November 24, 2011

Remembering the 1994 Grey Cup

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Ed Willes
The Province

Vic Stevenson heard the opening bars of “O Canada” and the wall he’d carefully constructed around himself during the week came tumbling down.

All his life, he’d thought about this moment, thought about what it would mean to represent his country and here it was. Canadian flags were everywhere at a sold-out B.C. Place for the 1994 Grey Cup. Across the field stood the Baltimore, well, somethings, looking to take the Cup, Canada’s trophy, back to the States. As a kid growing up in Calgary, Stevenson watched Paul Henderson in ’72 and Darryl Sittler in ’76 and wondered if he’d ever get the chance to defend the home and native land.

Now, he had it and Vic Stevenson, the 260-pound offensive lineman who was about to go to war against the best football team he’d ever seen, was crying like Sally Field at the Oscars.

“I don’t know,” he now says from Regina where’s he’s teaching high school. “I grew up watching the Canada Cups and that’s the stuff you think about. I saw the flags. I saw the crowd. I saw my teammates. And it all came out. It was that important to me.”

That day was important to a few other Canadians. Seventeen years later, it remains that way, a shining moment frozen in time that said, in that most Canadian of ways, maybe we’re not that bad after all.

“We were a band of brothers,” says Danny McManus, who would engineer the win for the B.C. Lions. “We were fighting all the time. But when we went on the field we were a team in the truest sense of the term.”

McManus was born in Dania Beach, Fla. On this day, he says: “We were all Canadians.”

– – –

In the century-old history of the Grey Cup, there have been better games. There’ve certainly been more exciting games and games that showcased the unique appeal of the CFL. But there’s never been a game like the 82nd Grey Cup, a game that would determine the future of the league: a game that was bursting with nationalistic fervour; a game in which a gritty, under-sized team of overachievers engaged a handpicked, high-priced squad of mercenaries in a three-hour street fight for the glory of the Maple Leaf and the preservation of the league’s quota system.

“We knew this was more than a Grey Cup,” says Lui Passaglia, who would kick the game-winning field goal on the game’s last play. “You concentrate on the game, not the politics, but you knew there was politics in this one.”

Yes, everyone knew what was at stake because, for a game that provided such a high point in its history, 1994 might have represented the absolute nadir of the CFL’s existence. The year before, with the league on the verge of bankruptcy and several of its heritage franchises in deep financial doo-doo, the CFL embarked on a desperate course of expansion into the States, granting a franchise to the Sacramento Gold Miners.

That played to mixed reviews but the promise of fat expansion fees represented a financial lifeline to the league and, in ’94, they added the Las Vegas Posse, Shreveport Pirates and a team in Baltimore that began its life as the Colts, changed to the Baltimore CFLers, morphed into the Baltimore Stallions the next year and were gone by 1996 along with the rest of the American teams.

In their short time, however, they left their mark. Owner Jim Speros hired veteran CFL coach Don Matthews and rising player personnel star Jim Popp from Saskatchewan. Working without the constrictions of the ratio, they immediately signed a handsome collection of CFL stars, including quarterback Tracy Ham from Toronto, and built a huge and talented offensive line complemented by a ferocious defence.

Playing out of the old Memorial Stadium, the ancestral home of the NFL’s Colts, they were also embraced by the football-mad citizens of Baltimore, who’d lost their beloved NFL team a decade before. They finished their first year 12-6. They averaged 34,499 fans per game. They looked like they were in the CFL to stay.

“They were the future of the league,” says Eric Tillman, the Lions GM that year.

That future lasted two years.

– – –

In the 1994 Lions, the CFL chose an unorthodox champion.

The Leos, to be sure, had talent across the board. McManus, Passaglia, cornerback Less Browne and slotback Darren Flutie are all in the CFL Hall of Fame. Kent Austin, the starting quarterback in the Grey Cup game, isn’t far off. Running back Sean Millington is one of the most underrated players in CFL history and the secondary was among the finest ever assembled by a CFL team.

But that didn’t tell the whole story. Not by a long shot. The roster, in fact, was a weird amalgam of polished pros, born-again Christians and, without putting too fine an edge on things, certifiable whack jobs.

“That was the year of all the crazies,” says Jamie Taras, the team’s right guard.

“It was an interesting group,” says Tillman, the boy-GM who was hired with head coach Dave Ritchie by new Lions’ owner Bill Comrie in 1993. “Yes, it was an interesting group.”

Space considerations do not permit a full recounting of the Lions’ zanier moments. But here are a few. That season, the Leos fought. A lot. The opposition. Each other. It didn’t matter. Cornerback James Jefferson, a gifted cover man, was one of the hotheads and, after a loss in Regina, he came into the locker room dropping F-bombs and questioning the contributions of some of his colleagues.

Passaglia was on his way to the shower with a towel wrapped around his waist when Jefferson made his entrance. As one of the team’s leaders, the 40-year-old kicker decided it was up to him to call out Jefferson. He made an about-turn and charged at the shocked DB, proclaiming: “If you want to fight someone, fight me.”

