To this day it still aggravates me that I missed most of the greatest Grey Cup ever played. I had a meeting, and it ended just as the fourth quarter was starting. I went back to my floor in res and saw my friend Kevan (we pronounced it Key-van), freaking out, pacing back and forth sporting a Saskatchewan Roughriders shirt.
Still, I was able to see live the wild way the game finished. I heard people say it was the best game they had ever seen.
Eight years later, CBC replayed the 1989 Grey Cup, and everyone was right. It is the greatest game I have ever seen. So much so, I have actually watched it twice since.
It came to mind recently because this year’s Grey Cup was the first time the Saskatchewan Roughriders played the Hamilton Tiger Cats in the Grey Cup since they waged war in that epic struggle 24 years ago.
Just like this year, the Riders had not finished first in their division and were not expected to make the championship game.
How the West Was Won
The class of the entire league that season was the Edmonton Eskimos. They were the first team in league history to win 16 regular-season games and were virtually unbeatable. They had appeared in the 1986 and 1987 Grey Cups, and in 1988 bolstered their team, plugging all weaknesses, in a blockbuster trade with the B.C. Lions.
They awaited the winner of the West Division semi-final. For the first time in three years, the Calgary Stampeders had made the playoffs. Saskatchewan had had a much longer drought that ended in 1988. Now they looked to do more than just make the playoffs.
The Riders won that game, earning a trip to Commonwealth to play the first-place Eskimos. No one gave the Riders any sort of chance, even though they had handed Edmonton one of their two losses that season.
It did not look good early, as Edmonton quarterback Tracy Ham marched the Eskimos straight down the field for a touchdown, making it look easy, and they led 10-3 after a quarter. Slowly the Rider defence took over, and the offence got rolling as Saskatchewan rolled up 14 points in the second quarter, to go into the dressing room at halftime leading 17-13. They added another 14 points in the third quarter and stifled the vaunted Eskimo offence, leading 31-20 after three quarters. The teams exchanged singles in the final 15 minutes to give the Riders the 32-21 win, and their first berth in the Grey Cup since 1976, and the chance to win their first league championship since 1966.
Awaiting them were the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, owners of a 12-6 regular season record, which was good enough for first in the east. They hosted the Eastern Conference Final, defeating the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 14-10 to become champions in the east. They were just three years removed from their last Grey Cup championship in 1986, and had seven all-stars going into the 1989 championship.
Where was I?
I actually was at Costco with my buddy Bruce Freadrich when the game was going on. We listened to a bit of it on the radio on the drive home, but Dana Dueck told me who won when we got back to res. It was absolutely shocking. But, as I have said all along, the arrogance of some of the Eskimos led to their undoing – and over confidence. Eskimos defender John Mandarich in particular talked a good game, so it was great to hear the Riders shut him up – and good.
The 1989 Grey Cup was held in a brand new facility, Toronto’s SkyDome, which had opened just a few moths earlier, in time for baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays to win their division and bring playoff baseball indoors to Toronto. Now the cutting-edge facility with the state-of-the-art retractable roof was hosting the biggest football game in the country.
|Donald Narcisser (#80) and Ray Elgaard (#81)|
celebrate Narcisses's touchdown.
The teams would combine for 83 points and one of the most thrilling finales ever.
Hamilton had the early advantage moving into position for two Paul Osbaldiston field goals. All the Riders could muster was a punt single from Terry Baker, while the Tiger-Cats ended the quarter with a touchdown pass from quarterback Mike Kerrigan to Tony Champion, to lead 13-1 after one quarter. That connection between Kerrigan and Champion would be a harbinger of things to come.
Saskatchewan’s offence woke up in the second quarter, as quarterback Kent Austin connected with the dependable Ray Elgaard for the Riders’ first touchdown of the game, closing the gap to 13-8. Hamilton responded as Kerrigan hit running back Derek McAdoo for a touchdown and a 20-8 lead.
|Jeff Fairholm (#18) celebrates his touchdown, which|
remains one of the greatest catches I have ever seen.
Then came, for me, the turning point and one of the best plays I have ever seen. At least it’s my favourite play of all time. Austin went deep down the left side to receiver Jeff Fairholm. Hamilton defender Lance Shields was all over him. There were flags all over the field. Yet, with Shields pulling back on Fairholm, he caught the ball and took it in for a touchdown. Penalty declined, score 20-15. To me, that symbolized the resiliency and determination of the Riders during that playoff run.
Hamilton again responded as McAdoo plunged in for another major to restore their 12-point lead to 27-15. Before the half ended, Austin put together another drive culminating in a pass to receiver Donald Narcisse at the front of the end zone to cut Hamilton’s lead to 27-22 at halftime.
It was obvious halftime adjustments favoured the defences. The teams traded field goals before Rider Mark Urness forced Osbaldiston to concede a safety in the end zone to make the score 30-27 Hamilton. The Riders closed out the quarter by taking the lead, 34-30, on a one-yard run by Tim McCray, after a pass interference call in the end zone.
That set up a wild, and unexpected fourth quarter.
Again the teams traded field goals to make the score 37-33 when Saskatchewan kicker Dave Ridgeway added another three points to make the score 40-33 with just minutes remaining.
Kerrigan responded again, driving the Tiger-Cats, deep into Rider territory. This is about when I came in to watch. He spotted Champion in the end zone but seemed to overthrow him. Champion jumped high and hauled the ball in, which was over his head and behind him. He landed hard on his side but held on to tie the game at 40-40. It was later revealed he was playing with broken ribs. It was absolutely incredible.
Overtime loomed now.
Austin took the ball and again moved his team down the field. I cannot understand how Hamilton let him do that. Suddenly, with just seconds to go, Ridgway was trotting onto the field to try a field goal to win the game. The man known as “robo-kicker” was automatic from inside 40 yards, and made no mistake. His kick split the uprights with just a few seconds left to give the Riders the inexplicable 43-40 lead.
|The Saskatchewan Riders celebrate winning the 1989 Grey Cup.|
Saskatchewan still had to kick off though, and announcers Don Wittman and Ron Lancaster cautioned that if anyone had a kick return trick up his sleeve, it was wily Hamilton coach Al Bruno. He was out of magic though, and the game ended.
In a game for the ages, the under dog Saskatchewan Roughriders had won their second Grey Cup in franchise history.
You have to understand the mindset of the time to appreciate this game. The Edmonton Eskimos were absolutely dominant, and easily could have gone 18-0. Still, they were the first team to win 16 regular season games. Observers did note one of those losses was to Saskatchewan, so maybe the Riders had found a chink in their armour. After the Riders beat the Eskimos in the Western Final, it would have been easy to predict they would have nothing left for the Grey Cup. But they did.
The other dominant thought was that, since the retirement of legendary quarterback turned broadcaster Ron Lancaster, the Riders had been lovable losers for more than a decade. My ex-girlfriend, a Regina native, demonstrated it best when we watched a replay of the 1989 Grey Cup at her place in 1997.
It was the third quarter and I looked over to see her in the fetal position.
“I’m tense,” she lamented. “If anyone can blow it in the replay, it’s the Riders.”
Everyone in the country celebrated with the Riders in 1989. They were literally the Bad News Bears of Canadian football.
All of this, and the sheer entertainment value of the game, makes it the best Grey Cup ever. It really does.