FOOTBALL DYNASTY ON THE MARCH

Hal Quinn September 8 1980

FOOTBALL DYNASTY ON THE MARCH

Hal Quinn September 8 1980

FOOTBALL DYNASTY ON THE MARCH

Hal Quinn

Edmonton Eskimo kicker Dave Cutler sits on the back porch of his farm house 35 km from the city limits and, more important, 40 km from Commonwealth Stadium. Three-and-ahalf hours earlier, 42,778 fans had cheered as the scoreboard flashed: “Dave ties pro football field goal record—335.” But by the time the crowd quietly filed out of the stadium, the scoreboard read: “Calgary Stampeders 16—Edmonton Eskimos 15.” The Grey Cup champions had lost their first game of the season, their second ever at Commonwealth Stadium, and Cutler, the man with the green and gold leg, had missed three field goals. Angry, remembering, he stares out toward the lake bordering his farm. Overhead in the moonlight, a flock of geese honks its way south. “Damn, summer’s gone.” Later that morning, before heading back to the city and his sales job at rock radio station CHED, the Victoria, B.C. native notices that the leaves on the trees near the lake have begun to turn. Cutler is reminded again of the northern Alberta winter that lies ahead. It adds to the chilling memories of the night before and the “trap” he had allowed himself to fall into.

“Dr. Death” sits in the offices of the Edmonton law firm Lennie, DeBow & Martin, his six-foot-four, 249-lb. frame

filling most of the chair and all of his suit. It is the day before the Calgary game, four days before he will be called to the Alberta bar to become David Allan Fennell, lawyer. But this day Fennell is speaking as “Dr. Death,” the name he picked up as leader of the Edmonton defensive line—Alberta Crude— that struck fear into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks in the mid-1970s.

“You know,” he is saying, “what’s amazing to me is that every game we’ve played this year has been a ‘must’ game for the other team. Like, Toronto had to beat us when we were in Toronto; B.C. had to beat us to get into first place; Winnipeg had to beat us or their season was over; this week Calgary has to beat us; then if Ottawa doesn’t beat us it’s over for them; then it’s back to Calgary on Labor Day; then out to B.C. That’s nine must games in a row, which creates a lot of pressure. I wish someone would say, ‘Well, this is just a normal game. This one’s for two points!’ ”

Disco music blares through the dressing room of the victorious Calgary Stampeders as the players celebrate their one-point victory over the Eskimos. But for the absence of champagne, it is like a Grey Cup championship party. Of course to sip champagne, Canadian football teams have to beat the Eskimos. Rob Kochel, ice packs taped to shoulder and knee, dances in the shower as hulking linemen gather to croon

their rendition of the Eagles’ song: “Gave ’em a heartache tonight, we know.” Robert Sparks (defensive back) grins: “When we get ’em back in Calgary Labor Day, we gonna wrap ’em up and send ’em home.”

Eskimo Head Coach Hugh Campbell is at his desk at the team’s offices in the Edmonton Inn early the morning after the loss to Calgary. “Oh, I guess the sun will still shine,” he says with a smile. There is an air of calm about the office befitting a command post of a team that has won nine of its past 10 games that counted. “Our local media was talking about our going undefeated and in that sense this loss could really help us. Like, our fans have no idea of what our ability is, they have it vastly inflated. There we were last night playing Calgary, supposed to be our arch-rival, and the fans were watching it like they were watching a play at the theatre.” Campbell laughs in feigned surprise. At 39, as last year’s Canadian Football League coach of the year who can boast the second best win-loss percentage in the league’s history, Campbell can afford to laugh a bit. One of the CFL’s top receivers when he played for Saskatchewan from 1963 to 1969, Campbell knows the ups and downs of Canadian football well. “The fans are very good here, but they were misled into thinking that we were going to win all our games by a big score. They’ve actually cheered for the

opponents hoping for close games. We’re used to it so we’re not insulted by it. But, I would guess that the next time Calgary comes to town our fans will say, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta work hard to win this game.’ ”