Unfortunately, Passaglia lost his towel in all the excitement and Jefferson said: “Man, you’ve got to put some clothes on.”

The scraps tended to involve a handful of Canadians, which included running back Ryan Hanson, linebacker Brian Forde, defensive back Donovan Wright and a few others. The group was actually good friends but it didn’t take much to set them off.

The day before the Grey Cup game, for example, Forde got into a beef over who was getting taped. The four taping tables were overturned as was trainer Bill Reichelt’s ultrasound machine. Most of the players had left the locker room and had to run back to break up the brawl. Stevenson was running in as Reichelt was walking out.

“I’ve had enough,” said the trainer. “You deal with them.”

Then there was Barry Wilburn. Wilburn had won a Super Bowl with the Redskins in 1988 and made the NFL All-Pro team as a cornerback that year. But after five years with the ‘Skins he went down with an injury, missed a couple of years and tried to play his way back to the NFL through the CFL. Tillman and Wilburn were both Ole Miss alums and the defensive back signed with the Lions, largely to cover Calgary slotback Allen Pitts.

At least that was Wilburn’s belief. His first day with the Lions, he wandered into a meeting, watched film for a minute and came to the realization he was in a special teams’ meeting. Standing up while the film was still running, he proclaimed: “I don’t play no special teams,” and made a beeline for Ritchie’s office.

Tillman was working in his own office when he heard a bang and a crash. He jumped over his desk and sprinted down the hall where Ritchie had Wilburn pinned against the wall.

The Lions also had the use of a hyperbaric chamber during Grey Cup week and, given their grueling march to the championship game, it was in demand. Reichelt was trying to organize a schedule for the players and asked Wilburn to come in at noon.

“That’s no good,” Wilburn said. “How about eight in the morning,” Reichelt said.

“That’s better,” said Wilburn. “I’m on the bong by noon and I’m not good for anything.”

But, like
all the crazies, he could play and the Lions, who finished the season third in the West with an 11-6-1 record, summoned some supernatural forces in the playoffs that season.

Against Edmonton in the Western semifinal, Charles Gordon intercepted a pass in the end zone, before Austin drove the team the length of the field and Passaglia kicked a field goal on the last play of the game for a 24-23 win.

The next week in the snow in Calgary, receiver Ray Alexander blocked a field goal attempt late in the fourth quarter and McManus came off the bench to direct an epic drive that ended with a touchdown pass to Flutie on the game’s last play.

That catch earned them a home date against the Baltimore team and a Grey Cup that was the gridiron verson of the War of 1812. During the week, the Lions faced questions that stopped just short of, “Seriously, you don’t expect to beat them, do you?” They were also getting phone calls from Canadian players on other teams imploring them to beat the Americans.

“Everyone was saying we were going to lose 60-1,” says Giuilio Caravatta, the team’s thirdstring quarterback.

“I was petrified that we didn’t have anything left in the tank,” admits Tillman. “We’d invested so much emotional capital in those two playoff wins and we looked spent. Looking back, there’s no question we won that game because we were playing at home. That crowd gave us the energy we didn’t think we had.”

And they needed all the help they could get. Before the game, Stevenson was standing outside the Lions locker room with fellow offensive lineman Rob Smith, looking at the Baltimore players as they filed on to the field. Stevenson and Smith both weighed about 260. Dave Chaytors, the Lions’ Canadian nose tackle, weighed 250 on a good day. Doug Petersen, their Canadian defensive lineman was about the same.

The Baltimore offensive line averaged over 300 pounds per man.

“They were bigger than us, faster than us, stronger than us,” says Stevenson. “We weren’t going to win that game unless we played a helluva lot harder than them. We had to take it to another level. It was the only way we could win.”

And that’s surely what they did. After the emotional national anthems, Austin, who was nursing a separated left shoulder, started the game in promising fashion, driving the Lions into field-goal range for Passaglia. On Baltimore’s first series, Jefferson made a remarkable one-handed interception off Ham and the Lions quickly moved to the Baltimore 23. There, Austin launched a pass into the end zone between Alexander and Baltimore’s Karl Anthony.

Alexander had his hands on the ball for a split second but Anthony had it when they came down.

That was when the nightmare started for Austin.

Before the end of the first half, he would throw two more interceptions, one to Alvin Walton, who lateraled to Anthony, who raced 36 yards for a touchdown, giving Baltimore a 14-3 second-quarter lead and realizing the worst fears of the Lions and their supporters.

Still, while Austin was serving up turnovers, the Lions were still winning the battle on both lines of scrimmage.

Offensively, they were ripping off huge chunks of yardage on the ground with their all-Canadian line. Defensively, they were exerting fearsome pressure on Ham with a front four which employed three Canadians: Chaytors, Petersen and Andrew Stewart. Late in the second quarter, with Baltimore operating deep out of their end, Ham threw a hurried pass over the middle, which Gordon intercepted easily and walked into the end zone.

That gave the Lions some semblance of hope. The next offensive series, Austin was knocked out of the game after he served up another interception, and that gave the Lions their hero.

