When sports fans think of Canada they are most likely to think of hockey or other winter sports like figure skating, curling and skiing.
But football is every bit as much a Canadian game as it is an American one. Today marks the 100th playing of the Grey Cup. It is named after Albert Grey, the 4th Earl of Grey who was the Governor General of Canada at that time.
Initially played between university teams, the Grey Cup is awarded to the champion of the Canadian Football League (CFL). Today’s match is between the Toronto Argonauts and the Calgary Stampeders. The Argos have won 15 Grey Cups, more than any other CFL team. The Stampeders are two point favorites to win but the game is being played at Rogers Centre in Toronto and that has to work in the Argos favor.
The two biggest differences between the CFL and NFL are is that the football field is longer and wider in the CFL and there are only three downs in the CFL as opposed to four in the NFL. I’m sure football fans who’ve never seen the Canadian game would be thrown off when the announcers say, “Two and out.” But it makes for a faster paced game which emphasizes passing over rushing.
I saw a handful of CFL games when I lived in Ottawa in the 1990s. By that time, the Rough Riders were a joke and by the end of the decade had folded. This was also the period where American teams were included. In 1995, the Grey Cup was won by the Baltimore Stallions. While it may have been good for Baltimore fans who missed the Colts and not yet seen the Ravens, let’s just say it’s one of those moments Canadian football fans would just as soon forget.
Thirteen years before he was elected to Congress, JC Watts played in the 69th Grey Cup between the Ottawa Rough Riders and the Edmonton Eskimos. Watts was the quarterback for the Rough Riders and they were heavy underdogs against the Eskimos who had won three straight Grey Cups. The Eskimos were led by Warren Moon (who would go on to become the only player to be inducted in both the CFL and Pro Football Hall of Fame) and were heavy favorites to repeat. After all, the Rough Riders were 5-11 in 1981 but earned a spot in the Grey Cup after upsetting the Hamilton Tiger Cats in the Eastern Conference Final.
Incredibly, the Rough Riders had a 20-1 lead over the Eskimos at the half. But the Eskimos came back to tie the game. Late in the fourth quarter, Watts through a pass to future CFL Hall of Famer Tony Gabriel who was playing with tear in his left knee. Gabriel caught the pass with one hand but the referee called a penalty. Then Gabriel’s knee gave out and he never played again. The Eskimos got the ball back and kicked a field goal to win the game 26-23. In his book Turnover: The Fumbling of the Ottawa Rough Riders, Brent Dowdall (who was a classmate of mine at Carleton University) wrote:
The 1981 Grey Cup has become the Ottawa Rough Riders’ version of the ground ball through Bill Buckner’s legs. So close, should have been, would have been, but ultimately wasn’t.
Will today’s game be as compelling? With both Gordon Lightfoot and Justin Bieber scheduled to perform at halftime anything could happen. The game begins at 6 p.m. EST.
UPDATE 10:26 p.m.: The Argonauts beat the Stampeders 35-22 to win the 100th Grey Cup. Argos QB Ricky Ray won his third Grey Cup. He won his two previous Grey Cups with the Eskimos in 2003 and 2005. When the Argos acquired Ray from the Eskimos last year, Ray was considered past his prime but tonight he proved his critics wrong.
But the Argos defense that was most critical. The Stampeders scored a single touchdown at the end of the game when they were well out of it.
It is the Argos 16th Grey Cup win in franchise history and first since 2004.