Sunday, 25 August 2013

Caught in the Cold: My first CFL game

Greg Peterson set a CFL playoff record
by intercepting a Matt Dunigan pass and
returning it 106 yards for a touchdown.
It was the highlight of the
1987 West Division Semi-final.
The feeling in my feet did not return for hours, the victim of my first Edmonton winter. The lesson I learned from that day in November of 1987 was how to dress right for the cold.

But the memories I have of that day are etched in my mind forever. Cold yes, but what made it memorable was on that day, I witnessed my first ever Canadian Football League game, and it was a doozie: the 1987 Western Division Semi-final.

Dream into action
Watching a pro football game live was like a dream, as corny as that sounds. I’d seen dozens of games on TV but that seemed like another world, like it wasn’t even real. When I headed off to university in Edmonton in September of 1987, that was not on the top of my list.

So, a couple months later when my next door neighbour Daryl invited me and my roommate Chris Vining to go to the Western Semi-final, I jumped at the chance. Not only was it a pro game at Commonwealth Stadium, but my favourite team, the Calgary Stampeders, was Edmonton’s competition.

It was just two short years earlier the Stampeders almost went under, if not for the SOS (Save Our Stampeders) campaign at the end of 1985, and the beginning of 1986. The Stamps managed to rebuild and make the playoffs in 1986 losing to the Eskimos, and were back again in 1987 looking for redemption.

The Eskimos were the defending Western Division champions, but were humiliated in the 1986 Grey Cup by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (which included Jim Rockford, who had played with J.C. Watts' Oklahoma Sooner team that mounted that amazing comeback in the 1981 Orange Bowl). They too were looking for their own redemption.

Road trip, no free parking
Daryl and his best friend Mike were from Whitecourt, and another friend of theirs drove us to the game. It really was surreal. We snaked through the traffic into what seemed like a residential area when suddenly, looming in the distance, was Commonwealth Stadium. It is hard to describe the size and grandeur of seeing that stadium for the first time. Television never did it justice.

Finding a parking spot was the first great adventure. Suddenly, people holding up signs with prices appeared, offering their yards and alleys for us to park. Our driver selected one and followed his directions into a yard where we were packed in like sardines. All I could think was, we better not leave early because we couldn't. How could this be legal? 

Game time
Our seats were in the bleachers in the west side of the north end zone, I think. The sun shone on that bright Sunday, November 15 afternoon, but it was deceptive. I thought I had dressed for the cold, and was bundled up with several layers – except for my feet. One pair of white athletic socks would prove not to be nearly enough.

The whole first quarter I just kept thinking, "I can't believe I'm here."

The Eskimos scored the only points of the quarter and led 7-0 after 15 minutes. The second quarter was pretty much the same, as they upped their lead to 10-6 by halftime. As became the norm at all games in Edmonton, no matter what the sport, we were surrounded by Edmonton fans. They never let us forget the score, or the fact the Eskimos were winning. It did not help that Calgary's offence could not move the ball. Their only points came off a couple J.T. Hay field goals.

Faint hope
Then things changed on a dime, as they often can in the CFL. After Edmonton kicker Jerry Kauric made the score 13-6, Calgary's offence sputtered again and they had to punt. On the ensuing drive, Calgary free safety Greg Peterson intercepted a Matt Dunigan pass in his own end zone. Me and Vining cheered loudly, our first hope. But Peterson broke a tackle, got into the open and took the ball all the way to the end zone. Our cheering got louder and louder as he approached us, climaxing in an explosion of high fives as Peterson crossed the goal line. We looked over in the direction of those obnoxious Eskimo fans and just smirked. When the smoke cleared, it was a 106-yard return, which was a CFL playoff record at that time, lasting 10 years. All of a sudden, miraculously, the Stampeders had tied the game at 13-13. It was a new ball game.

Not for long. The Eskimo defence smothered Calgary's offence, not allowing a touchdown the entire game. Calgary's defence kept Edmonton out of the end zone too, but the field goals began to mount. Kauric tacked on two more before the end of the quarter, making the score 19-13 with just 15 minutes to play.

There was still hope, but Edmonton never let Calgary get close. They traded field goals, and Edmonton added a single to make it 23-13. Calgary had one more hope, but turned the ball over deep in their own territory with very little time left on the clock. All Edmonton had to do was run out the clock to end a game they had already won. Instead, of going down on one knee, Dunigan plunged straight ahead on the goal line for another touchdown, making the final score 30-16. I never liked Dunigan as a player to that point, and revelled in his humiliation in the Grey Cup the year before. Now, he showed how little class he had, running up the score like he did.

The Eskimos went to Vancouver the following week, upset the first-place B.C. Lions in the Western Final, then won the Grey Cup, also in Vancouver's B.C. Place, the following week on a last-play field goal by Kauric.

The third option
Daryl and Mike were sporting the colours of their favourite team: the Saskatchewan Roughriders. It was my first exposure to that uniquely Canadian phenomenon: Rider Pride.

Part way through the second quarter, we we were jeering Dunigan. Mike and Daryl joined in.

"Matthew, you weenie!" Mike yelled.

"You suck," Daryl added.

Our newfound friends, the Eskimo fans, told them to sit down.

Then the Stampeders got possession.

"Boo," Mike yelled. "Calgary sucks!'

"Ya," Daryl chimed in.

The Eskimo fans were perplexed now.

“Who ARE you cheering for?” one of them asked.

“The Riders.”

Post-game show
As the temperature dropped, and our hopes faded, my toes got more and more numb. I could not believe I had not worn more than one pair of socks when I double and triple-layered all my other clothing. Still, it did not hamper my enjoyment of the experience.

After the game, Daryl took off and told us to join him. We ran onto the field, and just walked around for maybe 20 minutes. It was like standing on plush carpet, it was so soft and full of body. It was the last natural turf in the CFL, and had won all kinds of awards. I could understand why.

When we got back to our room in res, I immediately ducked under the covers to warm up, and stayed there for over an hour. I had been so cold – but it was so worth it.

Every time after that, and I have now seen close to 60 football games, I wore at least two pairs of socks, and sometimes three.

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