ARGOS' WALLY GABLER IS OUT TO WIN A VOTE OF CONFIDENCE ...HIS OWN
THE SWEAT WAS gradually eroding the makeup on his face, so Wally Gabler moved away from the sun to the preserving shade of a giant oak. In a few minutes, he would be filmed driving a car a few miles down Highway 27 toward an innocuous place named Bond Head, Ontario. The gas in his car, the theory went, would send him farther down the road than any other brand, and Gabler fans across football-land would then rush to fill their tanks with the same magic product.
From the makeup down, Wally Gabler looks like a Pat Boone with muscles, his 200 pounds impeccably clothed in a bright-green cardigan, matching light-green turtleneck, and grey-plaid slacks set above hand-sewn moccasin loafers.
“My wife Jackie buys my clothes . . . ” Gabler’s voice has a high, strained tone as if it has been shouting against the wind too long. The accent is the lazy, midwestern drawl that goes with fields and corn and long summer afternoons.
“. . . and I like them all.”
Gabler practically smiles out the words.
(Mel Profit, Argo end, ex-Gabler roommate: “When you first meet Wally, it’s natural to be suspicious of the way he acts. He looks too good to be true. But after you get to know him, you become convinced that he is what he seems to be — just a real nice guy.”)
Gabler picks up a loose stone and lofts a touchdown across the fence and into the field. “I sure wish I was six-six so I could see over all those linemen, but the good Lord only made me six-two, so I’ll have to do the best I can.”
The best has not always been enough. The Toronto Globe and Mail, September 11, 1967: “Coach Leo Cahill has been staying with Gabler, fearful of destroying his confidence, but the clamor from other players is getting louder. Fellows like Taylor are getting knocked out running pass patterns with no hope of passes reaching them.” ^
“I sure wish I was six-six so I could see over all those linemen, but the good Lord only made me six-two so I’ll have to do the best I can.”
“We were rejects. It was like the nine teams in the league had decided to dump their garbage and it all landed in Toronto. Wally Gabler is like the rest of us and we’ll win the Grey Cup this year.”
The Toronto Telegram, September 30, 1967: “Gabler must come up with the best effort of the season tonight. Another so-so performance would put him in a precarious position.”
Toronto Star, November 6, 1967:
“Clearly at stake is Argos’ two-year investment in this young man’s potential. Now is the time the club has the right to expect some dividends.”
The dividends were meagre in 1967, though the Argos did manage to make the play-offs for the first time in six years. The following year, however, the team finished a comfortable second to Ottawa, and even managed to badly frighten the Rough Riders by winning the first game of the play-offs, 13-11, before losing the series, 47-27. Now, according to Mel Profit, the transformation is complete. “This club,” he says with the conviction of a man who has the inside word, “has come from being the worst team in football to being the one that will win the Grey Cup this year.”
Listening to Profit, the conclusion seems inevitable. “The heart of the team,” he explains, “is a nucleus of men who came around the same time that Wally did. And we all had one thing in common: in one way or another we had been told we were through. Dick Thornton — thrown out of Winnipeg. Marv Luster — cut by Montreal. Bill Symons — they said he had the bad wheels, they cut him in Green Bay, they let him go in BC. Ed Learn — they said he was too old to play. Bob Swift — hurt his leg and got cut by the BC Lions. Bobby Taylor — his whole life had been based on independence, on being a renegade. Coach Bob Shaw bought me from BC 24 hours before I was about to be cut. And Wally is like the rest of us — he came out of nowhere, rejected by the NFL and the AFL.
“We were rejects, man. It was like the nine cities in the league had decided to dump their garbage, and it all landed in Toronto. But out of that garbage heap came the nucleus of this club. We all knew we should have quit at one time or another, but we refuse to quit. We refuse to give up.”
The temptation is never far away. “When I lose,” says Gabler, “I sometimes wonder why I play the game.” The thought draws a look of irritation across his face. “But then I remember you have to believe you’re the best. Confidence. Once you lose that, you’re gone.”
