Hi again, folks. The CFL Beat is back this week with a look at the CFL’s 1981 championship game – the first time in pro football history that two Black quarterbacks faced each other for a title! The team now known as the Edmonton Football Team met the team now known as the Ottawa REDBLACKS in the biggest point spread in Grey Cup history, with Ottawa going in to the game as 22.5-point underdogs.
Date: November 22, 1981
Venue: Olympic Stadium, Montreal QC
Edmonton Football Team fast facts:
- Season record: 14-1-1 (1st in West)
- Head Coach: Hugh Campbell
- Quarterback: Warren Moon
Edmonton went into this matchup heavily favoured, not only due to their far superior regular-season record, but also due to the fact that they’d been champions of three straight Grey Cups in 1978, ’79, and ’80. The team also made football history with signing Warren Moon, who’d gone undrafted in the ’78 NFL Draft. Moon’s CFL success in six seasons in the league led him to be signed by the Houston Oilers, and with further career stops in Minnesota, Seattle, and Kansas City, Moon would go on to be both the first Black QB elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as well as the first undrafted QB to receive the honour. Moon is also a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, and his number 1 is retired by the Houston/Tennessee franchise and unofficially retired by Edmonton as well.
Ottawa Rough Riders fast facts:
- Season record: 5-11 (2nd in East)
- Head Coach: George Brancato
- Quarterback: J.C. Watts
Ottawa was never supposed to make this championship game – after assembling the worst regular-season record in the history of all Grey Cup finalist teams, they managed to get by both the 3-13 third-place Montreal Alouettes in the division semifinal, and the 11-4-1 Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the division final. Thanks to the Argos having a dismal year, finishing 2-14, and with the playoff crossover rule not having come into existence yet (it wouldn’t exist until 1996), Ottawa found itself, extremely surprisingly, facing down Edmonton in the title game. Ottawa’s rookie quarterback, J.C. Watts, played college ball at Oklahoma, and later was elected to Congress, representing Oklahoma’s 4th Congressional District from 1995-2003 as a Republican.
0:30 – An intro the game featuring TSN’s Vic Rauter, working with ESPN Classic’s re-broadcast of this vintage matchup.
1:38 – Footage begins of gameplay. Montreal’s Olympic Stadium is an absolute barn – built for the Olympics, of course, it was later repurposed to be the home of the major league Montreal Expos baseball team (who I miss so unbelievably much, you have no idea), and for the Alouettes CFL team. It also hosted various soccer clubs, including the MLS’ Montreal Impact, until Saputo Stadium was built next door in 2008. Known predominantly for its iconic slanting tower, the actual construction of the building faced such horrific cost overruns and delays that the city of Montreal and the province of Quebec didn’t finish paying the loans off on stadium construction until 2006 – giving it the nickname “The Big Owe.” Montreal hosted the 1976 Summer Olympics, but the stadium and tower remained unfinished at the time – the roof materials were stuck in a warehouse in France until 1982, and the roof and tower weren’t finished until 1987. Despite the roof being in place, and technically “retractable” according to engineers, it never actually was; concrete falling on the field resulted in postponement of many Expos games over the years, and the roof has over seven thousand microtears, further affecting structural integrity. It’s now no longer suitable to use the stadium in winter if there’s more than 3 inches of snow on the roof, which continues to rip about 50-60 times a year. Until there’s a plan for a new stadium in Montreal, it’s unlikely the Expos will return. Fortunately, there seems to be a lot of headway being made on this front, as Montreal continues to be bandied about as a top candidate for an MLB expansion or relocation.
1:55 – LOL you can see the removable infield markings in Ottawa’s end of the field.
2:25 – Ottawa managed to go offside on the opening kickoff. Edmonton will have to re-kick.
2:38 – The infield is raised by as much as 3 inches on some parts, so it’s extremely likely that players will be tripping on the artificial turf on the right side of the field. This is so quintessentially Quebec that it physically pains me.
3:17 – Edmonton kicks off again.
4:35 – Rough Riders RB Sam Platt takes a screen pass from J.C. Watts down to midfield with a very nice run.
6:02 – Tony Gabriel, the Hall of Fame tight end for Ottawa, has an excellent catch at the 30! He’s playing on a bum knee in this game.
7:19 – J.C. Watts is sacked by DE Dave Boone, setting up a 34-yard field goal attempt for the Rough Riders.
8:00 – Ottawa’s Gerry Organ connects, and it’s 3-0, Rough Riders. We cut to commercial with some very smooth jazz.
9:20 – “There’s another rule that’s different than the NFL – it’s 20 seconds to get the ball in Canadian football, as opposed to 30 seconds in the NFL.” “You imagine what Danny White and the Dallas Cowboys would do? They’re having trouble with 30 seconds.” “He would have trouble with 45 seconds, I think.” BOOM. ABSOLUTELY FUCKING ROASTED.
