We’ve had a lot of football talk this week, haven't we? Earlier we discussed the great history of football on Thanksgiving; now it's at the rich heritage of the Canadian Football League title game, today's 95th Grey Cup championship.
Most sports fans in America are vaguely aware of something called Canadian football. They have this fuzzy impression of a game with a longer field, more players and different rules, and that’s about it. And that’s understandable – in this country, there are really only three kinds of football – high school, college, and the NFL. Even Australian Rules football probably had a bigger following than Canadian football (at least when the Aussie games were being shown on ESPN, back in the good old days of the network).
Canadian football has a long and colorful history, however. It’s a game that has its roots in Canadian rugby, and over the years evolved in a slightly different manner from American football, with a particular emphasis on the kicking game. Consequently, those fuzzy impressions that people have are, for the most part, right: the field is longer (110 yards long by 65 wide, with end zones that are an additional 20 yards deep, and it still takes some getting used to to hear someone refer to the 53 yard line); you’ve got 12 players per side rather than 11 (the extra offensive player is generally a receiver, the extra defender a safety); there are three downs instead of four (which puts a real emphasis on the passing game, and also the need for mobile quarterbacks, since a sack is even more deadly); no fair catches on punts (the kicking team has to give the receiver a five-yard buffer or get nailed for a penalty); and the kicking team gets a point if they kick the ball into the end zone and it isn’t run out (and most teams will concede the single point in return for field position, since in that case the ball is brought out to the 35-yard line). There are other differences as well, but what it all adds up to is an exciting, wide-open, fast-paced game that has, over the years, developed a small cult following south of the border.
Now, I might be biased in this; I have to admit that the NFL doesn't have much appeal for me, certainly not as much as it did when I was young. I'll watch the Thanksgiving games every year - that's practically all there is to watch nowadays - but even those are a chore to sit through. As for the Super Bowl, well, I don't have any rooting interest in the teams, I have no fascination with the commericals, and I've no desire to become yet another pawn in the NFL's overall marketing plan. As the NFL has gotten bigger and more corporate, and the players more thuggish, it's taken away the simple pleasure that watching the games used to give me. On the other hand, I first experienced Canadian football as a little kid in the mid 60s when the Grey Cup was often shown on ABC's Wide World of Sports, and weekly games were syndicated on Saturday mornings on Channel 11. I suppose it got its hooks into me then, and the Canadian game has brought me enjoyment since then - that is, when I've been able to get it. It isn't easy, but thanks to Altitude Sports & Entertainment and DirecTV, I manage.
Football fans probably know more about the CFL than they think. A number of NFL greats have Canadian roots: Bud Grant, the legendary Minnesota Vikings coach, won four Grey Cups as coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and Joe Kapp, the QB for Grant’s first Vikings Super Bowl team, won the Grey Cup with the British Columbia Lions. Joe Theismann, prior to starring for the Washington Redskins, quarterbacked the Toronto Argonauts to the Grey Cup final in 1971, Warren Moon won five consecutive Grey Cups as QB of the Edmonton Eskimos from 1978 to 1982 before going to the NFL, Doug Flutie won three Grey Cups as QB, first for the Calgary Stampeders and then for Toronto, and Jeff Garcia, who went on to fame with the San Francisco 49ers, was Flutie’s successor as QB in Calgary. Marv Levy, before coaching the Buffalo Bills to four Super Bowls, took the Montreal Allouettes to three Grey Cups. Before the NFL became such a big business, there actually wasn’t that much difference in the money being offered, but while NFL salaries have exploded, many Canadian players still hold down jobs during the off-season to make ends meet.
The Grey Cup, like the Stanley Cup in hockey, started out as a donated trophy to go to the outstanding team in Canada. Like the Stanley Cup, the trophy assumed a life of its own, having shared some of the same eccentric adventures (stolen, burned, broken, sat on, and held for ransom), and in time came to be viewed as the Holy Grail of the sport, bigger than the league which held it. Just as the Stanley Cup predates the formation of the NHL, the Grey Cup came into existence long before the CFL, having been donated by the Governor General of Canada, Earl Grey, in 1909. For many years, the trophy was competed for by professional and amateur teams alike, and at one time there were at least three leagues vying for it through a series of interlocking playoffs.