Pride, more than confidence, probably kept him from abandoning the Argos’ boat long ago. Plain Wally Gabler grew up Wallace Frederick Gabler III in refined Royal Oak, Michigan, in a Tudor-style home where one swam in the pool in the afternoon and dressed for dinner in the evening. His father owns the Hagelstein’s chain of bakeries in Detroit. A conservative man and a Republican, he is very active in local politics. With uncles and aunts around every corner, the Gablers were more than a family; they were a Royal Oak institution. When the time came for Wally to go to college, he chose nearby University of Michigan, where his parents could come every game to see their son play quarterback.
Unfortunately for Mom and Dad, a young man named Bob Timberlake also wanted to be quarterback at the same time. And since Timberlake was everyone’s All - American for two seasons, Gabler played second-string shadow on the bench.
Finally, Timberlake graduated and left with a $160,000 contract from the New York Giants in his pocket. A year later, after his turn at first string, Gabler graduated, too, but none of the AFL or NFL teams showed interest in the event.
(“What people don’t realize about football players,” Wally was saying to his visitor in the Argos’ dressing room, “is their tremendous pride.”)
When it did come, the glory came late. The season was over and his college days finished when Gabler was invited to play in the Blue-Grey Classic in Montgomery, Alabama. In what he says was his finest game ever, he completed 11 out of 13 passes, threw for one touchdown and ran for another. That night, he signed with Coach Bob Shaw of the Toronto Argos. (And the next day, hung up on four calls from U.S. teams, including the Detroit Lions and Denver Broncos.) At 21, with one year of experience and less than overpowering credentials, Wally Gabler became a professional quarterback.
“I was so naïve that first year,” he recalls, “I never wondered why Coach Shaw was going with me. I thought I pretty well knew what playing football was all about.”
The awakening came in a series of shocks. He lost the league opener, 18-8, against Hamilton. He lost the next game, 17-6 against Montreal. And then a frustrating two more games in a row. By the
end of the season, he would find himself caught for losses 34 times, having thrown 14 passes to the opposition in the process, five in one game.
After the four straight defeats, Gabler was benched. “They brought in Eagle Day from the Calgary Stampeders,” Gabler recalls, “and put him in as starter. He won the first game he played. The press loved it - THE EAGLE FLIES, said the headlines — and for the first time, I really knew what pressure was all about. I knew darn well if I didn’t produce when my turn came, I was gone. We lost the next three games, and they started using me again to play the second half.”
Did Eagle’s presence help? “Sure, Eagle was working with me, helping me. But remember, he wanted that first-string job as much as I did. I respect Eagle, he’s a great competitor, and he’s probably very happy on his ranch . . . ” Gabler is thinking between his words, choosing them carefully. “. . . But he didn’t teach me very much. In fact, I think he was pretty well near the end of the road by the time he came to us. The only thing I ever learned from Eagle was that it helps to be cocky.”
He pauses, quite uncocky, as if he’d said too much. The face changes shape, the mouth becomes more definite. “The big thing about football,” he says, “is the challenge, to win against anyone who threatens you and then to win against 12 other men. If anyone tells you they love the contact, don’t believe it. No one likes to get his head beat in. The violence in the game only comes from the fact you have to hit hard to do your job.”
Flashback: November 1967. Toronto vs. Hamilton. Gabler drops back to pass, looking for an open receiver. Looking, looking. Hamilton defense charging. His linemen can hold the pocket secure no more and the protective wall disintegrates. Gabler turns to run, is hit from behind, goes down, is hit again. The referee blows his whistle, but Angelo Mosca will not be stopped and crashes his 260 pounds into the fallen Gabler, separating the cartilage .holding the lower three ribs together.
“I’ve been knocked out three or four times,” Gabler adds. “Big men like Mosca or Booth or John Barrow hit hard but usually won’t hurt you. They just sort of collapse around you. But a little man tends to hit with everything he has in one spot, and if he drives in with the helmet, he can really stick you.” ►
“If Wally could be anything he wanted to be, he’d be a millionaire. Then he wouldn’t have to depend on anyone else but himself.”
