MATT DUNIGAN’S MAGICAL NIGHT....THAT NO ONE GOT TO SEE

Howie Mooney
FiredUp Network Sports Writer

@HowieMooney

Thursday, May 5, 2022


Dr. George Berkeley was a 17th century Anglican bishop and philosopher.  He’s the man who famously once said, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”  A modern interpretation of that could read, “If a sporting event takes place but it isn’t televised, do the results count?”  

The answer is ‘yes’ to both questions, of course, but in today’s 24-hour/7-day-a-week news and sports multiverse, it’s almost impossible to imagine a game being played in a professional sports league that wouldn’t be televised.  But then, it wasn’t that long ago that such a thing would occur with stunning - by today’s standards - regularity.

Back in 1994, there was a night that a Canadian Football League quarterback had a record-setting performance.  The only problem was, the game, and the player’s magical night, weren’t televised.  He and his teammates were never able to relive the moment...until much later.  Let’s go back to the game in question first.  Actually, let’s go back to their game the week before first, just for some context.

*

It was the 1994 season opener for both the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the British Columbia Lions.  The game was played on the shores of False Creek at B.C. Place in Vancouver.  In the days leading up to the game, there was almost a feeling of ominous dread among the Winnipeg players.  Talk about a possible B.C. Place curse on the team abounded from years of bad results for the Bombers.

In an Ed Tait article in the Winnipeg Sun, on the day of the game, defensive back Darryl Sampson was quoted talking about some kind of force that exerted itself against the Bombers in that stadium.  “There’s a jinx here from when we used to be in the Western Conference,” Sampson told Tait.  

“We always had a hard time winning here,” he continued.  “There’s still a bit of a stigma about coming in here.  And then, if we get behind in the game, that old jinx seems to come back in your head.  It’s like ‘Oh no, this can’t be happening to us.’  Overcoming that is always a struggle.”

Bombers’ offensive lineman David Black had, what he thought, a plausible explanation for Winnipeg’s lack of success in the big Vancouver dome.  When the temperature outside the building goes up, the temperature inside goes up more.  Add to that a crowd of fans in the stands and it can get uncomfortably warm in there.  

“A lot of guys aren’t used to the dead air in here and they have a hard time breathing,” Black told Tait, adding, somewhat tongue-in-cheek,  “It doesn’t really affect the fat guys on the offensive line, but it definitely affects the DBs and receivers.”

Sampson mentioned something similar to Tait as well.  “It gets really hot in here.  It’s humid and I’m not sure what happens with the circulation because it gets very hot and you can get dehydrated if you’re not taking in the water.  A lot of defensive players are on special teams as well, so they get more exhausted, drained faster.”

A look at the results of Bombers’ games at B.C. Place, since the building opened in 1983, definitely points to some kind of trend, and not a positive one, for the Manitobans.  The teams had faced each other fourteen times at the dome.  Winnipeg had won only three times over that time.  (Remember that the Blue Bombers moved from the West Division to the East after the Montreal Alouettes folded after playing two preseason games before the 1987 season began.)

The B.C. Lions were aware of the cloud that hung over the Bombers when playing in the dome.  Lions’ kicker Lui Passaglia talked with Tait about their advantage when it came to games against Winnipeg.  

“Through the ‘80s, we were dominant and we’ve got to get some of that old tradition back in this building,” Passaglia told the Winnipeg reporter.  “Up until 1987, we were averaging 40,000 people a game here.  That would make a difference to the guys.  Now it’s a different situation.  But it doesn’t matter against (the Bombers).  Playing against Winnipeg always seems to get us pumped up, no matter how good your team is or isn’t.” 

For Passaglia, this matchup against Winnipeg would be his 287th CFL contest.

Sure enough, come game time on Friday night, July 8, the Bombers came out flat and seemed to float to a 24-20 loss in the contest.  Tait referred to the game as a ‘stinkbomb’ in his article on the night.  Winnipeg offensive coordinator Mike Kelly told Tait “I thought early in the game, we looked like we didn’t much want to be out there and that bothers me a lot.”

The team didn’t play terribly, but penalties and little mistakes at key moments cost them the ballgame.  The offense produced 427 total yards and the defense played some inspired football at times, but as Kelly said about his offensive group, “Nobody took charge and that surprises me a little bit.”

There was real concern in the city after the loss in Vancouver because the Bombers’ next opponent would be the team that had defeated them handily in the 1993 Grey Cup Game, the Edmonton Eskimos.  The Eskies went into their home opener against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and won an ugly one by a score of 28-11.  Damon Allen completed 32 of 47 passes for 413 yards and threw a couple of touchdown passes (to Lucius Floyd and Henry “Gizmo” Williams) in the game as well.

