How to lie your way to the Grey cup

On the eve of the big game the coaches follow an almost invariable formula: if the team is healthy, say it’s dying; if it’s dying, say it’s healthy. They practise this innocent deceit in the name of psychology and sometimes it works

TRENT FRAYNE November 21 1959

How to lie your way to the Grey cup

On the eve of the big game the coaches follow an almost invariable formula: if the team is healthy, say it’s dying; if it’s dying, say it’s healthy. They practise this innocent deceit in the name of psychology and sometimes it works

TRENT FRAYNE November 21 1959

On Saturday, November 28, on the tired turf of the CNE Stadium in Toronto, the two professional football teams that are presumably the best in the country will once more present that great Canadian folk festival, the Grey Cup game. For a week before that, the coaches of the contending teams will be competing in an essential part of the preliminary rites — the telling of shameless and outrageous lies.

As far back as 1938, a ceaseless talker named Reg Threlfali was challenging the truth on behalf of his Winnipeg Blue Bombers as they invaded the east to take on the Toronto Argonauts.

“We’ll cut ’em off at the knees and they’ll look like Boy Scouts,” said Threlfali airily, polishing his spectacles. “It'll be like shooting fish in a barrel.”

His rival coach, Lew Hayman, surveyed Threifall's words in deep gloom. “He may be right,” said Hayman. “My boys are in terrible shape.”

When the teams departed from the field of turmoil on December 10, the Argo knees were all intact and they had won the game 30 to 7.

Hayman, who coached in five Grey Cup games and won them all, went into every one of them with the yeasty optimism and unbridled exhilaration of a man about to undergo surgery. If he didn’t come right out and say, “I may not go to the game on Saturday; my team hasn't got a chance and I can’t stand the sight of blood,” he always looked as though that was his impulse. A Toronto newspaperman who covered all of Hayman’s conquests, Hal Walker, recalls that he never interviewed a man more morose.

“I always felt I was treading on somebody’s grave when I went to see him,” Walker says. “If I hadn't known better I’d have sworn his teams didn't have a hope.”

Usually, the coaches’ lies relate to the wellbeing of their players. The coach who has a healthy team spends most of Grey Cup week gloomily confiding to the press (and by indirection to his rival coach) that he hasn’t a football team but a pathetic infirmary of cripples. The coach whose team has a long list of genuine injuries proclaims that his men are as strong and fit as a stadiumful of Paul Bunyans. It's true that the science and skill of football rest mostly in deception, but the deception is by no means confined to the field. A fan seeking nothing but the truth in the week before the Grey Cup game will rarely find it in the deathless quotes uttered by the dissembling coaches.

For example, in 1957 the air was filled with the feat of Bud Grant, whose Winnipeg Blue Bombers had scored a miracle, as these things are measured, by beating the vaunted Edmonton Eskimos, in the western playoffs. The series went three games, involved an unprecedented twenty minutes of overtime in the deciding game, and ended Edmonton's complete domination not alone of the west but of the pro game in this country, for the awesome Esks had won the Grey Cup three years in a row. It seemed obvious, then, that any team good enough to beat the Eskimos was good enough to beat the eastern champion, in this case the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Did Coach Grant come right out and say that the Edmonton series had crippled his players and that he doubted if they’d be up to par for the big game? By no means.

“Oh, we’re hurting here and there,” he said disarmingly once, “but we expect to show up on Saturday.”

The Bombers showed up, all right, but only because their medical staff was able to inject hypodermic needles of novocaine under the pelts of four walking wounded. These were Charlie Shepard, fullback and punter, whose kicking leg bore bruised and torn muscles; Leo Lewis, halfback, who had torn cartilage between his ribs; Gerry James, fullback, who had a twisted swollen knee, and then broke his hand in the first quarter but continued to play; and Pete Mangum, linebacker, who had a sprained ankle. In addition, the quarterback, Kenny Pioen, re-injured a knee sprained in the Edmonton series, and had to retire from the game in the second half, and Dennis Mendyk, a halfback from Michigan, had a broken wrist and played with it in a cast. Shepard, the kicker, was unable to return to action after making just one punt, in spite of the shot in his leg.

