General Articles

Bomber From Over The Border

TRENT FRAYNE September 15 1948
General Articles

Bomber From Over The Border

TRENT FRAYNE September 15 1948

Bomber From Over The Border

TRENT FRAYNE

FOOTBALL, a form of autumnal violence in which grown men in short pants pummel each other legally, reaches its giddy climax in less than three months when 20,000 people will pay $30,000 to watch the best team in Western Canada exchange bruises with the best team in Eastern Canada for the national championship. It is probable that the western representative in the East-West final this year will again be the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and, if it is, Bob Sandberg, a large young man from Minnesota, will be in the national spotlight. Accompanying him will be the eternal controversy concerning the importation of football players from the United States.

Sandberg, who won a national reputation one afternoon last fall, is one of the most recent in a long line of Americans brought into Canada by Winnipeg since 1932 and the Blue Bombers like to regard him as the epitome of the American athlete they are constantly seeking. That is to say, he has an exceptional talent for knocking people rudely down while he is playing football and, almost equally important, he doesn’t talk with his mouth full and is interested in pursuing his profession of architecture in Canada. He is, in short, a gentleman and a brawler.

Isolationists contend that most imports are brawlers period and feel that Canadians should be allowed to exchange puffed noses only with Canadians. They regard imports as mentally retarded misfits whose bulging muscles are discernible both ways from the neck, who invade this country temporarily every fall for money, departing the instant the season ends, who fulfill no function other than to grunt and groan on the gridiron, who are, in short, football bums.

The Bombers refute such arguments and point for illustration to their selection of gentlemen off the field and wild-eyed terrors on it since 1932, when they started to import football players from the Midwestern United States in earnest. Of the 17 men brought to Winnipeg in the 10 seasons through 1941, after which the club suspended operations until 1945 because of the war, nine spent at least three years in this country, seven married Winnipeg girls, five served in the Canadian armed forces and four currently hold executive positions with Canadian firms.

Bob Sandberg was imported for the 1947 season, lured by a position with a leading Winnipeg firm of architects, Green, Blankstein, Russell and Associates, and by $3,500 for playing football. He is a 26-year-old graduate of the University of Minnesota, where he Continued on page 29

Are football imports football bums? Well, take Bod Sandberg-architecht and quarterback; gentleman and brawler

Continued on page 29

Bomber from Over the Border

Continued from page 21

played football under the renowned coach, Bernie Bierman, in 1941, 1942 and 1946. He had spent 1943, ’44 and ’45 in the United States Army Air Forces as navigator of a B-24 bomber.

His play in the Western Conference last year was good but not sensational. He won the Jeff Nicklin Memorial Trophy for the most valuable player in the league, but his recognition was local.

This was changed on the afternoon of November 30 when Bombers met the Argos in Varsity Stadium in Toronto in the East-West final. The Westerners were 5 to 1 underdogs, rated from 15 to 25 points inferior to the Argos. But Sandberg performed remarkable feats of power running, grabbing the ball up near the sidelines and bounding along like a foot-loose caboose, completely impervious to the thrusts of qualified assassins. He kicked long, low hard punts, came up with six completed forward passes (though he does not regard himself as a passer) and quarterbacked the club with a fine mixture of end runs, passes and plunges that kept Argos off balance most of the afternoon. He was a bulwark on defense, intercepting Argo passes and tackling with admirable venom. Argos came from behind to win the game 10 to 9 in the last four seconds and escape by the width of a pigskin the most stunning upset in Canadian football.

The sports writers went into loud hosannas over Sandberg. Ted Reeve, coach of the Toronto Balmy Beach Indians and Toronto Telegram columnist, had picked Sandberg on his AllCanadian team for Maclean’s Magazine before last fall’s classic and when it was over he said the big back was better than he’d realized. “The Argonauts,” said Reeve, “were almost Sandberged.”

Sandberg, in applying a word to his work that day, says: “I played hard to win that cup last fall—as hard as I did in high school—because I suddenly felt that team spirit that I’d lost in a big institution or an American pro team. I’m not overlooking the money I make. Believe me, I worked for every cent I made—but all that spirit was added. 1 like Canadian ball for its enthusiastic players, its small but rabid crowds. There’s a wide-open field for eventually lifting the game to the point where it equals your hockey. I feel I can help Canadian football.”