Back in that 1993 title game, the Eskimos went out to a 21-0 lead by the middle of the second quarter and they ended up coasting to a 33-23 win over Winnipeg.  Sean Fleming booted six field goals in the victory.  Edmonton never trailed in the game.  For the Blue Bombers, their usual starting quarterback, Matt Dunigan, was out with an injury.  Sammy Garza managed a running touchdown but could not lead his team to the victory.

*

Matt Dunigan had come to the Canadian Football League after playing as the starter at Louisiana Tech for the last two of his four seasons there.  When he got to his first camp with the Edmonton Eskimos in 1983, he was one of six quarterbacks trying out for two spots.  And, since one of those was Warren Moon, that meant there were five men competing for one job.  Dunigan knew he had his work cut out for him.

From 1978 to 1982, the Edmonton Eskimos won every Grey Cup Game played in that span.  Hugh Campbell had been the coach and the architect of those championship teams.  After that final Cup title, Campbell left the Eskimos and the CFL and went to Los Angeles to coach the Express of the USFL.  That left the job of coaching the Esks in 1983 to Pete Kettela.  He ran a tough camp.

Dunigan took his task of trying to make the team seriously.  While other guys were out enjoying the night life, he was in his dorm room trying to learn the playbook and trying to figure out what plays would work against this defense or that.  Kettela had something called ‘Concentration Period’ which took place on the field at 6:15 am every morning during camp.

The eventual Hall-of-Famer talked with Greg James on the ‘From The 55 Yard Line’ podcast about what he had to do to try to make that Edmonton team in 1983.  “I’m looking at the guys in the huddle and they all smell like a brewery and I’m trying to verbalize the play.  Then Kettela’s calling out the defense and I have to figure out what play and what formation is gonna work.  That was what ‘Concentration Period’ was about.”

“That first year, I was just trying to make the team.”

He did make the team.  In fact he was one of just two rookies to be chosen to play on the Eskimos in 1983.  The other was offensive lineman Blake Dermott.  Dermott ended up playing fourteen years with Edmonton.  Dunigan told James on the ’55 Yard Line’ cast, “We were privileged and honoured to make that team.  I think I charted 501 Warren Moon passes that season.”  Moon actually threw 664 passes in 1983, just so you know.

In 1984, Moon would leave Edmonton and Canada to play in the National Football League with the Houston Oilers.  The Oilers had hired Hugh Campbell to be their head coach in order to woo the CFL All-Star quarterback down to the state of Texas.  That left Dunigan to fight for the starter’s job.  Dunigan has said that it took him about six years before he felt comfortable with the big field, unlimited motion and the twelve men in the CFL.  He was being modest, no?

By 1987, Dunigan was in his sixth year in Edmonton.  He was now sharing the quarterback duties with Damon Allen.  The pair helped the Eskies to win the Grey Cup that November.  In 1988, Dunigan tried his hand at baseball that spring but ended up released.  Edmonton still owned his CFL rights but traded him to the B.C. Lions for seven players.  He led the Lions to wins in their last eight games, and took them to the Grey Cup in which they lost 22-21 to Winnipeg.  

He played in Vancouver in 1989 but was then traded to Toronto before the 1990 season, once again, for seven players.  In 1991, he and Raghib “The Rocket” Ismail led the Bruce McNall-John Candy-Wayne Gretzky-owned Argos to a Grey Cup victory in Winnipeg against the Blue Bombers!

Dunigan played the game with a broken collarbone in Minus-19 Celsius weather!  They don’t call it ‘Winterpeg’ for nothing!

The next off-season, he signed with Winnipeg and took the team to Grey Cup final in 1992 against Calgary and 1993 against his old Edmonton club but lost both.  1994 kind of became his ‘white whale’.

*

If Winnipeg didn’t win this game against Edmonton, they would start the season 0-2 and put themselves into a hole early in the season.  The week of the July 14 Eskimos’ game, Dunigan seemed sullen and quiet while keeping pretty much to himself.  Some of his teammates worried about him.  But receiver David Williams knew that his pivot was just mentally getting himself back together after the B.C. game.

“It was weird this week because Matt seemed distant,” Williams told Ed Tait.  “I knew he was going to come back.  Guys were wondering, ‘Hey, why is Matt standing over there?  How come he’s not himself?’  I just kept saying, ‘Don’t worry about Matt.  He’ll play the game of his life, we’ve just got to be ready.’”

Well, Dunigan played pretty well against his former team that night.  It just took a little while for him to start cooking.