The Eskimos have been winning the next one for a long time. Between 1950 and 1960, the team was never out of the Western Conference playoffs and appeared in five national championships, winning the Grey Cup three times—in 1954, ’55 and ’56. The team’s fortunes dipped in the ’60s as the Saskatchewan Roughriders dominated the West but, after missing the playoffs in 1972, the Eskimos went on to re-establish a football dynasty. They have finished first in the West six of the past seven years, played in the Grey Cup final every year but one since 1973 and won the last two Cups. Thanks to what is probably the league’s most sophisticated scouting system—one full-time and 11 part-time U.S. Scouts and Frank Morris’ reports from 26 Canadian colleges—the Esks are blessed with excellent talent. Their Canadian players are among the best in the league—punter Hank Ilesic, centre Bob Howes, linebackers Tom Towns and Dale Potter and company. Bolstered by such top-class Americans as receivers Waddell Smith, Tom Scott and Brian Kelly, quarterbacks Tom Wilkinson and Warren Moon, middle linebacker Dan Kepley and running back Jim Germany, the Eskimos have lost only 13 of their last 55 regular season games.

Two days after the loss to Calgary, Cutler was still thinking about the “trap,” still angry with himself. As he

chatted in his office at CHED, George Blanda’s North American pro football record of 335 field goals was uppermost in his mind. Blanda had kicked his last field goal in December, 1975, capping a 26-year career in the American and National football leagues. Cutler started this, his 12th year in the CFL, needing 11 field goals to set the new mark. Now after six games, he still needed one more. “I fell into it. I had been thinking about the record so much that it almost

became more important than the game. I’ve never done that before. I’ve always considered myself to be a team player. Now I just can’t wait for the next game. I hope I kick one from the 12-yard line early and get this damn thing over with.”

The Ottawa Rough Riders came to town five days later. Cutler’s chance came early, at 5:56 of the first quarter, not from the 12-yard but from the 48yard line. He made it. The Esks won 45-20 and Cutler could relax.

Cutler’s sense of team is not unique

among the Eskimos, nor is it unique to this year’s team. Jackie Parker, Hall of Famer, the Shenley awards player of the quarter-century and star of the 1950s Eskimos (see box) remembers: “I always felt that other teams then had as much talent as we did, but that we had an edge because we were so close as a team.” That closeness, esprit, sense of belonging, is tangible in the violent world of pro football and the precarious lives of professional athletes. It, and a sense of the community in which they live and play, is cultivated by the Eskimos as by no other team in the league.

As the Esks prepared to play Ottawa, shock waves emanated from the locker room of their opponents in their past five Grey Cup games, the Montreal

Alouettes. Quarterback Joe Barnes’ wish to be traded was granted on Aug. 22. Then the next day, the Alouettes placed four veteran players—kicker Don Sweet (nine years), linemen Gordon Judges (12 years) and Dan Yochum (nine years), defensive back Larry Uteck (seven years)—on waivers. The players said it was a budget move because of the large salaries the team was paying to U.S. college No. 1 draft choice Tom Cousineau and National Football League veteran receiver Fred Biletnikoff. Three days later the new-look Alouettes went out and defeated Toronto Argonauts 43-33.

Eskimo players don’t think that sort of trauma could happen to their team. “Here you don’t find a lineman blocking

for a running back who is making 10 times the salary,” says the new lawyer Fennell. “And you’ll find that this team will keep a veteran over a rookie or a newcomer because of the contribution made over the years.” The Eskimo difference is not lost on recent arrivals, like Canadian running back Neil Lumsden. “When I was traded here from Hamilton in May, you know, [Coach Hugh] Campbell and [Executive Manager] Norm Kimball talked to me on the phone that night. I was greeted with open arms—‘How do you like Edmonton? Can we get your wife a job?’—

I was impressed. All organizations are the same; the difference is how they’re run. This one happens to run probably as well as any in North America.” Generally acknowledged as the guiding light behind the team’s success, Norm Kimball says: “I don’t think there are any great mysteries about what has to be done in this business.” The Eskimos are a community-owned, nonprofit business. A nine-man board of directors headed by President Don Carlson establishes general policy. “After we’ve done that it’s just a question of getting good people and letting them operate without interference,” he says. Getting the people is Kimball’s job. With prospective j players, too, character is almost as important as ability. “We don’t build in problems,” Kimball explains. “We don’t want any discontented, disinter-

ested people here. We will either sign or trade the player who wants to play out his option—at our leisure, not at his. And in our scheme of things, keeping salaries close is very important.”