Needless to say, the Bombers were butchered 32 to 7 by the robust Hamiltons whose coach, Jim Trimble, also gave truth a strenuous workout before the game. Trimble, who rarely grunts a monosyllable if he can employ five or six paragraphs and achieve the same end, had coached both Bud Grant and Wayne Robinson, the assistant coach of the Bombers, when they were players at Philadelphia. For this reason, he declared in ringing and tireless tones, he knew precisely the kind of strategy his former pupils would employ, and accordingly would counter it successfully. Trimble's didactic philosophy had nothing to do with the outcome, as coaches Grant and Robinson proved one year later when, with a healthy team, their stratagems were good enough to beat the Tiger-Cats 35 to 28.

Trimble did, however, permit one grain of truth to find its way into his pre-game seminars in 1957.

"If they beat us,” he said of the Blue Bombers, "they'll have to score more than thirty points.”

This sounded outlandish because the Bombers had checked the vaunted power of Edmonton in the western final, permitting the Eskimos only one touchdown in three games. In light of this, it seemed unlikely that the unspectacular TigerCats would puncture the Bomber defense for four times that many in one game. But Trimble was aware of Winnipeg’s hospital list, even if the fans weren’t, and he also knew his own team was in top condition, a point most people overlooked. The Tiger-Cats had bulldozed the east, rolling over Montreal 39 to 1 in the concluding game of the eastern playoffs, a crisp workout for them. Few hands had been raised in anger against them, and not many of their players had been compelled to limp to the infirmary for anything more blood-curdling than a corn plaster. The Bomber medical staff's hypodermic needles were no match for this crew.

The injections, by the way, were unusual, lest the S.P.C.A. be growing restive. Bill Boivin, who was the general manager of the Bombers that year and who is now a director of the Vancouver Lions, says he has always been dead against shots and that all Bomber doctors and executives are, too. “Prior to that game,” he says, “I can recall only one other player having received shots. But this was a desperate situation and the doctors assured us there was little chance of the injuries being aggravated.”

Apparently they weren’t, for the players all came back the following season, but the wounded feelings and pocketbooks of their supporters remained damaged all through the long hard winter.

Similar disaster assailed the ignorant disciples of the Saskatchewan Roughriders of 1951 whose coach, Blackjack Harry Smith, talked engagingly of his team’s chances against the Ottawa Rough Riders. Smith at no time revealed the true extent of his team's wretched physical condition, but actually that Grey Cup game was resolved in front of a few glum and scattered witnesses in the silence of a girls’ softball stadium two days before it was played before 27,341 onlookers in the restless rumble of Toronto's Varsity Stadium.

The bruised westerners held a secret workout at the Sunnyside Stadium in Toronto’s west end to make a final assessment of their injury list. After a sombre hour of proddings, probings and trial runs, the medical report was so bleak and it involved so many key men that the game itself became perfunctory.

To hear coach Smith on the subject on Grey Cup eve, however, no one would have guessed it.

The Roughriders that year were borne to the final by a six-foot-three-inch legend named Glenn Dobbs. Dobbs, a drawling, smiling, dimple-chinned quarterback. had so thoroughly captivated the football public that Regina had adopted the name Dobberville and people bore it on their license plates and used it constantly when talking of their home town.

But adulation was no substitute for a sound body, and Dobbs was merely one of many heavily handicapped players who emerged from a grueling threegame series against Edmonton in the western final. When the team assembled secretly at Sunnyside Stadium on the Thursday prior to the Grey Cup game, it was to determine how many of the injured could compete. Three couldn’t make it at all, including Dobbs’ primary passing target, end Jack Russell, and five others got there looking like fullcolor pharmaceutical advertisements. Even the pride of Dobberville, Dobbs himself, was an unlikely starter, though he hid his misery from all except the doctors and the coach. Blackjack Smith. He had three broken ribs and sprained knee ligaments. But did the fans get in on the truth? Nope.

“You may get away with it”

Thus in the Grey Cup game the legend became a myth in the eyes of the capacity audience. Dobbs completed only four of his first sixteen throws, and in the entire third quarter, though his team trailed Ottawa by 20 to 2, he threw only once—incomplete. Late in the game, with Ottawa clearly the winner, Dobbs showed two quick flashes. His last two passes produced touchdowns and a respectable final score, 21 to 14, but they were anticlimactic. None of Dobbs’ detractors knew, however, that his knee had been shot with novocaine and that he wore a plaster girdle from his waist to his armpits to protect the three broken ribs.

The question naturally arises: Why don't coaches reveal the full extent of a team's injuries?