History has recorded that McManus led a stirring comeback in the second half, which is true to a point. But Danny Mac completed just three of seven second-half passes, for 93 yards, and his real contribution was in the areas of leadership, play-calling and unplugging the turnover machine.

On the first possession of the second half, Baltimore’s Donald Igwebuike kicked a field goal to give his team a 20-10 lead. McManus then took over and on three successive plays, handed the ball to Cory Philpot twice and Millington for gains of 10, eight and 32 yards, respectively.

“Danny kept calling the same play,” says Taras. “He said, ‘It’s working. We’ll just try it on the other side.'”

The drive would stall on Baltimore’s 27 when the first of a series of crucial plays for the Lions occurred.

Flutie, the holder for Passaglia, jumped up and ran 17 yards untouched to Baltimore’s 10 on a fake. Three plays later, McManus scored on a bootleg from the one that took two days to unfold and ended with the less-than-graceful QB tripping over the goal line.

“That bootleg looked like it would last forever,” says Passaglia.

The Lions would tie the game on the next series when McManus dropped a 42-yard beauty in the hands of Alexander, who had half a step on Anthony. Passaglia would kick a field goal from the 42, then give the Lions the lead with his third field goal of the game early in the fourth quarter after runs of 17 yards by Millington and 13 yards by Philpot.

By then, the game had turned into a bare-knuckle fight, with neither team pressing the advantage. Ham’s fumble on the Lions’ goal line was recovered by backup defensive back Tony Collier one play after Robert Drummond dropped a sure touchdown pass. Igwebuike tied the game with a short field goal midway through the fourth but the Lions’ defence refused to break.

With about four minutes left, Baltimore took over on their own 51 but Ham was sacked for an 11-yard loss by Snipes and knocked out of the game. On the next play, Stewart nailed John Congemi for a nineyard loss, the Lions’ fifth sack of the game.

With under two minutes left, and following two straight two-and-outs by the Lions, McManus fired deep for Alexander, who went up with Irv Smith and came down, sort of, with the ball. On impact with the turf, the ball squirted out but officials ruled the Lions receiver had control and the ground caused him to lose the ball.

Matthews maintains to this day his team got jobbed. He might have a point, but why ruin the perfect ending?

Passaglia, naturally, would miss the go-ahead field goal from the 37 with just over a minute left but Anthony just got the ball out to Baltimore’s two-yard line. Pringle was stuffed on the first down, the hurting Ham threw an incompletion on second down and Baltimore punter Josh Miller obliged the script writers by kicking a 40-yard line drive right to the sure-handed Flutie, who accepted it gratefully before falling forward to the Baltimore 35.

After two running plays, Passaglia would line up from the same left hash mark he’d just missed from and two yards further out. But the great kicker wasn’t going to miss twice. On the game’s last play, centre Ian Sinclair hit Flutie in the hands, the hold was good and while the kick knuckled a bit, it sailed through the uprights.

Stevenson, by that point, couldn’t watch. He was staring up at the stands before the snap and the crowd let him know Passaglia’s kick had just won the Grey Cup.

“When I crossed the line, I went out with the full thought of making it,” says Passaglia. “There was no stress. I don’t even recall stepping on the field. I just remember the ball being put down.

“Sometimes it happens so quickly, but this wasn’t slow motion. That part was after I kicked it.”

Bedlam ensued. Security was lax – there’s a surprise for Vancouver – and a trickle of fans turned into a torrent as the Lions celebrated on the field. A stage was brought out but was never used. Instead, the Grey Cup was presented inside the Lions’ locker room.

Passaglia was announced as the game’s outstanding player and awarded a Dodge truck. Millington was named the outstandi
ng Canadian and given a trip to the Caribbean.

After the presentation, the CBC’s Mark Lee asked the running back if this game proved Canadians can compete without quotas.

“I’m living proof of that right here,” said Millington. “I’m playing. I’m Canadian. Vancouver-bred. I can compete. We can all compete.”

Yet, somehow, the voting got screwed up on the outstanding player awards. Later, it was determined Baltimore’s Anthony, interesting selection there, was the outstanding player and Passaglia who, aside from the late drama had a substandard kicking game, was named outstanding Canadian.

Whatever. This game had a slightly deeper meaning for those involved.

“We had all the characters,” says Millington, who’s still miffed by the awards snub. “It was like a gang of convicts. They all came from different backgrounds with different histories but for whatever reason, when we got on the field together, we played.

“We were Rocky Balboa. We took the punches but we hung in there long enough to land the knockout punch.”

For themselves. For the glory of the rouge.

“It was a turning point in the sense that we proved you could win with a ratio,” McManus says of the ramifications of the Lions’ win. “I think if Baltimore would have won two Grey Cups in two years, things might have changed. The game is about Canadians. It’s the Canadian Football League. That’s what makes it unique. But we could have been doing something different the next 20 years.”

But the CFL, like The Dude, will abide. On Sunday, the Lions have a chance to become the first team since the ’94 Leos to win the Grey Cup on their home field.

Those players will always remember their game.

The ’94 team remembers theirs for different reasons.