SPORTS WATCH

The most bizarre play in football

‘I caught it 18 yards deep and booted it back. Mann caught it and kicked it back in. Bernie caught it and went 120 yards for a touchdown. ’

TRENT FRAYNE January 16 1995
SPORTS WATCH

The most bizarre play in football

‘I caught it 18 yards deep and booted it back. Mann caught it and kicked it back in. Bernie caught it and went 120 yards for a touchdown. ’

TRENT FRAYNE January 16 1995

The most bizarre play in football

‘I caught it 18 yards deep and booted it back. Mann caught it and kicked it back in. Bernie caught it and went 120 yards for a touchdown. ’

TRENT FRAYNE

SPORTS WATCH

Don Sutherin wants guys who rattle their cages, guys who, as they used to say in Hamilton, “eat ’em raw.” Don is the newest Tiger-Cats coach, and for them next season he doesn’t want some fancy Dan of a quarterback, a drop-back passer, he wants a guy who can throw, of course, and can run hard, too. “On a 65-yard field you don’t want a guy in the pocket. He’s got to be tough.” Don grinds the word. Then, after a thoughtful pause, he says what’s also on his mind. “I’m not looking to knock a guy down, I’m looking to knock him out”

Back in the 1960s when the Tiger-Cats mauled nearly everybody, Don was there, an all-star defensive back and the team’s kicker. He played a key role in one of the most spectacular and certainly the most bizarre plays in the history of the Canadian Football League. Now, he’s the head man, moved up from assistant coach early last autumn when the team was terrible and the incumbent, John Gregory, couldn’t get it straightened out.

Don didn’t do much better. “I was 3 and 11, something like that,” he says distastefully. But his team kept improving. “We lost eight games by a total of 12 points,” he growls. “It was a very tough year. I’ve been coaching 14 years and this was one of the toughest.” Strangely, though, the team began to put people into the seats after years of apathy. Lose, lose, lose, but the crowds in ancient Ivor Wynne Stadium slowly grew. Hamilton is essentially a gut-wrenching town, a steel workers’ town. Gradually, the fans took to what they were seeing on the field, an earnest, hard-hitting bunch. And this was the beginning of the Little Miracle of Ivor Wynne, the one that has burgeoned into 14,000 seasonticket sales for next year. Throngs of people swarm daily to a big store-front ticket office in downtown Jackson Square, milling in front of the black-and-yellow display of Tiger-Cat windbreakers, T-shirts, caps, cushions, pins and a broad rectangular banner from the Tweedsmuir Public School signed by scores of students and with musical notes bracketing the inscription: “The Tweedsmuir Tigers love the Cats. Tis the reason to save next season.” Don Sutherin has all of this in perspective. “I think at the end of this year fans could see we were getting better,” he says. ‘We had 17 first-year players, seven second-year, four third-year. The thing I liked was that the players accepted the problems, they never whimpered. A lot of teams would have folded. By our last game, against Saskatchewan, there were 24,000 people there.”

He’s a guy in his mid-50s from Ohio who played a year for the Giants and a year for the Steelers in the NFL, then Hamilton and Ottawa in the CFL and then worked as an assistant coach in Ottawa, Edmonton and Calgary. In this past season, his first in Hamilton, the team’s late revival followed so many dreary years that the franchise had become an endangered species. The survival reminds Don of the 1960s when he played. There would be pep rallies in the Royal Connaught Hotel, hundreds of fans and all the players. “Yeah, it was mandatory,” Don says. “But we wanted to be there.” And the TigerCats were damned near indomitable. They finished first in the CFL’s Eastern Conference five straight years, 1961 through 1965, went to the Grey Cup final each of those years and twice won what sometimes was called “the cherished old mug” or occasionally “Lord Grey’s battered old shaving jar” (we scribes were mighty inventive back then).

It was during one of these late autumns that the weirdest play in football, north of the border or south, transpired at Ivor Wynne. It was 1961, a two-game total-points Eastern final in which the Toronto Argonauts, with the celebrated Tobin Rote, late of the Detroit lions and the Green Bay Packers, at quarterback, whipped the Tiger-Cats by 25-7 in the first game, thereby taking an 18-point advantage into the concluding bloodletting.

Almost from the beginning of the second game, Hamilton was in command, smothering the Argonauts to two measly points acquired on the powerful punting of Dave Mann, owner of the CFL’s strongest leg (and a mighty prominent right toe, too). Meantime, the Tiger-Cats had piled up 20 points to level the total two-game score at 2727. Nonetheless, with only slightly more than one minute to play, the Argonauts got a break when, at the Hamilton 35-yard line, Toronto’s Stan Wallace intercepted a pass by Bernie Faloney, the home team’s highly successful quarterback Qim Trimble, his coach, used to say of Faloney: “Bernie can’t run, he can’t kick and he can’t pass. All Bernie can do is beat you”). So all the Argonauts had to do was snap the ball to Dave Mann, the best kicker in the game, and he could hoof a single for the game-winning point.

“I thought Dave would drive the damn ball out of the stadium,” Don Sutherin reflected the other afternoon, looking back 33 seasons.

But the Argonauts decided to run down some clock. They tried a running play and were offside. Now the ball was on the Hamilton 40. They tried another and were stopped. So was Rote on a keeper. Now they had to kick, and, for Hamilton, Don Sutherin and Bernie Faloney went into their end zone, hoping to kick Mann’s punt out.

“I caught it 18 yards deep and booted it back,” Don remembers. “Mann caught it and kicked it back in. Bernie caught it and went 120 yards for a touchdown. ”

But wait. While Faloney was en route, various Hamilton players blocked various Toronto players illegally. The officials ruled no touchdown. And since time had run out, the series was still tied.

All the Tiger-Cats did in overtime was score four unanswered touchdowns. They won the game by 48-2.

“A lot of those guys are still here,” Don says. “Faloney’s here, Angelo Mosca’s here, Ellison Kelly’s here. John Barrow went back to Texas for a while but he’s moving back. Lot of other guys who came up here are still here—Tommy Joe Coffey, Bernie Ruoff, Dave Marler, Willie Bethea.”

They are the kind of cage-rattling players Don wants for the 1995 Tiger-Cats. “I want to keep them around. Buy a house, rent a house, get a job, stay. That’s what I want.” Eat ’em raw.