Flashback: November 1968. Toronto vs. Hamilton. Gabler passing, looking for a receiver. Concentration. Doesn’t see Billy Ray Locklin coming from behind. Billy Ray sticks him in the side, sticks him good, and the ribs, vulnerable from the year before, tear apart again.
“Football is a nasty game, man, a real nasty game,” Mel Profit had said earlier. Twice, Profit has been hit so hard he kept his consciousness but lost his senses. “My mind had no idea how my body was getting back to the huddle. My eyes told me where to go and my legs took me there, but that’s all I knew.”
That kind of experience does strange things to a man’s mind. “One time last year against Hamilton,” Profit recalls, “I really thought I was going to panic. My mind wandered right out of my skull. I had a fantastic urge to rip off my helmet and uniform and get the hell out of there. I still don’t know why it happened, but it took every bit of control I had not to jump up and run. Now, the longer I play and the more I talk to other guys, I’m beginning to find out it has happened to them, too. Maybe it’s happened to everyone, even Wally.”
If the vision of bloodied face masks, charging Neanderthal shapes and hands taped into massive clubs is haunting Wally Gabler, he keeps it to himself. “I’ve never been afraid, except maybe once after I was knocked out and didn’t know where I was for a day and a half. I know I’m vulnerable when I throw, because my whole side is open, but I can’t afford to brood about it.”
The reason is a precocious baby boy named Wallace Frederick Gabler IV and a beautiful ex - model with blue - grey eyes named Jackie. Gabler met her two years ago in Toronto at a small dinner party. She went there thinking all football players were big and dumb and a quarterback only played a quarter at a time. “It was a funny thing,” she now reminisces with a smile, “the moment 1 saw Wally something happened. You could say he was the All-American boy and I was the All-Canadian girl, I guess. I told my mother that night, ‘You know, I'll probably wind up marrying him some day.’ ” She did, the following spring.
The Gablers rent a new townhouse outside Toronto, with thick, gold broadloom (“Wally’s favorite color”), Sinatra and Lightfoot records stacked under the portable stereo and a budding collection of Canadian antiques.
Life is quiet. “A lot of the players think they have to live up to an image — wild times, rough, tough, ready for anything. Wally’s not like that at all,” Jackie says happily. “We go for walks, have a few friends over for supper, look for antique auctions. Of course, we didn’t have lots of money at first. It was all very difficult for Wally, because he had been used to a beautiful home with lots of silverware and things. It was hard for him to adjust.”
Gabler seems to have survived rather handsomely. At 25, he has an agent, all his own teeth, collects some $20,000-plus from the Argos, drives a new car with the thanks of a local dealer and is well into a career selling stocks at the Toronto office of O’Brien & Williams.
The Detroit bakeries, for the moment at least, are forgotten.
“There’s so much opportunity here to get ahead,” he says, sounding like a Buy Canadian brochure. “If you build up a good clientele, you can start making $100,000, maybe...” He pauses, the words rolling off the smile, “ . . . maybe $300,000 a year.”
“If Wally could be anything he wanted to be,” says Jackie, “he’d be a millionaire. Then he wouldn’t have to depend on anyone else but himself.”
Like a healthy corporation, Gabler is well diversified, but not everyone on the executive is ecstatic. Early in the year, the good-natured Gabler needle was being stuck into a lineman who had shown up late for practice. “You should talk, Gabler,” growled Assistant Coach Frank Johnston. “The only time I’ve seen you at practice is to get your picture taken.”
Another teammate, working out in the early afternoon while Gabler was still at the office watching the returns from the New York Stock Exchange, shrugged: “If Wally had more faith in his football than in the market, he could be buying stocks instead of selling them.”
“I know Coach Cahill thinks I spend too much time away from football,” counters Gabler, “but I’m to the point now where the only thing that’s going to make me better is game experience and pressure.”
If pressure is indeed what Gabler needs for greatness, by the end of the year he should be magnificent. Tension is the environment in which the professional quarterback lives.
