Fog Bowl Feature - By Daniel Sellers
Five hours before kickoff, about two hundred football fans loiter inside the north end of Toronto’s Varsity Stadium. They have come from far-flung cities and towns in every direction, and many proudly wear their team affiliations on their sleeves: large handheld flags fly the colours of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the Montreal Alouettes. Three face-painters work a modest booth at the base of the east-side bleachers, decorating cheeks with Canadian Football League logos. A small group, decked out in Hamilton Tiger-Cats regalia, draws the crowd’s attention momentarily with a spontaneous, full-throated rendition of their team’s unusual cheer: “Oskee wee-wee! Oskee wa-wa! Holy mackinaw! Tigers, eat ’em raw!” The air is chilled to a crisp and the afternoon sun is blindingly bright. It feels like a good day for football. Standing to one side of the crowd is the National Band of the Naval Reserve. They, like everyone else here, are waiting patiently for the Canadian Football League’s annual championship prize—the Grey Cup—to arrive.
It will not be the trophy’s first visit to Varsity Stadium. Between 1911, when the University of Toronto beat the Toronto Argonauts 14-7 amid snow flurries on a frozen field, and 1957, when Hamilton trounced Winnipeg 32-7, the Grey Cup was won and lost here 30 times. On this day, however, championship football will instead be played farther downtown, under the closed roof of the Rogers Centre. It will be the responsibility of the fans assembled here to carry the Cup—slowly, taking turns bearing its weight—to a game between the Argos and the Calgary Stampeders, where it will be awarded for the 100th time.
Hours later, as he introduced halftime opening act Gordon Lightfoot, veteran sportscaster Brian Williams tried to summarize the old trophy’s significance. “We’re a big country,” Williams said, “but national symbols like the Grey Cup and the railroad shrink those distances.” As Lightfoot launched into a no-nonsense rendition of his “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” before the 53,000 fans in attendance and the many millions more watching on TV, Williams seemed to have spoken the truth. Despite the considerable changes the Canadian game has seen since then, the Grey Cup remains, at 100, the same unifying cross-country cultural event it was at 50, on Saturday, December 1, 1962, when the Hamilton Tiger-Cats played the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at CNE Stadium in Toronto in a game that would come to be known as the Fog Bowl.
In 1962, Winnipeg and Hamilton were well-established as the class of the CFL, and fast becoming rivals; they had played against each other in four of the previous five Grey Cup games, and three of those four had seen Winnipeg come out on top. So they were already well acquainted when the game began at one in the afternoon. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker—whose minority government was just five months away from defeat amid bitter infighting over the issue of deployment of nuclear weapons on Canadian soil—performed the ceremonial opening kickoff before more than 32,000 fans. For the first time in Grey Cup history, the game was broadcast in the United States, on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, a privilege for which the network had forked over a whopping $36,000.
Although Toronto had seen some fog earlier in the week, the skies were relatively clear when Hamilton took a fast first-quarter lead. With the ball on his team’s 36-yard line, Ti-Cats quarterback Joe Zuger handed off to Garney Henley, who ran straight up the middle and through the line of scrimmage. Breaking what appeared to be a pair of sure tackles, Henley worked his way to the right side of the field and ran all the way up the sideline for a 74-yard touchdown. “Garney was a tremendous guy to play with. He could make a quarterback’s job pretty easy,” remembers Frank Cosentino, a Hamilton native and then the Ti-Cats’ back-up pivot. “He was deceptive, because the guy was pretty lean. I doubt that he weighed much more than 165, 170 pounds. But he had good speed and great anticipation and change of pace.” Placekicker Don Sutherin missed the ensuing extra point, but Hamilton had gone ahead 6-0.
Sutherin had first come to the CFL in 1958. A member of the New York Giants, he had been injured that year and joined the Ti-Cats on a rehab assignment. “Our head coach in Hamilton, Jim Trimble, he coached in Philadelphia in the National Football League. He knew the owners of the Giants real well, and they slipped me in as a loan,” Sutherin says. “I had to go back to New York after the end of the season. They kind of pulled some strings there, I guess.” But Sutherin was back in Hamilton in 1960, and this time he stuck around, for a 12-year-career that would ultimately send him to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. “We stayed in Canada in the off-season as well,” Sutherin says. “That was a thing that Trimble and [assistant coach Ralph] Sazio and [president and general manager Jake] Gaudaur always preached to us: that you come up here and you play football in Hamilton, you get a job and you stay here as long as your career lasts. And a lot of guys did that.”
In the second quarter, both teams’ offences came suddenly alive. A 41-yard run by Winnipeg quarterback Ken Ploen set up a Leo Lewis touchdown. Then Lewis took a handoff from Ploen and threw a 17-yard pass to Charlie Shepard in the end zone for another. Hamilton answered with two touchdowns of its own, but Lewis scored again to put the Bombers ahead 21-19 at halftime. “You could run Leo right, left, up the middle, make him block—make him do anything—he never complained,” remembers Ploen. “He was good at whatever he did.” A standout running back at Missouri’s Lincoln University in the early 1950s, Lewis joined the Bombers in 1955 and played his entire career in Winnipeg. There, he found success using a “sweep” play, which began with guards Cornel Piper and Ed Kotowich running around the end of the offensive line. “That was his bread-and-butter play,” says teammate Gerry James. “Pull a couple of linemen and pull a couple of backs and you sweep around the corner and just blow down anything that’s in your way.” Sometimes, it was all the blocking guards could do to keep ahead of the play. “Leo, a lot of times he’d put his hand on our rear end and say, ‘Get going, get going,’” Piper remembers. “He got all the glory, but we did all the crap.”