More specifically, Sandberg means Winnipeg football, because he turned down offers from Ottawa, Hamilton and Balmy Beach after last year’s final. He describes the offers as “perhaps more financially attractive but less interesting in what I really want—to help me study architecture.” Like nine tenths of the imports, he coached a high-school team in Winnipeg (another point the Bombers make on behalf of the Americans; they develop the game tremendously in schools) and he will do it again this fall. Also, he will attend University of Manitoba for postgraduate work in architecture and he will assist in the coaching of the varsity team. Between classes and practices he will work at his drafting board.

Outdoors Type

Its hard to picture Sandberg as anything but a football player. He’s six-foot-three and weighs a solid, tapering 215 pounds. His big, outdoors face with a strong chin and brown, friendly eyes is the kind of face the picture

magazines use to illustrate campus life.

He fills the No. 40 sweater he wears on the gridiron like five pounds of potatoes in a four-pound bag and when he gets under way with a football he runs deceptively fast. Hec Crighton, who has been refereeing national gridiron finals for 20 years, says he never saw a runner with such an uncanny change of pace, picking up speed in a single stride or relaxing it as quickly by throwing off the timing of tacklers, mayhem-bent. Other times Sandberg frustrates them with power alone, running, as they say, over top. Not everyone is in love with him, however. Ted Morris, the Argo coach, blames a lacklustre performance by his own forces for Sandberg’s eminence in the East-West game.

“Our guys were arm tacklin’ all day;

I mean grabbing with their arms instead of driving with their shoulders and legs,” he claims. “The only way you’re going to stop a power runner is with power and our guys were playing patsy. You’ve got to be vicious. We got vicious for Ottawa and then we went through the motions the rest of the time. If that guy had been playing for Ottawa we’d have stopped him easy. You’ve got to, well, sorta hate ’em to stop ’em and it’s hard to work a team up to a pitch like that and keep them there all season. So you get an objective and you work up toward that objective and everything else is anticlimax. We’d licked those guys in two preseason games when we weren’t in shape and we figured we could lick ’em any time. Our objective was our own league all season.”

Sandberg, who picked up most of the kudos for that afternoon’s encounter, proved he was no Alibi I ke by accepting full responsibility for the play that gave Argos their winning point in the last moments of the game.

The Bombers had the ball on their own 33-yard line. The team bad made only three substitutions all afternoon and the players were hanging on against fatigue or exhaustion. The score was tied, 9 to 9. There was less than a minute to play when the Bombers lined up for third down with two yards to go. Sandberg, by all the laws of football, should have called for a kick. The Argonauts, assuming he could do nothing else, pulled into a 10-man line in the hope a man could slice through the Winnipeg line to block the kick. Sandberg attempted to cross them up. He called for a running play. Argos smothered it and, because Winnipeg had not advanced the ball the required 10 yards in three plays, the Toronto team took over possession of the ball on the Winnipeg 33-yard line. On the first play, the great Argo halfback. Joe Krol, hoofed a long, high kick. There were four seconds of playing time remaining. The ball bounced far behind the Bomber goal line and rolled past the deadline for the point that won the game. It was the only time the Argos were ahead.

“I called it,” said Sandberg afterward. “The play didn’t work. I’ll take what comes for calling if.”

Sandberg could have pointed out that the player to whom the ball was snapped had fumbled it and that before be could pick it up the Argos had rushed through to smother him. He could have mentioned, too, that, against Argos’ 10-man line, the man might have gone all the way or, at least, might have put the ball in position for a Winnipeg, instead of an Argo, kick for the winning point.

But Sandberg merely said if was his fault and perhaps that is why few of the critics condemned him. Instead, they pointed out that it was a magnificent gamble under circumstances far from ordinary. With his worn-out

team, Sandberg probably could not have marshaled forces sufficient to hold the better-manned Argonauts through 10 minutes of overtime play.