The harmony “built-in” by management is reflected by the team. Wide receiver John Konihowski, in his seventh year with the Eskimos, is a highly visible figure around Edmonton coaching and conducting track-and-field clinics with his wife, Diane Jones Konihowski, Canada’s premier pentathlete. Lounging in jeans and sneakers before the Calgary game, he talks about the Eskimos. “This organization makes us feel human, we are treated like men. There are no curfews, bed checks, overly long practices. We are expected to act professionally, know our jobs and prepare. It makes the game more enjoy -

able, and when you’re enjoying what you’re doing, you give that little extra.”

Because practices aren’t held until 4 p.m., things can go right off the field too. For four-time all-CFL cornerback Larry Highbaugh from Indianapolis, things couldn’t get much better. Putting aside the dolly he’s been using to wheel Eskimo souvenirs into the team’s office, he smiles. “I put my bid in a brown envelope like everybody else and I got the marketing rights to the Eskimo logo. I’d gone out to all the major department chains and came up with a program that they all liked.” He is in his ninth year with the team. A few years ago he bought into a sporting goods chain, now has Highbaugh’s Sole City Sports store and rights to the 50odd souvenirs that are sold across the country. “Sure, I’ve had offers to go to the NFL, but I’d say my family and I are very happy here.”

Of course in a sporting world populated by Harold Ballards and George Steinbrenners, harmony and contentment come with winning. As one man riding the crest of the Eskimo success story, Hugh Campbell admits, “I know

that one day I’ll be fired. My wife keeps asking me when I’ll get a real job.” And few know the vagaries of pro-football life better than Tom “Wilkie” Wilkinson, the 37-year-old quarterback who splits duty with 23-year-old Warren Moon. The beloved Wyoming tumbleweed drifted from the Toronto Rifles of the defunct Continental Football League to the Argonauts, then to the B.C. Lions before coming to rest in Edmonton. According to Cutler, the onceroly-poly, five-foot-10, 175-lb. Wilkie (who just doesn’t look like a quarterback) is the key to this team. “Oh, they laugh about his body—I laugh about his body,” says the kicker. “But I room with him on the road because I’m a little egocentred about my own body. Mine is bad compared to anyone else’s except his, so I’m the Greek god in our room. Sure he comes off as a clown prince, but he’s the guy that leads us by example.”

The morning after the one-point loss to Calgary, Wilkinson—the league’s most outstanding player in 1974, runner-up in ’78, all-CFL quarterback last year—was pilloried in The Edmonton Sun by Executive Editor Kaye Corbett. (The paper’s football writer and the sports editor wrote rebuttals to Corbett the following morning.) But Wilkie just

shrugged it off. “Ah, everyone’s entitled to their opinion.” About the records he holds, his attitude is the same: “Heck, I’ve been playing so long I’m bound to pass somebody.” About the difference between the Eskimos and other organizations in the CFL, Wilkie laughs: “Yeah, I’ve negotiated for salaries with Kimball and I’ll tell you that's different.” When not in uniform on the field or TV screen, Wilkie is a popular figure around the city as an ad salesman for middle-of-the-road radio station CHQT. “You know, in a city of 600,000 rather than, say, two million, you’re accepted into the community more.”

And win or lose, at home the Eskimos will have their weekly team meeting. “These, of course, are unofficial,” Konihowski grins. “We have them in a local pub, and I’ll tell you every guy shows up. And on the road they’ll gather together.” “That last trip to Winnipeg,” says Cutler, “we had 20 of us in the same pub after the game. Twenty guys, and the other 12 were back at the hotel, but doing something together]” The Eskimos don’t operate like other clubs, and with two straight Grey Cups and six wins in their first seven games, they don’t play like other clubs either. ;£>