Friday, 30 May 2014

James Sykes: 2014 Calgary Stampeders Wall of Fame

A football card of James Sykes. It was part
of a series put out by the Red Rooster
convenience store chain, and I actually
completed the entire series.
James Sykes, circa 1978. I used to love that hair.
He was a lightning quick runningback who could cut on a dime. The first few years I watched the Calgary Stampeders play football, James Sykes was their feature back. Recently, he was elected to the Stampeders’ “Wall of Fame” and it brought back all these memories when Calgary was the second best team in the league.

Replacing a legend
There’s a funny thing about when you start something new. When I started watching Canadian football in 1978, the Stampeders were coached by Jack Gotta; Ken Johnson was the quarterback, filling in for the injured John Hufnagel; and James Sykes carried the ball.

They also had a runningback, Richard Crump, who had come over in a trade with Winnipeg, and some guy named Willie Burden, who had been injured and was coming back. At one point, Gotta and company experimented with a three-back set to utilize the strengths of all three. That experiment would soon end.

Only later did I discover that Willie Burden had not only been the feature back for the Stampeders, but actually held the single-season record for rushing yards. In fact, in the description of Sykes for the “Wall of Fame”, they said Sykes was the first back after the legendry Willie Burden. When I saw Burden, he was winding down his career.

Establishing his own legend
The Stampeders I watched relied on the run. Sykes, who played in Calgary from 1978 to 1983, ended up leading the team in rushing several times, and the league in rushing in 1980 and 1981. He was also a CFL all-star in 1978, as a rookie, and in 1980, and a Western all-star in 1982. He was also really good at catching the ball out of the backfield. By the time his tenure with the Stamps ended, he had racked up more than 10,000 total yards, combining rushing, receiving, punt and kick returns.

His best seasons were 1980 when he rushed for 1,263 yards; 1981 when he rushed for 1,107 yards; 1982 where he rushed for 1,046 yards; and 1978 where he rushed for 1,020 yards. Keep in mind the CFL had a 16-game schedule back then unlike the 18 games they play now, and only once did he play all 16 games. Three times he played 15 games, and in 1979 he rushed for 703 yards, but only played 12 games, sitting out with an injury. Likely he played hurt too, so had he been healthy the entire season he may have hit 1,000 yards again and led the league in rushing.

What I always remember about James Sykes, beyond that huge head of hair that seemed to take on the shape and texture of his helmet, was the way he moved. He seemed to glide, almost walking on water. He had amazing vision, seeing a hole where none existed, then accelerating through it for a good gain. He had great breakaway speed too, so if he got into the open field, he was gone.

One day I turned around and he was gone. The Stampeders released him in 1983, and ultimately he landed in Winnipeg where he played one game, spent 1984 and 1985 on the practice roster, then returned in 1986 where he rushed for 447 yards in seven games. There was nothing more nauseating and galling than seeing James Sykes playing for the Blue Bombers. He was older and slower, and past his prime, so I took comfort in the fact he wasn’t the same James Sykes I had known and loved.

Parting thoughts
It was good to hear James Sykes had been inducted into the 2014 Stampeders’ “Wall of Fame”. His name brought back memories of a time when no matter what the Stampeders did, the Edmonton Eskimos did it better. However, it is a testament to the talent and ability of James Sykes that he put up those stats against some strong defences, including one of the best ever in the Eskimos. He was a treat to watch, and I’m glad maybe a few more people will now remember how great he was.

(This clip shows James Sykes rushing, and contains a graphic of his season totals)

(This clip starts with a close-up of James Sykes and ends with a pass attempt to him)

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