Problems of Importers

Arthur Chipman, president; of the Blue Bombers, says it is becoming increasingly difficult to acquire players like Sandberg, whom he describes as “football citizens.” While he disagrees with those who insist all American players should be banned from Canadian ball, he agrees that football bums add nothing to the game, be they American or Canadian. But he says he is finding it increasingly necessary to do business with them because high salaries in the United States and the current money war between the longestablished National Football League and the new All-America Conference have shot price ranges away over the limits of Canadian bank rolls. As a result, he says, it’s hard to attract the “right type” of American.

Joe Ryan, former manager of the Bombers and now serving that capacity for the Montreal Alouettes, agrees with Chipman that Toronto is the only city in Canada capable of producing enough top-flight ball players to supply its teams. All other cities except Montreal are too small and, in the Quebec metropolis, the game only now is beginning to capture the interest and imagination of the high-school kids from whose ranks the homebrews must be produced. Toronto, the headquarters for the anti-American cult, is the only city in the country that can afford to adopt such an attitude, they insist. It is difficult to “sell” a losing team to the customers, they contend, and, without imports, they can’t produce a winner.

Canada’s principal weapon in enticing high-calibre imports is to offer them an opportunity in their chosen professions or to produce jobs that interest them. That’s what interested Sandberg, a debater, orator, actor and musician in high school, captain of the Minnesota Gophers in 1946, member of the Big Ten Council Senate Committee and winner of the Big Ten Medal for outstanding scholarship and athletics. The Big Ten, incidentally, is an affiliation of 10 leading colleges in the Midwest, including such universities as Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan. The University of Chicago has dropped from the Big Ten football setup which has prompted that league to call itself the Big Nine. Anyway, Sandberg brought that background to Canada, he says, “because less pressure and politics allowed me to work in my field full time and thus prepare me for the days when 1 can’t play ball.”

There is the possibility, of course, that Sandberg would not have made the grade in pro ball. He signed with the Chicago Rockets of the AllAmerica Conference after graduation hut was sidelined by a twisted knee early in the training season. Before he was ready to return to active duty he had been contacted by Chipman and the Bombers’ coach. Jack West. He accepted, got his release from the Rockets and went with his wife, a Minnesota girl, to live in Winnipeg.

The Bombers were interested in Sandberg long before they saw him. After the club had absorbed an ignominous pasting from the Argonauts in the East-West final of 1946, Chipman and West set to building up the weakest positions. West, for 20 years a coach in North Dakota and South Dakota and an intimate friend of most of the Midwest college coaches, wrote 300 letters to college and professional clubs asking for recommendations, stressing the fact the club was looking

for men who wanted to build their future in a foreign country. This stipulation eliminated 90% of the prospective applicants, Chipman estimates, and by last August the Bombers were considering personal interviews with only 15 men. Many of these landed jobs with American firms and decided to stay in the States. When Sandberg stated his interest in furthering his architectural career, Chipman negotiated with the Winnipeg firm which eventually hired him.

While Chipman will pay $3,500 for a “football citizen” like Sandberg, he does deplore the trend toward football mercenaries. The Blue Bombers took in $77,000 from all sources last year and just managed to break even. Bulk of the payroll went t.o imports, who. except for Sandberg, received between $2,000 and $2,500. None of the homebrews got more than $1,000.

How to Stay Amateur

“The club originally was formed for the promotion of amateur sport,” Chipman points out. “It’s getting so far away from that objective that 1 question very much if we’ll carry on after this season. Either we should get back to real amateurism or turn outand-out, professional, in which case there would be no raiding of players by other clubs with the resulting jockeying for more money by players who, 10 years ago, couldn’t have made the club.”

Ten years ago, however, football was not on such a highly competitive monetary plane, either here or in the United States. Fritz Hanson, a hero and virtually an institution during the seven years he played for the Blue Bombers, received $1,800 in his best season. Nowadays, $2,000 cannot induce a good Eastern Canadian player, much less an American import, to change his address. The Alouettes, for instance, acquired two players from Toronto Balmy Beach and the Hamilton Wildcats for $2,500. The Argonauts, who pride themselves on never having imported an American player, although an American coach, Lew Havman, put them on their feet, and tutored their current coach, Ted Morris, reportedly paid $4,500 and $3,500 to two halfbacks, Joe Krol and Royal Copeland. Hamilton paid $5,000 to Frank Filchock, former quarterback of the professional New York Giants; and Ottawa, in order to keep its won and lost record respectable, was forced to buy American imports at the prevailing rates of $2,500 to $4,500, while paying about $1.000 less for good Canadians.