“Primarily,” says the former Edmonton coach. Frank (Pop) Ivy, who now coaches the Chicago Cardinals, “because nothing can be gained. By telling the public that this man has a bad knee and that man a bad ankle, you're also telling the opposing coach. Right away, his team can concentrate its offense at a man you’ve admitted is below par. If you don't pinpoint your injuries there’s the chance, at least, that you'll get away with it.”

Ivy ought to know. One of his men, Eagle Keys, performed one of the most notable feats of courage in Grey Cup history in the 1954 game against Montreal. In the first quarter Keys, the Edmonton centre, did not rise from a pileup at the line of scrimmage. He was carried from the field, and a replacement snapped the ball badly when the Eskimos were required to kick on third down. Jackie Parker, the punter, recovered the loose ball and got it away before any Montrealer could corral it, but the incident convinced Ivy that Keys’ snapping ability was irreplaceable on this November afternoon. The coach asked his lanky centre if he could make it, and Keys tried. Pain in his left leg prevented him from going onto the field when Edmonton was working the ball from its mystifying split-T formation, but he hobbled into the middle of the line to make the long snaps to Parker for all subsequent third-down punts.

Then, with three minutes to play, the ubiquitous Parker scooped up a bounding football deep in his own territory after it had been mishandled by Montreal halfback Chuck Hunsinger, and Parker ran ninety-four yards for the touchdown that tied the score at 25 to 25. This, of course, set up the most vital play of the game, Edmonton’s convert attempt. A bad snap here could cost the Eskimos the winning point. Keys left the bench once more, keeping his left leg rigid as he hopped awkwardly across the field. Then he snapped the ball back perfectly and when Bob Dean booted it squarely between the goalposts, Edmonton had a 26-to-25 edge. Post-game examination revealed that Keys, who is now Edmonton’s coach, had a broken leg.

The nature rather than the extent of a team’s injuries is the significant factor, and often a bandaged and bedraggled Grey Cup finalist is better off than one shielding its hurts, although no one would ever suspect it listening to the coaches. Frank Clair, who coached the 1952 Argonauts in the big game, moaned piteously every time he discussed his team's chances, although he knew the players looked a lot worse off than they were. For a fact, the Argos resembled a brood of unmade beds as they trudged onto the field at Varsity Stadium. Wes McKnight, a Toronto announcer who later recorded commentary for a film of the game, suggested when he saw the film that the Argonaut entrance onto the field be deleted from the picture.

"Edmonton came through the concrete alley leading from the dressing room to the field looking every inch a football team in fresh dark-green jerseys and gold helmets, and the players jogging smartly." McKnight recalls. "Then the film showed the Argos coming out. Guys had black eyes, several were wearing casts on their hands or arms, and they were straggling like a pack of soldiers after a route march.”

The Argos had played Saturday, Wednesday and Saturday in disposing of Hamilton in the Big Four play-offs and then played Sarnia for the eastern championship the following Wednesday, with the Grey Cup game coming tip on the succeeding Saturday—five games in fourteen days. But the Argos were more weary than wounded, and what hurts they had were not the crippling kind such as torn knee or ankle ligaments which can immobilize a player.

“Tired muscles are forgotten the instant a guy catches a punch in the mouth,” says John Kerns, the line coach of that Argo squad. "Actually, we were in good shape."

Prepare for the worst

But Kerns' superior, Frank Clair, pointed lugubriously in a funereal forecast to the fact his team was battered and bruised. "My boys are in pretty bad shape,” he said. "I don’t know what to expect.” Significantly, however, he did not pinpoint a specific injury that would have set up a player as a target for the opposing offense. Unattractive as the Argos may have looked, none of their injuries was incapacitating and they didn't have much difficulty handling Edmonton that year, 21 to 11.

Clair and men like Lew Hayman and Eagle Keys, now that he's in charge of Edmonton's pre-game orations, are telling little white lies when they gloomily assess injuries. They are confirmed pessimists who take the darkest possible outlook so they won't be totally grieved if the worst happens.

"I believe you have to be pessimistic about injuries,” says Keys, "because you just don't know how well some players will recuperate by game time.”

There isn't apt to be a psychological factor attendant upon a coach's pregame fabrications. He isn't trying to scare the enemy out of town and indeed there is little chance his words would have any effect on the opposition. Most football men reason that by the time a team reaches the final it's about as mentally aroused as it's likely to get. regardless of the heights to which some of the masters may climb in their oratory.

