On the last day of November, 1968, I froze my meagre buttocks off in the chilly stands of Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium. Yet it was a thrilling cold. I was at the Grey Cup. Back in those far-off times, the CFL was everything to us young ‘uns, in a way that’s hard to imagine in our current era of NFL hype and adulation.
We collected CFL football cards (Cam Fraser!), watched every Saturday afternoon game on our small, black and white TV sets (Bernie Faloney!), and knew all the players (Vic Kristopaitis!). They were our heroes (Leo Lewis!). And nothing topped the Grey Cup. The Prime Minister (John Diefenbaker!) was often there to embarrass himself by flubbing the ceremonial kick-off. And who can forget Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s snazzy black cape? The Grey Cup parade was huge. Even Miss Grey Cup was a big deal.
Plus, there was all that lore. Red Storey galloping for three fourth quarter touchdowns in 1938, the famous 1950 Mud Bowl at Varsity Stadium where Buddy Tinsley almost drowned in a big puddle, Jackie Parker leading the Eskimos (Normie Kwan!) to three straight Grey Cups over the Montreal Alouettes and their great quarterback Sam “the Rifle” Etcheverry, and of course, the hilarious, never-to-be-forgotten Fog Bowl (Kenny Ploen!), which brought the teams back on Sunday to finish the last nine and a half minutes.
So, with all that background, actually sitting among the frenzied spectators at a Grey Cup for the first time was an unforgettable experience, even if the hated Ottawa Roughriders (Russ Jackson!) won the game.
Since then, I’ve taken in a number of Grey Cups. In 1974, I sat with my uncle in the uncovered end zone at Empire Stadium, getting absolutely drenched by a relentless late November downpour that turned the game into a waterlogged bore won by the Alouettes (Junior Ah You!). After that, it’s been all BC Place under it spectator-comfy dome. They included two pelvis-percolating, topsy-turvy clashes that went down to the final whistle – Damon Allen coming off the bench in Frank Merriwell fashion to lift Edmonton to a last gasp 38-36 win over the Arrrrr-gos, , and in 2005, the best football game I’ve ever seen, with the Eskies again prevailing, this time over the Alouettes, in double overtime, 38-35.
There was something else about that game. It was so damned Canadian. (We’ll forget the Black Keys, who performed at half time.) Governor-General Michaëlle Jean was there with her husband and young daughter. So was then Prime Minister Paul Martin. They weren’t in some box suite. They were sitting in the stands, like everyone else, and not exactly on the 55-yard line. Martin was close to the aisle. Fans carrying their beer and hot dogs had to edge past him to their own seat, as if he were just another guy in the crowd, which he was. The Grey Cup was presented to the delirious Eskimos by the Queen’s representative, who didn’t seem to mind at all being in the midst of those big, beefy, braying, sweaty, gridiron warriors (A.J. Gass!). And finally, I was there for the Lions winning the Grey Cup at home in 2011 (Adam Bighill!). Not a great game, but a celebration from beginning to end.
These are all treasured memories at a time when it’s not fashionable to be a CFL fan. Media jackals hover around the league, thirsting on the least sign of decay. The refrain is tiresomely familiar: The NFL is so much better, the CFL doesn’t appeal to younger fans, Toronto is a dead zone, the referees are terrible, etc. All of which are true, of course, yet the CFL survives. And it remains first in my heart. It’s Canadian through and through. The rules are different. (I once saw an American kick-returner playing his first game in Canada signal for a fair catch, then relax as he caught the ball. Ohhh, did he get crunched….)
At its best and yes, this has been a dreary season, Canadian football is a more exciting, wide-open game. It’s survived for more than a hundred years. The quality of football remains high. Just ask any of those NFL-ers like Cameron Wake and Bruce Browner who got their break by playing in Canada. They don’t dis the CFL. There’s nothing quite like a league that stretches across the country (sorry, Maritimes) and is ours, alone. We only have one: it’s the Canadian Football League.
Do we have to fall for everything hyped south of the border? Can we not ignore Black Friday? Can we not enjoy NFL games, without dissing the CFL, and not think the Super Bowl is the greatest event in the history of the world? More Canadians still watch and follow the CFL than the NFL. This afternoon’s Grey Cup will be watched by millions of Canuckleheads. The league is far from dead, yet nay-sayers continue to hover, waiting to be the first to proclaim “I told you so.”
Okay, this is starting to sound like a Mickle whine. No one should support and appreciate the CFL out of duty or feeling sorry for the good old Canadian football game. The quality remains high. It’s not some shoddy, second-rate product. As mentioned, this was not a vintage year, with dominant defenses and a dearth of healthy, first-rate quarterbacks. Let’s hope that is temporary. There have also been some terrific seasons in recent years. I, for one, have renewed my BC Lions’ season tickets. (The CFL is actually a great bargain. My tickets average about $70 a game for a seat 20 rows up on the 40 yard line. Compare that to what you pay for the Canucks.)
Oh, and by the way, there is a uniquely Canadian, homespun goofy factor to the Grey Cup, with horses going into hotel lobbies, ridiculous mascots, watermelons on heads, flame helmets. It’s not all glitz and glamour and celebrities, as it is on Stupor Bowl Day. So, yes, I was there as Calgary and Hamilton went at it. Before the kick-off, I sang O Canada at the top of my lungs. It’s our game, and still a good one. And once the fourth quarter rolled around, we were rewarded with a tense, dramatic contest that came oh, so close to a miraculous victory for the underdog Tabbies. Yahoo!