant when they were able to see the players walking through the terminal.
They broke out in chants of ‘J. C., J. C., J. C.’ when Watts became visible. One fan shouted at Kelvin Kirk “Don’t let us down next week!” Kirk told that fan, “I’ve got to win for myself too!” Tony Gabriel’s wife, Diane, figured she would have a quiet pickup at the airport when she left her house to go pick up her husband.
“I came out for an intimate hello,” Diane told Bob Elliott of the Citizen. She also had her 2-year-old son Shane with her as well as her daughter. Shane was a little overwhelmed by the raucous crowd. “I can’t believe this!”
Also present were Ottawa mayor Marion Dewar and Nepean mayor Ben Franklin. (Franklin was also my geography teacher in high school.) Franklin was at the airport with his son to see and possibly greet the players as they came home. “I’m just here as a fan,” Dewar told Elliott. Franklin told Elliott that he could see the team gelling as the season was coming to an end. “You could see how much they improved as early as the loss (Thanksgiving weekend) in Edmonton.”
It seemed like everyone who was present there was just completely elated. There was one girl though, who leaning against a divider crying. She had come with her parents to greet Pat Stoqua but didn’t get to see him in the huge mass of people. “I couldn’t see my uncle,” said six-year old Erin Stoqua of Kanata.
Have no fear, Erin. You would see your uncle play in the Grey Cup in just seven more days.
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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.