In those days, glory was the best that most professional football players could hope for. Holding a CFL roster spot did not pay well, so football was pursued in addition to a full-time job. Piper worked as a power engineer for Maple Leaf Mills, Winnipeg linebacker Gordie Rowland sold for Glidden Paints, and Bombers’ kick returner Ron ‘Pepe’ Latourelle taught high school. “Practices never started until about six,” says Nick Miller, a Winnipeg linebacker who also worked as a sales manager for Consolidated Motors. “You came right from work to the practice field and got dressed and jumped on the field and practiced for a couple hours and then went back home and went to your day job the next morning.”
For the Bombers, those evening practices were held on a field owned by Canada Packers, an adjacent meat processing plant. Conveniently, post-practice dinners were served in the facility’s cafeteria, but the field’s proximity to the plant had its drawbacks, too. “If the wind was in the wrong direction and drifted over the field, it filled your lungs up,” says Ploen. “It was unpleasant, no question, but you kind of got used to it.” Out of use and in disrepair, Canada Packers was demolished in 2001. “Leo Lewis came back to town several years after he retired,” says Miller. “He asked, ‘Is the packers still there?’ and I said, ‘The Packers is gone, they tore it down, but the smell is still there.’”
Hamilton scored a touchdown after halftime, and Winnipeg answered with one of its own. And here the scoring stalled, with the Bombers ahead 28-26. Advancing slowly and steadily since the second quarter, a heavy fog now hung low over the field and enveloped the players. As the game wore on, punts and even passes were become increasingly impossible to follow through the layers of haze. Players on the field were unable to see as far as the sidelines, and fans in the stands couldn’t see much of anything at all. “I had to kneel down on my knees and watch,” says Sutherin who, along with Henley, was returning punts that day. “You could only see half the bodies, from the waist down. That was how foggy it was. You couldn’t see the ball. I heard it hit and I’d yell, ‘Over here, Garney,’ or he’d yell at me. I mean, it was strange.” Somehow, the game continued. A 50-yard drive took Hamilton well into Winnipeg territory near the end of the third quarter. Sutherin was brought on to attempt a field goal that would have given the Ti-Cats a one-point edge. The ball was snapped back to Paul Dekker, who caught it and set it on its end before Sutherin’s foot came swinging through. “You got that one good,” Dekker said. The referees, peering up from the base of the uprights, weren’t convinced. “It came up into the fog and I couldn’t follow the ball, naturally, but it felt good,” Sutherin remembers. “But they said it was no good, and that ended up costing us the Grey Cup.”
Shortly after Sutherin’s kick—which did result in a single point to pull the Ti-Cats within one—head referee Paul Dojack suspended the game with nine minutes and 29 seconds of the fourth quarter remaining. The teams would reconvene the following afternoon at one to play the finish. “They were wise to call the game,” says Miller. “They couldn’t do anything else.” Earlier, with Hamilton driving the ball and the fog steadily thickening, Miller had leapt towards an incoming pass, certain of intercepting it. Ploen, who was not only the starting quarterback but played in the defensive backfield as well, mistook Miller for a Hamilton receiver and knocked the ball out of his hands. “The three of us go up in the fog and I come down and I’m jumping up and down—I was totally frustrated,” Miller says. “I wasn’t upset with Kenny. I mean, what are you going to do?”
Ploen was not the only player to see action at multiple positions. “In our day,” Miller says, “you always had to play two, at least.” Sutherin was a standout defensive back in addition to handling the placekicking. Zuger was both a punter and a quarterback. Some players, like Henley, hardly ever left the field during a game. “As a defensive player, he covered a lot of ground and the coaches ended up wanting to put him on defense,” Cosentino says of Henley. “Then the offensive coaches would like to work him in somehow into offence as a pass receiver, and special teams wanted him back there to run back punts or kickoffs.” The ability to play multiple positions was seen as an asset, and as a way for players to earn more money. Salaries varied widely, and were modest, but CFL pay was at least as good as the money players earned south of the border. Sutherin’s 1961 salary with the Ti-Cats was $18,500: $4,000 more than the New York Giants had paid him. “Unless you were a top drafter or big gun or something,” says Ploen, an Iowa native who still calls Winnipeg home, “Canadian League competed and paid quite well.” This parity was reflected in the level of talent on the leagues’ respective fields come game day. “The National Football League and the CFL in the ’50s and ’60s were really on a par,” says Cosentino. A 1961 exhibition game ended with the Ti-Cats 38-21 winners over the American Football League’s Buffalo Bills, a result that took many by surprise. “An inferior league, in an American’s eyes,” says Cosentino, “all of a sudden was beating a team in the American Football League.”