With the game scoreless a little more than five minutes into the first quarter, Dunigan saw his pass get picked off by Eskimos’ defensive back, John Holland.  Holland caught the ball on the Winnipeg 51 and carried it to their 27, setting his team up with great field position.  But the Bombers’ defense held and forced Edmonton to settle for a Fleming field goal.

Before the opening frame was over, Dunigan led his offense on a 94-yard, seven-play drive that culminated in a Chris Johnstone 1-yard plunge for a touchdown.  After fifteen minutes, the Bombers led by a 7-3 score.

By the beginning of the second quarter, Dunigan had found his rhythm.  Less than three minutes into that second stanza, Winnipeg had a 14-3 lead.  The scoring play was a 56-yard pass from Dunigan to Alfred Jackson.  The drive took just five plays and covered 82 yards.

Before the halfway point of that second, the Bombers got the ball back.  Dunigan hit Jackson for a 44-yard gain and Williams for 12.  Just a little less than eight minutes remained in the half when running back Blaise Bryant ran the ball over the goal line from a yard out.  It was now 21-3 for the home team.  It was 21-4 after Fleming missed a field goal attempt with 5:09 remaining in the half.

But before the quarter ended, Dunigan went to work again.  He hit Gerald Wilcox for a 23-yard advance.  Bryant had a 15-yard run.  The quarterback himself went for an 11-yard scamper and then he hit Jackson for a 33-yard touchdown throw.  Dunigan drove his team 92 yards in six plays and at the half.  His Bombers were leading 28-4.  After that early interception, Dunigan finished the half with 322 yards passing and a couple of touchdowns.

*

Chris Walby was a standout offensive tackle with the Bombers.  This game was his 200th in the CFL and this night was set aside to honour the man his teammates called ‘Bluto’.  He had been drafted by the Montreal Alouettes back in 1981 and spent the season on their taxi squad.  But some behind-the-scenes chicanery by the Als resulted in Walby being declared a free agent and he was scooped up by his home-town team.

Anyway, July 14, 1994 in Winnipeg was Chris Walby Night and at halftime, his career was celebrated and Walby was honoured as he rightfully should have been.  That day, in the Winnipeg Sun, an Ed Willes piece appeared in which Willes talked with some of Walby’s current and former teammates and he shared some of their most interesting insights in his article.

Offensive linemen are astute and intelligent and they are always careful not to allow each other to get an overinflated sense of ego.  With that said, John Bonk, Bob Molle (pronounced ‘Molly’) and Walby’s 1994 offensive line-mate Miles Gorrell all took turns telling stories about the player they all had gotten to know over the many seasons.

From Bonk:  “When he came to us, it was obvious he didn’t do a lot of weight work.  He was well over 300 pounds and it wasn’t a sculpted 300 pounds.  We took him under our wing because he needed ‘taking under a wing’.  He was greener than guacamole.  About as soft too.”

Ouch.

From Gorrell:  “He’s allowed his day in the sun.  I was a rival of his for twelve years (before Gorrell joined Winnipeg).  I didn’t think he was that good until I played with him.  Now I truly believe he’s the best O-lineman to ever play the game.”

Bonk again:  “You don’t need to be good when you’re that big.  I think he’s trying to outeat Miles over there.  Watch the next coin toss.  When Chris walks out, watch the referee and the four guys on the other team bounce up in the air with every step he takes.  It’s very subtle but I’ve seen it on television.  You realize, of course, I’m kidding.”

From Molle:  “He starts yapping before his brain is engaged sometimes.  He just makes up a word.  I remember he tried to say ‘salivating’ once.  It came out ‘slaf-a-lating’.  We tried to figure out what he was talking about and it finally dawned on us – ‘salivating’.  He used to make up word after word like that.

But seriously, folks.  At the end, Bonk was talking about Walby’s size and mentioned to Willes how difficult it can be for a big man like that once he begins to exhibit signs of getting older.  “You can’t show weakness when you’re that big.”  Not to outsiders, at least.  But when you’re with your teammates, the guys who know you best and who understand what you’ve been through, you can be human.

Molle told Willes, “He’s a guy who made football enjoyable just by being there.”  And Gorrell added, “He’s done it the right way.  He’s had fun.”

Hail to Chris Walby on his 200th CFL game.

*

As Howard Cosell might have said, ‘Back to the live action!’  The Eskimos seemed to get revitalized at the intermission.  Damon Allen, Dunigan’s quarterback partner when both men played for Edmonton back in the 1987 Grey Cup, found a new energy and led his team to three major scores in the third quarter.  The Esks scored on their first drive.  