11:25 – Watts connects on a bomb to a streaking Pat Stoqua, and the Rough Riders are looking like an absolute powerhouse team right now. This is remarkable.
13:23 – Gerry Organ connects from 37 yards out, and the Rough Riders are now up 6-0 over Edmonton.
14:09 – Warren Moon throws an absolutely egregious interception – it’s picked off by LB Rick Sowieta, and it’s Ottawa ball yet again. Not a great showing at all from Edmonton thus far.
14:55 – J.C. Watts rolls left and looks deep to Pat Stoqua again, but he’s tangled up with Edmonton DB Gary Hayes at the 5-yard line, drawing a big pass interference call.
16:33 – Pat Stoqua appears to have a TD catch, but the end zone judge claims he was out of bounds.
18:04 – Riders RB Jim Reid punches it in for the major, plowing through the pile from the 1-yard line. After the convert, it’s Ottawa 13, Edmonton 0.
19:12 – We start the second quarter coverage with a J.C. Watts interception! He was looking for WR Jeff Avery down the right sideline, but Edmonton DB Joe Hollimon comes down with the ball instead. Edmonton led the league in interceptions this season, with 39 as a team.
21:22 – Warren Moon’s pass goes DOINK off the helmet of Rough Riders DE Jim Piaskoski, and LB John Glassford comes up with his own interception!
22:45 – Watts rolls left and calls his own number, picking up 19 yards on the run for another first down.
23:41 – Touchdown, Rough Riders! Sam Platt takes the pitch from J.C. Watts and slices through Edmonton’s D for another score. After the convert, it’s 20-0.
25:48 – Fullback Neil Lumsden has a first down for Edmonton; he is a three-time Grey Cup winner and member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. His son Jesse also played in the CFL from 2005-2010, and is now a member of the Canadian Olympic bobsled team.
26:56 – Tom Wilkinson, another CFL Hall of Famer, is now in at quarterback for Edmonton. Wilkinson was Edmonton’s starter in the years before Warren Moon, and as a veteran now, he’s the ideal backup to Moon.
28:10 – Dave Cutler misses a chip-shot field goal from 24 yards out, and the ball goes out the back of the end zone for a…
The score is now 20-1, Ottawa.
28:48 – Rough Riders head coach George Brancato is wearing his signature toque, and looking great. Brancato was also a defensive back for the Rough Riders in his playing days, winning the 1960 Grey Cup with a team led by legendary coach and GM Frank Clair. Before his CFL tenure, he played with the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals in 1954-55 on both defense and offense. He also coached the legendary ’76 Rough Rider team that won the Grey Cup thanks to tight end Tony Gabriel’s last-minute heroics, now known simply to Ottawa football fans as “The Catch.”
34:09 – The half draws to a close. Look at this fucking barn. It’s so hideous. And at the same time, I can’t tell you how much I miss seeing the Expos playing in it.
36:00 – Warren Moon is back in to start the second half, and he slides to pick up a first down.
39:27 – Touchdown, Edmonton! RB Jim Germany dives over the pile from the 2, and after the convert, it’s 20-8, Ottawa.
44:45 – J.C. Watts is sacked again, this time by DL Dave Fennell.
45:23 – Fumble! Watts loses the ball as he gets tackled, and Edmonton pounces on it inside the Ottawa 5. DB Dale Potter is the man who recovered the fumble, and this is a great opportunity for Edmonton.
46:23 – Edmonton FB Neil Lumsden is stuffed on 1st and goal. There’s also an illegal procedure penalty, resulting in a loss of 5 yards.
48:09 – Warren Moon tries to run with it, but he’s brought down again at the 1. It’s third down.
50:25 – Edmonton goes for it, and Warren Moon jumps over the pile to score a touchdown! After the convert, it’s now 20-15, Ottawa, and we have ourselves a football game.
53:02 – J.C. Watts finds Tony Gabriel for another big pickup – amazing that the old man’s still got it, despite playing on essentially one leg.
53:41 – Interception! As Watts again looks downfield to Pat Stoqua, his preferred deep threat, Edmonton DB Larry Highbaugh comes up with the pick. With Stoqua in double-coverage, this was a bad throw.
55:38 – A mad scramble! Has Tony Gabriel made the catch down at the 45? Has he fumbled it away? It’s officially ruled a catch, but replay shows it definitely should’ve been called a fumble. Ottawa gets lucky on this one.
59:28 – Warren Moon is strip-sacked by Jim Piaskoski, and Rough Riders DE Doug Seymour pounces on the loose ball!
