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There was a point there, as I was reading Paul Woods’ exquisitely rich account of the CFL’s 1983 Eastern FInal, that I noticed I was feeling a little bit of an adrenaline rush, as though I’d been transported back to that Sunday, nearly thirty years ago. Like I was once again creeping ever closer to the radio, the final moments of an incredible game being described over crackly airwaves.
Not that I didn’t know the outcome. The Toronto Argonauts would win that game against the Hamilton TiCats in thrilling fashion – punching in a touchdown with seconds remaining – and book a trip to the Grey Cup Game a week later in Vancouver.
No, I wasn’t 19 years old again. But I sure felt like it.
The just released Bouncing Back: From National Joke To Grey Cup Champs, self-published by Woods, is filled with that kind of evocative writing. It’s a love letter to what many in my generation believe to be the greatest victory, by the greatest team, in Argo history.
It’s also a story of a team that was far from great, far from distinguished, only two years previous to its drought busting victory in Vancouver three decades ago. However, within the ashes of a 1981 season that saw the Argonauts bottom out with just two wins and fourteen losses, there were signs of possible greatness ahead. Signs that Woods knows have been historically ignored; an oversight he set out to correct.
All of the stories you may already know about that championship team are here. So, too, are many you may not have known about, making this a read that is both nostalgic stroll down memory lane and journey of discovery.
Woods, a veteran journalist (he’d retired after 31 years at Canadian Press in 2012) and lifelong Argo fan, has obviously put hundreds and hundreds of hours into the project, one he says took over a year to complete. It is meticulously detailed and researched, the story of the beleaguered Boatmen becoming national champions laid out over 212 pages.
The broad strokes are there: The importance of the hiring of Ralph Sazio as the team’s president midway through that disastrous 1981 season. The arrival of Bob O’Billovich as head coach. The hard-as-nails leadership of quarterback Condredge Holloway and the incomparable talents of receiver Terry Greer. The revolutionary offence installed by coordinator Darrel “Mouse” Davis.
Much more than that, there are untold or forgotten stories. As well, there are smaller, more personal stories that add extra layers to the knowledge you may already have had about the 1983 Argos. Throughout the book so many of the members of that team are quoted again and again. It’s not just O’Billovich, Holloway, Greer and Davis.
The list of those retelling their stories from the era includes offensive linemen Dan Ferrone, Kelvin Pruenster and John Malinosky. Linebackers Don Moen and Tim Berryman. Defensive backs Zac Henderson, Steve Ackroyd and Carl Brazley. Defensive lineman Rick Mohr. Quarterback Joe Barnes, receivers Jan Carinci and Paul Pearson. Running back Cedric Minter. Fullback Bob Bronk. And on and on, including trainer Fred Dunbar and assistant equipment manager Jim Tipton – the guys who undoubtedly knew every little thing about the men who donned double blue at the time. From those accounts emerges an amalgam that might well have you believing you were there all along with the rest of them.
For instance: Near the end of the book, Woods describes the importance of offensive lineman Mike Hameluck. Not so much as a player (which he was) but more as a catalyst of cohesion. It was Hameluck who was largely responsible for bringing the team together, through his hospitable nature. Each year at training camp, Hameluck would load up the trunk of his car with cold beer and meet his teammates, on a daily basis, in a field not far from Argo camp. They would gather after a tough day of training, crack open a few cold ones and in the process, bond. It was a ritual that came to be known as “the tailgate lounge.” Woods also describes another of Hameluck’s habits, one of inviting his mates to his dorm room at camp for late night snacks of cold cuts.
This is the kind of detail that gives a fan new levels of knowledge as to the seemingly tiny fragments of football life that might not have much to do with the game itself, but everything to do with what made their team one of champions.
There are great swaths of team chemistry insight and behind the scenes intrigue. Who knew that B.C. Lions’ star receiver Mervyn Fernandez could have and probably should have been an Argonaut alongside Greer? Or that Brazley, a key to the defence, wouldn’t have been an Argo at all if he’d picked up a message in his hotel room the day he signed with Toronto? There’s also the story of Greer, promised a spot with the Los Angles Rams if he’d only dog it at Argos’ camp and get cut. Which, of course, he could not and would not do.
The book starts off on absolutely the right note, with the details of a game that any Argo fan of my vintage will remember as being a turning point on the way to winning the Grey Cup. A mid-season game, in 1982, against the powerhouse Edmonton Eskimos at Exhibition Stadium.
As Woods correctly points out, that game on August 7th signalled the page had been turned on the Argos’ history of fumbling and bumbling. They beat the reigning champs that night and the belief that they could be something different, something wonderful, took root. I remember watching that game on TV that night, the images fading in and out as my father and I kept adjusting the antenna to try and secure a somewhat watchable picture. What I’d never forgotten and was delighted to see recaptured in “Bouncing Back” was the reaction of the crowd at the end of the game, pouring out of the stands and onto the field as though the Argos had won it all. Woods weaves a splendid retelling of that game, infusing it with comments and insight that provide it with the gravitas it deserves.
Along with vivid imagery of that and the 1983 Eastern Final, Woods paints a colourful portrait of the 1983 Grey Cup Game too, bringing it back to life with the memories of players who were on the field, marching us through the chronology of the Argos’ 18-17 win over the B.C. Lions with a running commentary on each key moment from the principals involved (You find out just how Lions’ coach Don Matthews inadvertently ticked off the Argos at halftime, with B.C. enjoying a 17 – 7 lead).
There are moving, personal moments too. Offensive lineman Tom Trifaux describes how his greatest memory actually came nearly a decade after the win, when his 6 year old daughter discovered that her last name was on the Grey Cup.
There are tales of camaraderie and tales of dissension. Of obvious heroes and villains as well as not so obvious ones. Nuts and bolts history with deeply personal memories adding more human touches throughout.
Bouncing Back is an exhaustive retelling of one Canadian sports’ greatest transformations, with few – if any – stones left unturned. The importance of Willie Wood, fired as Argos’ head coach part way through that historically abominable 1981 season, is illustrated fully. Although Wood was unsuccessful as coach, some of his personnel moves enriched the professional lives of Sazio and O’Billovich. In a chapter entitled “The Backbone,” the importance and contributions of the Canadians on that Argonaut team are given dutiful and deserving illustration.
If you remember this edition of the Argos, if you remember the depths of despair they brought you to as well as the heights of championship joy, this is a book you must read.
If you’re a younger Argonauts fan, with no recollection of the team, the time, nor the notion of its unmatched futility between 1953 and 1981, it’s a chance to learn so much more about the history of the team you love.
And maybe understand why your father, why your grandfather, have so much love for the 1983 Grey Cup champions.