Officially, it was Joe Barnes’s three-yard TD pass to Cedric Minter that earned Toronto its thrilling 18-17 win over the B.C. Lions in the 1983 CFL championship, ending the Argonauts’ 31-year Grey Cup drought.
But in Bouncing Back: From National Joke to Grey Cup Champs, author Paul Woods notes the wild celebration that ensued doesn’t happen if not for John Palazeti. It was the veteran fullback’s heads-up block on a crucial third-down gamble that allowed Toronto to rally for a 41-36 East Division final win over arch-rival Hamilton.
“I didn’t know was just how close they came to losing that Eastern final if it wasn’t for John Palazeti,” said Woods, a former journalist at the The Canadian Press. “They handed off to Minter and he just squeezed across for the first down but I didn’t realize there had been a missed block on the play by, of all people, Dan Ferrone and [Hamilton’s] Leo Ezerins had a clear shot at Minter.
“Palazeti saw it out of the corner of his eye and made the block to seal the gap and let Minter get through. They don’t make that first down then they don’t score the winning touchdown and don’t go to the Grey Cup.”
Toronto trailed 36-34 with less than a minute remaining inside the Hamilton four-yard line. Kicker Hank Ilesic came on to try the go-ahead field goal before head coach Bob O’Billovich had a change of heart and decided to gamble on third and about a half yard.
Quarterback Condredge Holloway handed off to Minter on the right side but Ferrone, slated for induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in October, missed Ezerins. Fortunately Palazeti, who played fullback and linebacker throughout his CFL career, picked him up and Minter got just enough for the first down.
“A football game can be decided by one or two plays,” Argos offensive lineman Tom Trifaux recalls in the book. “In that instant, if Paco (Palazeti) doesn’t make that connection we’re not going to the end zone.”
Minter’s two-yard TD run — behind Palazeti’s lead block — with 27 seconds remaining gave Toronto the win and foreshadowed the late-game heroics that were to come in Vancouver.
“Danny Ferrone was a good offensive lineman, but he missed on that play,” O’Billovich says in the book.
“It was a very inopportune time to make a mistake and those are the kinds of plays where I could be the goat for the rest of my life,” Ferrone told The Canadian Press in an interview. “Palazeti picked up Leo and made a great play out of it.”
Woods’s self-published book, available in soft cover and as an e-book, chronicles the rise of the Argos from 1981 (league-worst 2-14 record) to their ‘83 championship run.
“I had a sense the story had never been really told and kind of felt that was an injustice in a way,” said Woods, a longtime Argos fan. “They ended this drought that seemed like it would never end and certainly were honoured incredibly well at the time with the most insane parade you’re ever going to see for any sports team in Toronto.
“But it was almost like the pressure valve got released and now we can move on to other things. The Blue Jays started getting good around ‘83 and became a playoff team in ‘85 and I kind of felt the accomplishment of that Grey Cup didn’t receive the credit or attention it deserved.”
On Friday, the Argos will honour the ‘83 squad at halftime of their game versus Calgary. Most team members are expected to be on hand, except for Minter. He’s a school principal in Boise, Idaho, and the reunion coincides with the start of the school year.
Eleven members of the ‘81 Argos were on the field two years later in Vancouver. Willie Wood was Toronto’s head coach in 1981 but was fired after 10 games. At season’s end, Argos president Ralph Sazio hired O’Billovich, an assistant with Ottawa.
O’Billovich led Toronto to the ‘82 Grey Cup, losing 32-16 to Edmonton in the last of the Eskimos’ historic five straight titles.
Woods believes Toronto’s ‘83 Grey Cup win is the crowning achievement of O’Billovich’s career. Heady praise, considering the 73-year-old had a 50-year relationship with the CFL as a player, coach and executive before retiring last year as Hamilton’s GM.
“To be the guy who broke the drought was a tremendous accomplishment for him,” Woods said. “It’s like whoever is going to be the coach if the Toronto Maple Leafs ever win the Stanley Cup, that’s going to be an unbelievable accomplishment that will overshadow anything else that person does because the weight of history is on your shoulders.