1:01:50 – Gerry Organ connects for his third field goal of the game, this one from 28 yards, and Ottawa is now up 23-15.
1:03:03 – Moon connects with slotback Tom Scott for a big gain, who’s pushed out at Ottawa’s 40-yard line.
1:03:49 – Moon has another strike, this time down the left sideline to receiver Marco Cyncar, an Edmonton native playing for his hometown team.
1:04:31 – Neil Lumsden rumbles down to the 2-yard line, and Edmonton is looking poised to score again.
1:05:21 – Touchdown, Edmonton! Warren Moon shows his strength in short-yardage plays and has another successful dive over the top of the pile. It’s now 23-21, Ottawa. Will Edmonton kick, or go for two?
1:05:39 – A fun fire wagon that’s driving around the Olympic Stadium warning track – which came all the way from Edmonton for the game.
1:06:32 – They’re going for two! Moon rolls to the far right of the field and finds Marco Cyncar right at the goal line, with a great throw into coverage. It’s now tied at 23. Edmonton was the best offense in the CFL this season – and it’s evident that they’ve finally woken up.
1:07:24 – There’s a guy in a gigantic duck costume standing on the top of the dugout who has to be escorted out of the stadium. “I’d like to see the eggs that thing would lay – could feed a family of 40!” “Well, no one’s ducking out of here now with 4:05 left, I tell you that much.”
1:09:44 – J.C. Watts is in trouble, and he lobs it up to Tony Gabriel, who makes a very impressive catch and draws a flag!
1:10:50 – The flag is for PI – but it’s on both players. What??? The catch is wiped out, and Gabriel is absolutely furious. His leg is so fucked up right now, and he’s headed off to the sidelines.
1:11:42 – Watts is sacked again, this time by DE Ron Estay. Ottawa will have to punt.
1:13:43 – Ottawa commits a holding penalty, which is declined by Edmonton.
1:15:12 – Rough Riders DB Carl Brazley is down on the field with some pretty severe leg cramps, by the looks of it. He’ll have to come off.
1:18:04 – Edmonton has to punt. If Hank Ilisic can pin the returner in the end zone with the punt, he can score a rouge and win the game! However, Ottawa’s Kelvin Kirk gets the ball out safely, and no points are scored.
1:19:29 – Watts uncorks one, and almost has Kelvin Kirk – but Kirk can’t quite corral the ball in his outstretched hands, the ball bouncing off his fingertips. A big missed opportunity for the Rough Riders.
1:24:22 – Edmonton RB Jim Germany is hurt after carrying the ball to about the 20; Tom Wilkinson is coming in as the holder to try and help Dave Cutler kick a field goal. Ottawa’s sending out their own kicker, Gerry Organ, to the end zone, for the possibility of him kicking the ball the opposite way out of the end zone if Edmonton misses the field goal attempt. There’s six seconds left on the clock.
1:28:20 – Look at the shot of the roof – or the lack thereof, more like. As I mentioned previously, the Olympic Stadium was supposed to be a covered dome, and the fact that it isn’t, due to the sheer ineptitude of everyone involved in the project, is absolutely hilarious. (I can say it’s hilarious because none of my tax dollars went towards the project, fortunately).
1:28:35 – The kick is up, and it’s good! Cutler connects, and Edmonton takes the lead, 26-23. There’s three seconds left. This is heartbreaking for Ottawa, who had such an incredible first half of football.
1:29:52 – It’s the final play of the game. J.C. Watts is on the run. As he backpedals away from the Edmonton pass rush, he ends up stiff-arming the on-field official, who gets completely bowled over! He runs down to midfield and makes a pitch to Pat Stoqua, but he is tackled. It’s all over. Edmonton wins their fourth straight Grey Cup championship – an unprecedented feat in Canadian football.
The 1981 Grey Cup was the Ottawa Rough Riders’ final appearance in a championship game; fifteen years later, the team would be dead, the product of gross financial mismanagement and over a decade of on-field ineptitude. The collapse of the team in 1996 was a tough pill for football fans in the nation’s capital to swallow – it would take until 2015, and two other franchises, for Ottawa to be back in a Grey Cup, which, coincidentally, was against this very same Edmonton team. Edmonton, meanwhile, would win again in 1982, making it five straight Grey Cup championships – a feat that is unlikely to ever be matched in the CFL.
Oddly enough, it was J.C. Watts who came away with Grey Cup MVP honours – a very unusual accolade for a member of a losing team. Edmonton’s Neil Lumsden was named the Most Outstanding Canadian for his strong efforts on Edmonton’s offense.
Thanks for reading! Check back next week, when we look at the very first Grey Cup to be recorded on video, which was another bad-weather spectacle – the 38th Grey Cup from 1950, also known as “The Mud Bowl!”