It happened forty-seven years ago almost to the day: December 3, 1972, the Grey Cup Game between the “Green-n-White” Saskatchewan Roughriders and the “Black-n-Gold” Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Played before almost 34,000 fans at Hamilton, Ontario’s Ivor Wynn Stadium, the 60th Grey Cup would be the last league championship game slated for the month of December. All of them since have been played the last week of November.
The hometown Tiger-Cats fans were quite excited because it was the first time they had hosted the event since 1944. Hamilton had posted an 11-3 record in 1972 and took the Eastern Conference final by beating the Ottawa Rough Riders in a two-game total point series. Saskatchewan had a tougher time, losing five of their last seven games to finish a mediocre 8-8 on the season, thus taking the West’s third spot. But they came on the strong in post-season by upsetting the Edmonton Eskimos followed by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, both 10-6 teams during the regular season.
Coached by Dave Skrein, who had one Grey Cup win under his belt with the BC Lions in 1964, the Roughriders were a team of tough post-season veterans: quarterback Ron Lancaster, fullback George Reed, offensive lineman Clyde Brock, linebacker Wayne Shaw, and others, plus some young, upcoming talent in rookie wingback Tom Campana and defensive end Bill “The Undertaker” Baker.
The Tiger-Cats had their own stars: outstanding rookie quarterback in Chuck Ealey, quality receivers Tony Gabriel, Dave Fleming and the two-way Garney Henley, in addition to the big, bad, bruising Angelo Mosca on the defensive line. Coached by Jerry Williams, they also had one of the first place-kicking specialists at the time: rookie Ian Sunter.
The Tiger-Cats started the scoring in the first quarter after defensive back Al Brenner intercepted a Lancaster pass at mid-field, climaxed by an Ealey-to-Fleming pass in the end zone on the same series from 16 yards out. Later in the same frame, Sunter kicked a field goal after his team had blocked a Bob Pearce punt to make the score 10-0 after one quarter. The Riders evened things up in the second quarter on a Lancaster eight-yard pass to Tom Campana and a field goal by Jack Abendschan. The score stood at 10-10 at the half and remained that way until deep into the fourth quarter, when the questionable Rider coaching decisions came into play.
The first one occurred with just under nine minutes to go in the fourth quarter. The Rider offense was on the move and looking sharp. Faced with third and one yard to go at their 35, coach Skrein decided to gamble. He called on reliable and powerful George Reed, who had been having a great ballgame hauling the mail to that point. He came through, grinding out two yards for the first down. Then, for some strange reason, under a similar third-and-short situation on the next series, Skrein decided to punt from his 44.
Most of the Rider players couldn’t believe it.
George Reed said later, “It was a good day. I thought the game was going along quite well. If we had gone for it, they wouldn’t have had a chance to come back and win the game.” Ron Lancaster added, “It
didn’t make sense. None of us understood why we gambled at one spot and not farther up the field.” Bill Baker was equally frustrated. “I think that’s the kind of play that really hurts you because it sucks away your energy.”
The Rider offense lost their momentum and didn’t pick it up again for the rest of the game. The next Rider coaching maneuver hurt even more. All game long, right outside linebacker Wayne Shaw had kept Tiger-Cats tight end Tony Gabriel under wraps. He had not caught a single ball. The reason: Shaw was deliberately banging into Gabriel at the line of scrimmage, a perfectly legal move. Gabriel could never get going.
Evenly matched in the weight department at approximately 210 pounds, Gabriel had the height advantage at 6-foot-4, four inches taller than Shaw. That didn’t bother Shaw. He knew, however, that Gabriel could embarrass defenders if given any kind of room downfield. “He didn’t catch anything that day,” Shaw said, “because I’d been knocking him on his ass all game.”
It was a clash of Canadian gridiron talent. Nicknamed “Clamps” for his ability to bear down on the opposing ball carriers as they approached him, Shaw was a brutal tackler. He was a strong Saskatchewan-born boy, a six-time Western Conference All-Star and All-Canadian once in his 12 years as a Roughrider. Tony Gabriel was born and raised in nearby Burlington, across the bay from Hamilton, coming off an excellent season--his second in the league--where he had caught 49 passes (second in the Eastern Conference), good for 733 yards, three touchdowns, and a CFL All-Star slot.
With 1:51 left in regulation time and the Tiger-Cats on their own 15, everyone knew that Chuck Ealey was going to air it out. With that in mind, defensive coach John Payne somehow convinced Skrein to pull Shaw and replace him with the speedy Bill Manchuk to cover Gabriel. Manchuk may have been faster, but he was a backup linebacker in only his second year, while the more-experienced Shaw knew the opposing receivers like the back of his hand.
Pulled from his position, Shaw was fit to be tied. From the bench, he was telling his head coach, “Skrein, let me in there, I’ll hit him [Gabriel]! I won’t let him off the line!” Shaw even wanted to run out on his own and tell Manchuk in no uncertain terms to get off the field. “What the hell could they have done with me? They wouldn’t have stopped the game.” Shaw wanted to do just that, but knew it wasn’t proper protocol. “For 12 years they convinced me that the coach was God.”
Shaw and his teammates looked on in horror as Ealey exploited the change in linebacker personnel by chucking three-straight first-down passes of 27, 12 and 15 yards to Gabriel, leaving Manchuk unable to catch up every time. When Garney Henley caught a 12-yard pass that he had to stretch behind him for, the Tiger-Cats by then were down to the Rider 27-yard-line. “I’ve never been so pissed off in my life,” Shaw said, standing there on the sidelines, unable to do anything except smolder.
With 13 seconds remaining on the clock, Hamilton place-kicker Ian Sunter jogged onto the field.
Eighteen days away from his twentieth birthday, Sunter, born and raised in Dundee, Scotland, had immigrated to Canada in 1966 at the age of 13 with his parents. An ex-soccer player converted to
football, he had joined the Tiger-Cats right out of high school. Sunter had all the pressure on him now to be the “Hero of Hamilton.” Garney Henley, his holder, told him before the snap of the ball, “Keep your head down and follow through.”
Sunter didn’t disappoint. With no time left on the clock, he booted it through the uprights with ease from 34 yards out for a Hamilton 13-10 victory. Burning mad, Wayne Shaw quickly got dressed in the Rider clubhouse, drove a rented car to Toronto by himself and flew home to Regina, ahead of his team. He never wore the Green-n-White jersey again, deciding to retire.
That off-season, the Riders fired Dave Skrein (who never coached again) and moved John Payne, of all people, to the head coaching position for 1973. “I thought we should have won that game,” George Reed said. Bill Baker put it even more bluntly. “We were over-coached.”
Versatile Al Ford, who played many different positions on offense and defense with the Riders during his years with them from 1965-1976, didn’t put the blame on any players either. “It wasn’t the defense. Someone wasn’t playing the defense the way it was supposed to be played.”
In other words, the Rider coaching staff blew it. And they did it again four years later in the 1976 Grey Cup Game held in Toronto (John Payne’s fourth and last season as head coach) when Tony Gabriel, now an Ottawa Rough Rider, was once again left untouched at the line of scrimmage late in the game and allowed to roam free at full speed. This time he caught a 24-yard pass from quarterback Tom Clements for the game-winning touchdown with 20 seconds on the clock. Final score: Ottawa 23, Saskatchewan 20.
Gabriel stung the Saskatchewan Roughriders twice with John Payne looking on like “a deer in headlights.”
Oh, how history can repeat itself.