"When he's talking to his own players in the moments before the team goes on the field,” says John Kerns, ”a coach usually runs over his own team's various defenses and reiterates the things he wants his players to expect from the other team. Then he throws open the doors of the cage and lets ’em out.’

There was once a kind of mass psychology at work on western players, however, according to Bill Boivin, speaking of his years with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

"Until Edmonton came along to win the game three years in a row," he says, ‘I always maintained that the western team arrived in the east with an inferiority complex, due mainly to some very cocky newspapermen in the east."

If this is so, then the papers, paradoxically, were partly responsible for the west shaking its complex. In 1954, just before Edmonton played the Alouettes, a newspaperman wrote that the reason odds-makers had installed the easterners as 3-to-1 and thirteen-point favorites was that "the Eskimos are a two-bit football team in a $250,000 Grey Cup setting."

Veteran Eskimo guard Frankie Morris bought dozens of copies of the paper and gave one to each Eskimo player. Even after the Esks had beaten the Alouettes 26 to 25. Bill Zock, an Edmonton tackle, was still so incensed that he refused to let anyone open the dressing-room door to the press for nearly half an hour.

“The east has lost that definite edge, thanks to Edmonton," Bill Boivin says. "For example, the Bombers came back from 14 to 0 to beat Hamilton last year like it was a piece of cake."

That game, won 35 to 28 by Winnipeg, was one of the rare finals in the past decade in which both teams went on the field in excellent physical condition. It is not a coincidence that each had a relatively easy conquest in its own division, Hamilton whipping Ottawa in the cast and Winnipeg winning handily over Edmonton in the west.

But did that silence the coaches? Ha!

Hamilton’s constant thinker, Jim Trimble, saw one of the western playoff games and the truth once more evaded him on his return to the east.

“No matter who wins out there,” he clucked happily, "they’ll give us no trouble."

When Trimble got to Vancouver he laughingly suggested that coaches Grant and Robinson, in their pursuit of their old mentor, Trimble, “remind me of two little hens trying to catch a rooster.”

Some western football reporters expressed the view after Winnipeg won the Grey Cup that Trimble's words had boomeranged, that they'd aroused the Bomber players to fighting pitch.

But among the people who disagree with this view is the Winnipeg coach, Bud Grant.

"I don't think Trimble, or anyone else, could have said anything that would have affected our players one way or the other,” Cirant says. "Our team had been pointing toward Hamilton almost from the moment we went to camp in July. His team had whipped us good in the ’57 game, and our men were determined to set the record right.”

Oddly enough, the reverse of this situation apparently plagued the Montreal Alouettes in their two tries against Edmonton after the one-point loss to the Eskimos in 1954.

"Something went out of us in that game,” Montreal’s great quarterback Sam Etcheverry related recently. "We didn't deserve to lose—you’ll recall that a touchdown scored by Herb Trawick on a recovered fumble was called back on us in the third quarter—and I sensed in the ’55 and '56 games against Edmonton that we'd developed some kind of a mental block about them — an Indian sign, I guess.”

Still, mental block or not, it's a fact that the Alouettes were a hospital case, literally, when they went into the '55 renewal. They'd been so wracked by the Toronto Argonauts in winning the sudden-death eastern final by 38 to 36 that they delayed their departure for Vancouver by two days so that several injured players could rest and be treated in the hospital.

The chart showed Jacques Belec and Johnny Blaicher, both fullbacks, with a sprained shoulder and pulled groin muscles respectively; halfback J. C. Caroline with a sprained ankle; tackle Jim Staton with pulled knee muscles and a swollen elbow; and, possibly most notably. Hal Patterson, a sixty-minute star designated — acceptably throughout the league—as Mr. Wonderful by announcer Doug Smith, with a gimpy knee and pulled rib muscles.

Adding to Montreal's woes was a balky airplane engine which gave up at Winnipeg in three-below-zero weather as the team headed for Vancouver. After the players had sat for six hours and forty minutes in the airport waiting for the motor to be repaired, team officials decided to bed them down overnight in a hotel. They arrived at Vancouver some fifteen hours behind schedule.

In the game itself the Alouettes were leading 19 to 18 at half time, and then their wounds broke open. They were hammered for sixteen points by the Eskimos in the second half, without a single response.

The truest line on the Grey Cup game, then, appears to be the manner in which each finalist emerges from its own section. That other line, the one the coaches shoot, is all part of the hysteria attendant upon Grey Cup week. Those coaches! They wouldn’t be caught telling the right time.