Gordie Mackie was in his hotel room on Saturday night when the phone rang. “I was probably looking after a couple players,” figures Mackie, who was, at that time, the Bombers’ trainer of five seasons. On the other end of the line was head coach Bud Grant. An accomplished athlete in his own right, Grant had played basketball for the National Basketball Assocation’s Minnesota Lakers and football for the Philadelphia Eagles of the NFL. When Mackie arrived in Grant’s room, the head coach was conducting a meeting with line coach Johnny Michels and backfield coach Joe Zaleski. “How do you get a team ready for nine-and-a-half minutes?” Grant asked. “As far as I’m concerned, we get ’em ready for a lot longer than that, just in case,” Mackie replied. “Well,” said Grant, “that’s what I want to hear.” Early the next morning, before breakfast, a steady procession of players began filing into and out of Mackie’s hotel room, in order to have their ankles wrapped in white adhesive tape, to prevent injury. “We had a ruling on the club that everybody had to have their ankles taped,” Mackie says. “Then we had guys with wonky knees that had to get their knees taped for extra support. All in all it was a pretty hectic morning.”
The Ti-Cats were similarly unprepared for a second successive day of football. Though they had tried to get home to Hamilton overnight, a blanket of fog had effectively closed the QEW. The team ended up settling for cheap lakeside accommodations. “Half the team stayed in one motel and half the team stayed in another,” remembers Sutherin. “They weren’t very nice.” The next afternoon, a modest crowd of 15,000 was relieved to find clear weather over CNE Stadium. Cosentino went in at quarterback in place of Zuger, who, nursing an injury, focused solely on punting. He was not the only one ailing. “The worst part of the whole thing was playing the next day,” James remembers. “It’s like playing two games back to back. It was brutal. I could hardly move.” Although Hamilton moved the ball well, they couldn’t score. Zuger’s attempted punt single to tie the game fell short, and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers were 28-27 winners of the 1962 Grey Cup.
For the Bombers, the 24-hour delay took some of the life out of the post-game celebration. “We went and we had a meal, and a couple of beers, and we sort of celebrated by ourselves,” remembers Winnipeg lineman Roger Hamelin. “But none of the fans were there to celebrate anything. Like usually on the Saturday night, after Grey Cup day, the town was going crazy.” Hamelin remembers how his uncle, a bus driver, would pull over periodically in order to listen to the big game on the radio. “Canada, as a nation, shut down.”
The Grey Cup has finally arrived at Varsity Stadium, held aloft and carried through the crowd by legendary Canadian-born quarterback Russ Jackson. After a series of brief speeches—by Jackson and CFL commissioner Mark Cohon, as well as Governor-General David Johnston and Lieutenant-Governor David Onley—the Cup is handed to its first bearer, David, an adolescent boy in a Ricky Ray jersey. The crowd transforms into a parade, the naval marching band leading the way. The Cup has travelled a long way to get here, shepherded from Canadian city to Canadian city as part of a 70-day cross-country road trip intended to symbolically share the event with the whole country by physically sharing the championship hardware. If this amounted to manufactured excitement, it might not have been necessary. In Montreal, Winnipeg, and especially Regina—where the Saskatchewan Roughriders are a publicly traded company—support for the CFL is unwavering. “Football in Saskatchewan is a huge thing; it draws the public in and they live and breathe with their Roughriders,” says Cosentino who, since the end of his playing days, has authored three books on the history of Canadian football. “For most of the Western teams too, it is like that. I think the Eastern teams have been slow in pushing the CFL.” Toronto has struggled to fill its cavernous stadium, off and on, for years, and the football fans in Ottawa saw their Rough Riders fold in 1996, only to get a new team in 2001 and lose it too, five years later. The league is planning to give that market yet another try in 2014.
But as the growing parade makes its way across Bloor Street and down Yonge Street, it becomes clear that support for Canadian football is not confined to western cities. Even a long examination of the marchers does not reveal that this year’s Grey Cup finalists are from Toronto and Calgary. All the league’s franchises are represented by roughly even numbers and with comparable vociferousness. Brenda and Holly McNulty—a mother and daughter from Winnipeg, and fans for more than 70 years between them—proudly carry a large Blue Bombers banner down York Street as the parade nears its destination. They began planning to be here three years ago, regardless of which two teams they would end up watching. “Football is our game,” the elder McNulty yells over the noise of the crowd. “I’ve got three daughters, and they’re all raised on hockey and football.”
As a young girl, McNulty watched on television as her Blue Bombers won the Grey Cup over the course of a foggy December weekend in 1962. Though the CFL is no longer the league where players and fans report together to the same job each morning, she’s still watching today. “The ’60s was a special time, I think, in that the Grey Cup really was just probably at its peak as far as being a symbol of national unity,” says Cosentino. “We were kind of struggling for a Canadian identity and looking for things that bound us together. It wasn’t anti-Americanism as much as it was just wanting to know that we were different and unique and we had our own culture.” Now, as then, the Grey Cup exists to suggest that we do.