Grey Cup at 100: Our national, nation-building, unifying force
An event that makes Canadians take notice for a few hours on a cold November Sunday
Hugh Campbell and Ron Atchison (right) guzzle champagne after the 1966 Grey Cup.
Photograph by: Brian Kent, Vancouver Sun files
TORONTO — As the Grey Cup hits its centennial, a healthy debate might ensue if someone were to commission a Mount Rushmore of the greatest figures in the championship's 100 years.
Who would go up there, if only four could make it?
Lew Hayman? Five Grey Cups with three different teams as a coach, co-founder of the Montreal Alouettes, GM, administrator, league president? Automatic.
Hugh Campbell? Grey Cup in Regina as a wide receiver, five straight Cups as Edmonton Eskimos coach, another as GM, three more as de facto chief executive? Also a no-brainer.
But how to fill in the other half of the escarpment?
Don Matthews, Wally Buono, the coaching icons? Ronnie Lancaster, Jackie Parker, Doug Flutie? Anthony Calvillo, Warren Moon? Cal Murphy, Frank Clair, Bob Ackles? The under-appreciated mug of Damon Allen, or the Hollywood-pretty visage of Milt Stegall? Angelo Mosca swinging his cane at Joe Kapp, or landing on Willie Fleming's leg?
This generation might say no one was more important to the Canadian Football League than David Braley.
Could you truly carve out an accurate representation of the Grey Cup's essential durability without including two overserved fans in rival team uniforms leaning on each other, perhaps one in Rider Green and the other in Toronto double blue with his mouth open — his mournful "Arrrrrrgooooos!" hanging in the air above the mountain, unspoken but clearly implied?
Would the monument have to be ankle-deep in mud, encased in ice, or enshrouded in fog for the sake of historical accuracy?
Some of the greatest witnesses to the last 50 of those 100 years, the keepers of the folklore, are now, sadly, "out of our reach," to use the delicate phrase of Hugh Campbell. Just in the last few years, Campbell, now 71 and retired in San Diego, has lost Joe Faragalli and Murphy from that Edmonton coaching staff, as well as his former quarterback and dear friend Lancaster, and his longtime sounding board, Parker. Another from that dynasty staff, Matthews, won't be able to make it to Toronto for the 100th anniversary because he's battling cancer in Oregon.
But in conversation last week with three CFL lifers — Buono, Bob O'Billovich and Campbell — it's clear that all three believe there's still a lot of juice in the old institution, as under-loved as it might sometimes appear in its largest market.
There is nothing scientific about this cross-section, just three people who bled for the league, three people I've grown to know and like, and (another helpful asset) who are still above ground.
"It's like in life, we always need something to look forward to, to rally around," Buono, the B.C. Lions' GM, was saying in his Surrey office. "And that's what the Grey Cup has been, for a lot of people, for a long time.
"It's because people know, every year, like Christmas, like Thanksgiving, it's coming, and there's a consistency to it in their lives.
"It broke the language barrier in Quebec," said Buono, who grew up in Montreal and played for the Alouettes. "It gave pride to a province that maybe was not as endowed as Ontario or Quebec, the pride of winning this national treasure — I mean Saskatchewan or Manitoba. It'd be unbelievable to see what a Grey Cup would do if a Maritime team was involved.
"Because when we see Canada, we always speak of the large centres that drive politics, that drive business ... but when the small brother in Confederation, if you want to put it that way, succeeds and does greater things than the big brother, the pride it brings to that province is very special.
"And in the end, it's an identity, too. The Grey Cups that are celebrated are, what, the Mud Bowl, the Fog Bowl, the Staple Game. All predicated on the harshness of our winters. It's the ability to overcome the environment, which is a victory in itself."
Campbell was a senior at Washington State and O'Billovich had just graduated from Montana when each saw his first Grey Cup, the same one — 1962's Fog Bowl.
"It was on ABC's Wide World Of Sports, Jim McKay doing play-by-play," said Campbell.
"I'd just signed with Ottawa," O'Billovich said, "and I saw that game and thought: 'What the heck's going on? They're going to play the last part of the game the next day?' "
Buono was only 12 at the time, but like Campbell and O'Billovich, that glimpse would be instrumental in a lifelong love affair with this creaky old league and its iconic championship game.
What has made the Grey Cup endure?
"I used to think it was the East-West rivalry," said Campbell, who has been to 17 Grey Cups as a participant (player, coach or administrator).
"But as time's gone on, I think the people of Canada don't necessarily root regionally any more. If their team's not in, sometimes they're so mad ... it's like fans in Hamilton are not going to root for the Toronto Argos. But in the beginning, it was very much that way — or at least, being in Saskatchewan, we certainly felt that way."
"I came here from Alberta, where it's either north or south. Nobody in Edmonton celebrates when Calgary wins the Cup, and vice versa," Buono said. "But when I got here and we won in 2006, the effect it had on the whole province was tremendous.
"And that's what the Grey Cup does. Everybody's there for the same reason, to celebrate football, the Canadian institution that it is, and at the end of it, I think it has a lot to do with breaking the barriers that we create because of ignorance, or politics. People are people."
Each one of them — indeed, probably everyone who has ever come from another place to put down roots in the CFL — has had to defend the game from skeptics and those who put it down as minor-league.
"When I came up to play, they were paying American players better up here than the NFL was. That's the truth," said O'Billovich, who's been a star player with Ottawa, a Grey Cup-winning coach in Toronto and a superior player personnel man in Saskatchewan, Calgary, B.C. and Hamilton.
"The CFL had been in existence longer, and the NFL was just getting ready to take off with their product. Of course, there's no comparison now when it comes to the finances, but the game itself, I've always said the CFL game is a better spectator sport."
This is an article of faith among CFL fans, who, like Buono, see the Grey Cup as the ultimate expression of a homegrown, unique game whose major league is the only one played entirely (but for the brief U.S. experiment in the early 1990s) within Canadian borders.
It has long survived as a unifying force, and even in a fragmented, contentious, bickering world, there is something to be said for an event that makes the whole country stand still for a few hours on a cold November evening — and maybe even force a sitting prime minister to make a choice.
"When we came back to Ottawa from that '66 game that we lost to Saskatchewan," said O'Billovich, "they had a dinner to recognize the Rough Riders for being in the Grey Cup, and John Diefenbaker came and spoke at it.
"He said he was really torn, being a Saskatchewan native son, and he thought the only safe way to go was to tell people he was cheering for the Roughriders (which could have meant Rough Riders).
"But he said down deep, he knew: they hadn't won a Grey Cup in Saskatchewan for so long, it was like when they had the great drought out there. He said it was so dry the trees were lookin' for dogs. I'll never forget that. It cracked everybody up."
On Twitter: Twitter.com/rcamcole
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