But when Winnipeg got the ball back on their own 25, Dunigan fired two passes – one to Jackson for a 31-yard pickup and the second, again to Jackson, for a 54-yard touchdown.  Two plays and the score was 35-11.  At the time Jackson scored, he had amassed 220 yards receiving in the game to that point.  The Eskimos got two more touchdowns though and the third quarter ended with the Bombers in the lead 35-25.

Winnipeg got the ball to end that third frame and had it on their own 22-yard line at the beginning of the fourth.  Right away, Dunigan found Jackson again for an 88-yard score to make it a 42-25 game.  That Jackson catch gave him the team single-game receiving record with 308 yards to that point.  

On their next possession, Edmonton moved the ball to the Winnipeg 18, but had to settle for a 25-yard Sean Fleming field goal.  The Bombers then took the ball and matriculated down to the Eskimos 38.  Troy Westwood came in for a 45-yard field goal try but he missed and netted a single point.  With ten minutes remaining in the game, it was 43-28 for the Bombers.

Edmonton got the ball back but the Winnipeg defense held firm and forced the visitors to punt.  Once again, Dunigan drove his team into opposing territory.  The drive ended with a 35-yard touchdown pass to David Williams.  That Williams catch gave Dunigan 689 passing yards in the game.  

That wild number obliterated the previous CFL record for passing yards in a single contest which had been held by Danny Barrett with 601 when he played for the B.C. Lions during the previous season.

With just less than four minutes remaining in the game, the score was now 50-28 in the Bombers’ favour.

Damon Allen gave way to Rickey Foggie behind the Eskimos’ centre.  He managed a 22-yard touchdown pass and the game ended with a 50-35 Winnipeg victory.  Matt Dunigan wound up throwing for a ridiculous 713 yards passing in the game.  He had five touchdown passes as well.  It was a dream night for the eventual Canadian Football Hall-of-Famer.

*

The next day, in the Winnipeg Sun, the headlines were screaming about Dunigan’s night!  ‘Dunigan electrifies Winnipeg fans as he smashes CFL passing record’.  Offensive coordinator Mike Kelly, who had been so despondent the week before was pretty much beaming after this game.  He and Dunigan were close.  The quarterback was the godfather of Kelly’s daughter, Lindsay Rose.

Kelly talked to Ed Tait after the game.  “I guess my daughter’s godfather and I will be sitting on the porch one day talking about this one, huh?”  Today, we call them ‘video game numbers’, but Dunigan’s stats that night were truly almost inconceivable.  

“They are ungodly numbers,” Kelly told Tait.  These are numbers...you never really think you’ll get to that level.  If Matt throws for 400-500 yards, yeah, I can see that.  But for him to throw for over 700 and one receiver to have over 300 yards...I’ve never seen anything like it!”

For his part, Dunigan was still trying to process everything that had just transpired.  “Walby kept yelling at me ‘You’re on fire!  You’re on fire!’,” Dunigan told the scrum of media around him after the game.  “A.J. (Jackson) was in a zone out there.  David (Williams) was in a zone.  I don’t know what happened out there.  I really don’t.”

“I was watching Danny Barrett last year when he was in the zone.  Everything was just working out there (tonight).  The receivers kept catching the ball and I never got touched.  I just kept plugging away and we had to in the second half because Damon started to get it going.  Honestly, I don’t know what happened.  We won and that’s the main thing.”

“I don’t even know if that was my best game.  I just threw for a lot of yards.”

As far as Bombers’ coach Cal Murphy was concerned, he felt a little differently.  “That’s a lot of yards.  Oh my, that’s a lot.  That’s about as well as I’ve ever seen anyone play.”

Miles Gorrell, as was mentioned earlier, was an offensive tackle for the Bombers and, as we all know, the offensive linemen are the huge men who perform a physical job in the trenches, but they are among some of the most intelligent humans on the face of the earth.  It was Gorrell’s contention, after that magnificent game by his quarterback, that the Canadian Football Hall of Fame should just start working on the sculpture of Matt Dunigan right then and there.

“That was the best performance by a quarterback I’ve ever seen or been involved with – NFL, CFL, college or anything,” Gorrell told the group of media personnel who surrounded his locker after the game.  “I’ve never been a witness to a single game performance like that.  It was incredible to watch.”

“Those numbers speak unto themselves and the guys that are ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame.  Matt’s a winner, he’s been a winner everywhere he’s been.  He’s a leader.  He’s the best at what he does right now.”