Before the second game of last year’s play-offs against Ottawa, Jackie went to
meet her husband for breakfast at his hotel. “The pressure,” she says with a shudder, “was terrible. None of the players would even come down from their rooms to meet their wives. Wally finally came, but he had the shakes, he was so tense. His face was just white. He sat there saying practically nothing. Finally, he took a sip of coffee and I thought he was going to throw up on the spot. Then he suddenly said to me, ‘I think I’d better go,’ and got up and left.”
The close finish last year leaves no doubt in Gabler’s mind of the tension to come. “The pressure is on the club to finish first this time, with no excuses.” The excuse in the past has often been Gabler himself. No more.
Says Coach Cahill, “Wally has had a good growth process, but now comes the maturing process. This year could tell the story.”
Says Russ Jackson, Ottawa quarterback, “I thought he would arrive last year, but he still has a lot to learn.”.
Says John Barrow, defensive captain of the Tiger-Cats, “This year will be his turning point one way or another. It’s the moment of truth for Wally Gabler.”
The protagonist comes well equipped. Gabler’s powers of concentration are legend. At the University of Michigan, someone introduced him to bridge. By the end of three weeks, he was playing all-night money games, and at the end of the semester had won some $3,000. “I like bridge,” he says, “because you have to think.”
The Argos’ playbook contains about 150 plays, and though he goes into each game with only 20 running and 15 passing plays, Gabler knows every man’s assignment and can diagram every page in the book.
“Most people,” he says, “don’t realize how fantastically precise football can be. Even the simplest thing. Take the straight drop-back pass. The longest I can expect my line to hold is 3.5 seconds, no more. When I drop back seven yards, I’ve already used up between 1.8 and 2 seconds. That leaves me 1.5 seconds to find a receiver and get rid of the ball.”
This year, Gabler is working hard on a snappier delivery à la Joe Namath of the New York Jets. Not that his arm is weak. Men who make their living judging such things say it may well be the best in Canadian football. Last season it threw footballs for 3,242 yards, more than Russ Jackson, the standard of Ca-
nadian quarterback, could manage.
But concentration, energy and even talent are of little use unless Gabler can get more of the players’ respect. At the moment, he commands a split camp at best. His behavior in his rookie year is still partly to blame. Desperately needing the experienced players on his side, he tried making friends too hard, too fast. Describing him that year, one veteran recalls, “Gabler was more concerned about being liked by everyone on the team than about doing his job — and wound up doing neither.”
(“Wally’s whole life,” Mel Profit once said, “is predicated on goodness. In action and thought he’s a flower child, though he looks the opposite. To him, everything deserves a good word, a warm thought. Of course, some people say, ‘What is this guy, a square? A phony? A schmuck?’ They refuse to believe that he isn’t any of those things but is just a nice guy. A genuine nice guy.”)
Early this year the players set up a stag at a downtown hotel. Gabler, who doesn’t smoke and takes only the rare drink, made an appearance, had a coffee and left for home at nine. “He passes well and works pretty hard,” said one of those who stayed, “but he’s just not a man’s man.”
If so, not everyone cares. Mike Eben, who was a rookie flanker last year and is working on his PhD in 20th-century German literature, says, “I like Wally. Maybe below the smile there is a layer you can’t see, maybe there isn’t. If it ever peels away, I’ll just readjust my attitude.”
Coach Cahill, aware of Gabler’s mercurial confidence, admits grudgingly, “Perhaps he should be more commanding, more of a leader. But he’s improving all the time. A quarterback has to communicate with each person on the team as an individual. To do that, he has to be a complete person himself. And you don’t grow into one overnight.”
For Gabler, the growing pains have been obvious. “To understand Wally,” says Profit, the man who probably does understand him better than anyone in football, “you have to know the way he feels about his family back home. It’s so strong and close, it’s beautiful.
“But at the same time, it’s been bad for him, too. When things got tough here in Toronto, he’d go back to Royal Oak to look for comfort. He couldn’t work things out for himself.”
More than anything else, Profit feels, the birth of Wallace IV changed all that. “I’ve never seen him play better than from the middle of last season on. His son made him realize he had his own family to look after, he had someone depending on him. For the first time in his life he became himself. Wally Gabler finally found Wally Gabler.”
That discovery has been a long time coming. □