Joe Ryan of the Alouettes has the theory that the “ridiculous trend” is a result of a Canadian Rugby Union rule restricting the number of imports to five (this year in the Big Four, because of an involved and not particularly interesting agreement between the clubs, Montreal is allowed seven, Hamilton and Ottawa six each).

“If there were no restrictions all of this bargaining would be eliminated,” he contends. “The rule of supply and demand would remove the fantastic ideas some players have of their worth. We’d simply tell a player we had so much money available and if he didn’t want it we’d find as good an American player who did.”

It was suggested that this could lead to teams manned entirely by Americans, but Ryan dismissed the argument by pointing to the Blue Bombers, who imported only 17 players in 10 years. And there was no use eliminating Americans entirely, he claimed, because fans have become accustomed to a fairly lofty standard of play which the limited number of good Canadian

players cannot produce on a national basis. “The Argonauts have been able to do it,” he says, “but who else?”

It’s a fact that no Western team ever made a respectable showing in the Canadian final until their ranks were sprinkled with American players. Only bank windows and boxcars owned the kind of figures Eastern teams used to roll up against pitiful Western opposition until the mid-1930’s. The EastWest final, which has grown into Canada’s greatest sports spectacle, used to drive prospective customers into poolrooms until the Americans bolstered the Winnipeg ranks and were largely responsible for the Blue Bombers winning the national championship in 1935, 1939 and 1941.

The whole business of importing began back in 1931 when two rival Winnipeg teams first tried spiking their home brew with American players; shortly thereafter the two teams decided to join forces as the Winnipeg Rugby Football Club, go out after more stars from over the line and launch their new machine against all Canadian comers. Names like Carl Cronin, Russ Rebholz and Bobby Schiller began to appear in Winnipeg line-ups. There followed the years of star imports like Bob Fritz and the famous Fritz Hanson, who led the newly christened Blue Bombers to the national championship in 1935. When Fritz left for Edmonton some three years later, he was replaced by the celebrated coach, Reg Threlfall. Since the war the Bombers have renewed their border forays, with Sandberg their greatest find to date.

Bob Sandberg likes Canada and Canadians although he has a few bones to pick with some Canadian habits.

“The way most people in Canada stroll around the field between periods kills me,” he says. “They leave stuff all over it—bottle caps, broken glass,

paper sacks. Why, at Minnesota, you’re practically shot at sunrise if you’re on that field for other than playing football. That ground is hard enough as it is. I think the idea of reporting to three or four men before going into the game is very superfluous.

I found the officiating in many cases, particularly in the West, lacking sureness of thought to a point where players often took the game over. I think the rules should hold true enough to clean the game up. I found myself protecting my very hide out there from ! slugs and kicks when I should have I been thinking of smart football. The game in the East with Toronto was a clean, hard-fought one—but that was not always true through the season.”

Sandberg likes the Canadian rouge which is missing from the American game. But he misses American blocking rules by which the ball carrier and kick receiver can be protected by his own linemen and backs for unlimited distance while jie carries the ball. In Canada, the ball carrier is permitted blocking assistance only for 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage and not at all on the run back of kicks. As a quarterback, Sandberg says he was lost when first he operated under Canada’s three downs instead of the U. S.’s four in attempting to advance the ball 10 yards. He found it difficult to build up a sequence of plays, feels the thrilling downfield marches of 60 and 80 yards through straight variety of ground plays can seldom be incorporated into the Canadian game as long as a quarterback has only three plays for 10 yards.

“Actually he has only two chances,” says Sandberg, “because if he fails to make yardage he probably has to kick on third down or risk losing the ball.”

He grins a little as he says this, undoubtedly recalling the second-last, play of the 1947 East-West final, it