The Winnipeg Blue Bombers host the western conference final in the Canadian Football League on Dec. 5 for the first time since 1972. For those us who were there on Nov. 19, 1972, the game remains a dismal and unhappy memory.
It should not have been that way. The Blue Bombers emerged in 1972 as the league powerhouse with an assortment of offensive weapons and a strong defence. The team had finally regained its stature in the league after a dramatic decline following the departure of head coach Bud Grant to the Minnesota Vikings in 1966 and the retirement of hall of fame quarterback Ken Ploen in 1967.
Failed experiments at QB with rookie John Schneider from the University of Toledo, veteran Wally Gabler (obtained in a blockbuster trade with Toronto for brilliant running back Dave Raimey), Benji Dial and Rick Cassata led nowhere. Then it all changed unexpectedly in 1971.
A swashbuckling, cigar chomping journeyman quarterback named Don Jonas became the team savior that year. Jonas had been shunted aside by the Toronto Argonauts after their signing of Notre Dame standout Joe Theismann. Jonas took the town by storm, with a gambling, high-risk passing attack that Winnipeg had never seen before. He won the Schenley Award as the league’s most outstanding player in 1971, throwing for over 4,000 yards, leading the league in scoring with 121 points (he was also a placekicker) while carrying the team to the play-offs for the first time since 1966.
Jonas also embraced the community, accepting all speaking engagements and involving himself in charitable activities that made him beloved throughout the Province of Manitoba. The 1972 season dawned with incredible hope and promise.
Jonas was one of 11 Bomber players named to the western conference all-star team that year. Winnipeg saw incredible performances from running back Mack Herron, who rushed for over 1,500 yards on his way to being the western finalist for the league’s most outstanding player award, and receiver Jim Thorpe who had more than 1,200 receiving yards. Herron’s gaping holes were opened by the self-described “hogs” in the form of all-stars — offensive linemen Bob Lueck, centre Bob Swift and hall of famer Bill Frank. Hard-hitting middle linebacker Mickey Doyle and rugged safety Grady Cavness also contributed mightily to the team’s 10-6 first-place standing.
The day of the western final dawned on a cool, sunny Sunday afternoon. The Bomber fans had the collective brash confidence of a city and team that expected to be in the Grey Cup. The only obstacle was the Saskatchewan Roughriders, with veteran stars Ron Lancaster at quarterback and perennial all-star fullback George Reed ,determined to regain the up after the team’s initial triumph in 1966.
The kids section in the end zone was filled to capacity, with the crowd in a frenzy over the Bombers’ early success that day. The waltz to the Grey Cup unfolded as expected in the first half. The offence moved the ball at will, the defence kept Reed in check and the Bombers led 21-7 at the half.
What could go wrong?
As the sun faded on an early winter day, so did the hopes and dreams of Bomber fans. The second half was a nightmare. Local media later recounted all of the missed penalty calls on the Riders. The rise of injuries to a team that had been healthy all season was truly the ultimate undoing of the Bombers’ season. Winnipeg lost Doyle to a broken leg, allowing Reed to chew up huge gains on his way to 156 yards rushing on 26 carries. Defensive end Jim Duke was hurt, tight end Paul Markle had to leave the game and Thorpe played with a torn muscle in his leg, rendering him ineffective. The Bombers seemed to panic on offence as the game steadily slipped away, resulting in four Jonas interceptions on the day. The team had only one first down in the last twenty minutes of the game.
The Riders crept closer and closer throughout the second half, dominating the game both offensively and defensively. In the fourth quarter, Reed scored on a two-yard run with 3:24 left on the clock to tie the game at 24-24. Overtime loomed. The Riders had one last opportunity with the ball and made the most of it. It all rested on the foot of Rider kicker Jack Abendschan to win it with a last second field goal try from about the forty yard line. Amazingly, he missed!
Then the wacky and wild nature of the Canadian game took over. The Bombers could not allow a single point to be scored. Returner Mike Law punted the ball out of the Bomber end zone. Disaster averted. But wait a minute (or a few seconds if you will), Lancaster alertly grabbed the ball and punted it back into the Bomber end zone from the twenty yard line. Bomber returner Paul Williams was there to save the day, kicking the ball back out of the end zone for a second time, avoiding that uniquely Canadian rouge (single point) that would have won the game for the Riders.
As the crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief, the appearance of a red flag on the field quickly turned that into a horrified gasp. The Bombers were penalized for “no yards” on one of the two Rider punt returns on the play. Abendschan got a second chance and made no mistake on his second field goal attempt from 32 yards. A deathly silence fell over the crowd as it realized the dramatic and disastrous outcome: Saskatchewan 27, Winnipeg 24. Bomber fans, either silently or angrily, trooped out of old Winnipeg Stadium like thousands of extras from The Walking Dead.
Despite the dismal and unhappy day, the fans consoled themselves with the knowledge that the prospects of a Bomber dynasty remained a strong possibility. The Grey Cup, everyone believed, would return to the hands of Blue and Gold faithful in the near future.
Alas, the hope was never to be realized. The team disintegrated in the off season. Herron and Thorpe were summarily cut from the team after being charged with possession of illegal drugs. Veteran defenders were on their last legs in 1973 and the team imploded, finishing last that year with a 4-11-1 record. A bitter Jonas was traded early in 1974 to Hamilton for Chuck Ealey. The Jonas era was a brief, shining moment in the team’s history, with Winnipeg’s next Grey Cup not coming until 1984.
If you wonder why head coach Mike O’Shea will not allow the current Bomber squad to become complacent, you only need to recall the 1972 season to appreciate his concern. The fate of any team can be influenced by untimely injuries to key personnel at the worst moments, or by a freak play involving a mad scramble of players improvising an unexpected scenario.
Years later, upon meeting the incomparable George Reed, I told him that I forgave him for 1972. For some reason, Reed just smiled.
Kevin Cleghorn is a Thunder Bay-based lawyer and a member of the Football Reporters of Canada. He will be periodically covering Winnipeg Blue Bomber home games this season.