Alfred Jackson had an amazing game but he chose to look at what he could continue to do to be better.  He had been drafted into the National Football League but his then-coach wanted to use him as a defensive back.  Somewhere along the way, he found out that he was a decent pro receiver.  He finished that game against Edmonton with seven catches for 308 yards.  But his mindset was to keep working to still become better.

“I’ll always remember this,” Jackson told the assembled media around his locker.  “There’s room for improvement.  I got lazy at times out there when I knew the ball wasn’t coming to me.  I felt good coming out.  I just wanted to come out and show people we were a good team and prove that last week’s game was a fluke.”

Jackson broke James Murphy’s team record and he likely made the Eskimos’ defensive back Charles Wright question his job choice.  “(Wright) kept telling me I couldn’t get by him,” the Sun’s Ed Willes wrote after the game.  “I didn’t know who he was.  I thought I was going against (Ed) Berry.  They beat us pretty bad in the Grey Cup.  That was on my mind all week.  This is a bit of revenge.”

*

At the end of the 1994 CFL season, the Bombers ended up first in the East with a 13-5 record.  The Baltimore CFLs finished second in the division at 12-6.  Over in the West, the Calgary Stampeders topped the table at 15-3.  Edmonton was next at 13-5.  The B.C. Lions finished with an 11-6-1 record, followed by Saskatchewan with an 11-7 total.  

Neither Winnipeg, nor Calgary nor the Eskimos made it to the Grey Cup Game though.  The division final games were nail-biters.  Baltimore defeated the Bombers 14-12 to move on to the national title contest.  Meanwhile, in the West, the Lions edged the Stamps by a score of 37-36.  B.C. had beaten Edmonton 24-23 in the West semi-final.

This would be the first ever Canada vs. U.S.A. Grey Cup matchup.  There was drama in the Grey Cup as it took a Lui Passaglia 38-yard last-second field goal to give the Lions a 26-23 victory over Baltimore.  The CFLs’ defensive back Karl Anthony was named the game’s Most Valuable Player while Passaglia was named the Most Valuable Canadian of the showcase game.

(When the American teams joined the CFL in the expansion 'experiment' in 1994, the Baltimore franchise wanted to call themselves the ‘Colts’.  But a potential legal action forced them to choose another name.  For that 1994 season, they elected to call themselves the CFLs, or ‘Colts For Life’.  They eventually became the Baltimore Stallions and would win the 1995 Grey Cup with that name.)

*

The strange thing about the record setting match was not the astronomical numbers put up by Dunigan and Jackson, necessarily.  What was really odd was that this game was not nationally televised.  There were a few highlights of the game that had existed, but there was no television broadcast of it.

In 1994, the television rights for the CFL were split in Canada between the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (the CBC) and The Sports Network (TSN).  Not every game was broadcast.  In fact, on a weekly basis, there would be a number of games that had no television coverage.  This July 14, 1994 game between the Eskimos and Blue Bombers was one example of that.

But in 2020, a VHS copy of the in-stadium feed of the entire game was found by Canadian Football Hall of Fame employee Mark DeNobile.  That old-school video copy was converted to a digital format by Adam Marshall, video coordinator for CFL.ca.  Ed Tait had been given original stat sheets from Mike Kelly and Marshall used those to set up time stamps on the digital video.

The newly minted video was presented to a group of Blue Bombers who had never seen any production of the game and basically were watching it for the first time on the CFL’s ‘Remote Reunions’ series.  Dunigan was there on a video call in November of 2020 with Alfred Jackson, David Williams, Chris Walby, punter Bob Cameron and Miles Gorrell viewing the game.

After getting to watch the game with his old teammates, Dunigan talked with CFL.ca’s Chris O’Leary.  “The train just keeps on moving,” Dunigan told O’Leary about how the regular season works for the players.  “It just keeps on rolling and you don’t have time to reminisce, to think about what just happened.  You’re just on to the next one.”

“You make the corrections, you game plan for the next game and your focus is elsewhere.  As time goes on, I think you have the opportunity to reflect and then you get to see it in different aspects as time passes.  It’s been a pretty unique process since ’94 to watch this memory struggle and move forward to stay alive.”

“It’s good because it was one of those magical nights and I’m not out there by myself.  We’re a football team that had to regroup from the loss in the Grey Cup and the first regular season game on the road to B.C.  Our focus was on the task at hand and that never changed.”

Perhaps one of the greatest things is that a group of people who love the Canadian Football League and its history took it upon themselves to find and restore the video of the entire game so that those people who were in the centre of it all could one day get to sit down and enjoy it as a group and be able to see the looks on each other’s faces as they did.  That is the true meaning of ‘team’ and ‘sport’.

*     *     *

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 189 different platforms wherever you find your podcasts, including Alexa.