Over time, two leagues came to dominate the competition: the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union, popularly known as the “Big Four” and comprising teams in eastern Canada, and the Western Interprovincial Football Union, which (as the name suggests) was based in western Canada. By 1954 college teams had ceased to compete for the Cup, and when the Ontario Rugby Football Union withdrew, the two remaining leagues came together in 1956 to form the Canadian Football League. The Cup has gone to the champion of that league ever since.
The Grey Cup is an event that brings eastern and western Canada together, a big party with fans travelling to the game from throughout the country, and there's a carnival atmosphere throughout the week in the host city. (Until the early 70s the game was played on Saturday afternoon, giving those travelers a chance to take the train to the game site.) Over the years it became more and more like a zoo, starting, as Wikipedia notes, “in 1948, when fans of the Calgary Stampeders dressed in western gear, square danced, flipped flapjacks, partied in the streets of Toronto and rode a horse through the lobby of the posh Royal York Hotel.
The week’s festivities now include a parade on Saturday, a beauty pageant (with eight contestants from the league’s cities competing to become “Miss Grey Cup), and an awards banquet, where the league’s major hardware is given out. Unlike the Super Bowl, which over the years has become an exercise in debauchery and commercialism to the point where the game itself is usually an afterthought, the game always was the thing at the Grey Cup, although even there you’ve got big name talent performing at the halftime show, and the game has long since been moved to prime time on Sunday night.
The Grey Cup is usually held during our Thanksgiving weekend - purely coincidental, since Canada celebrates Thanksgiving in October - but, like us, with football and turkey. The schedule has always been longer in Canada, with teams playing 14 and 16 games long before NFL schedules were expanded; each team currently plays 18 games, which does make for something of a redundant season since there are only eight teams, and six of them make the playoffs. Players in the NFL complain about the grueling schedule, but in Canada well into the 90s it was not uncommon for teams to play twice in one week. In fact, up until the late 70s the East and West Divisions each had their own method of playoffs, and the Western Final was a best two-out-of-three affair, with the games being played on Saturday, Wednesday, and Sunday (if necessary) of one week. The Eastern Final was just as unusual, with the top two teams in the East playing a two-game, total-points series. Now, sadly, the playoffs are far more uniform, with single-elimination games bringing the two division winners to the Grey Cup.
If the history of the Cup has been colorful, the games themselves have been equally unique, with many of them identified by some kind of weather phenomenon. There was the Mud Bowl in 1950, played on a field that had been deeply rutted by equipment used to plow off a week's worth of heavy snow; the infamous Fog Bowl in 1962, when a heavy fog that came into Toronto from off Lake Ontario forced the game to be stopped and the final nine minutes played the following day; the Wind Bowl in 1965, when winds of 50 mph forced Winnipeg to take three safetys rather than try to punt the ball into the gale; and the Snow Bowl in 1996, played in Hamilton in a driving snowstorm. There have been female streakers, controversal plays, miraculous upsets and near upsets - in 1981, an Ottawa team that had only one five games during the regular season and was quarterbacked by future U.S. politician J.C. Watts, came within seconds of upsetting Edmonton.
This evening's Grey Cup is being played in Toronto for the first time since 1992, and for a long time it looked as if the hometown Argos (the oldest professional football team in existence, dating back to 1873) would be right there in the big game. After a disastrous 2-6 start, the team won 9 of its final 10 games to claim first place in the East. They just couldn’t get it together last Sunday, however, being jeered off the field by the home fans after falling 19-10 to the second-place Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Winnipeg’s opponent from the West: the Saskatchewan Roughriders, who finished in second place in the West but upended the defending Grey Cup champion British Columbia Lions 26-17. The Bombers have a long and outstanding Grey Cup record, having won the Cup 10 times in 22 attempts. The Riders have a somewhat less distinguished history, with only two Cup victories in 17 tries.
Saskatchewan had the better season this year however, being led by their brilliant quarterback Kerry Joseph and a dynamic corps of receivers. In addition to surviving a late-season slump, the Bombers are further handicapped by the loss of their own quarterback, Kevin Glenn, who suffered a broken arm in last week's win over Toronto. However, you can't count Winnipeg out, especially with their dynamic running back Charles Roberts, who rushed for nearly 1,400 yards in a game dominated by passing.
For what it's worth, the tea leaves here say Saskatchewan wins their third Grey Cup tonight, but if there's one thing consistent about the history of the Cup, it's the unpredictability of it all. And that's why they play the game, which fans north of the border - and a few from the southern side - will be eagerly awaiting tonight.
UPDATE: We called it: Saskatchewan 23, Winnipeg 19. Read all about it here.