There it is, in all its glory: the Edmonton Eskimos/Dan Kepley hallway of fame. It hits you the moment he opens the door to his river-side condo and allows you in.
Awards. Autographed photos from other athletes. His first professional contract from the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys framed and hung just above his second pro contract, this one with the Eskimos. His 1975 rookie salary? A pittance, $16,000.
But the eye-grabber is a showcase containing all five jerseys worn by Kepley in the Eskimos’ consecutive Grey Cup wins from 1978 to 1982. He points a mangled right finger to the five team photos aligned next to the jerseys. They are the links to that magnificent past, to a time when one team ruled the CFL and one man embodied its passion.
That man was Kepley, 200-plus pounds of pernicious force. The last warrior.
“We didn’t think about this,” he says of the accolades and acknowledgments. “Not until the last 10 years. Then it was, ‘Man, we were good.’”
They were good. Tom Wilkinson and Warren Moon were the quarterbacks. Jim Germany ran the ball, Tommy Scott caught it, Dave Fennell stuffed it. Larry Highbaugh and Joe Hollimon intercepted it. The Eskimos were a brotherhood of all-stars and characters, Canadians and Americans, blacks and whites, and they accomplished the unthinkable – five championships in a row – because they could, because they were so much better than everyone else it pained their rivals.
Kepley’s role was to inspire, and he did, through dedication and intimidation. The moment the linebacker showed up in Edmonton, then played his first game two days later, it was the start of something special.
“I always felt the defence was the best part of our team,” says Wilkinson, who still lives and works in Edmonton. “I think Dan’s biggest asset, as far as what he meant to the team, was that he wasn’t big but he hit huge. That transferred to the entire defence.”
Kepley takes a seat in his living room and uses a remote to turn off his stereo. His fingers have been broken so many times they resemble gnarled tree roots. On one is a 2005 Grey Cup ring, the last he won as an assistant coach.
He is neatly dressed and impeccably groomed. At 59, he looks fit, but admits there are plenty of physical pains. The left shoulder he tore up in training camp in 1982 needs another operation.
Kepley has a story to tell about the wonky shoulder that was shot full of painkillers for every game that season.
In the 1982 Grey Cup, Toronto Argonauts receiver Emanuel Tolbert caught a pass as Kepley zeroed in. With a last-second move, Tolbert cut from Kepley’s right to left. Unable to raise his left arm, Kepley watched as Tolbert ran 84 yards for a touchdown. “I missed the tackle,” Kepley says. “I never believed I was that good. I just never wanted to embarrass my teammates.”
His teammates, especially his defensive brethren, stood by Kepley because he stood up for them. He personified toughness, preached togetherness and when it came to doing things the Eskimos way, with pride and none of this showboating or grandstanding, he was a stickler for commitment. It was a continuation of how he’d come up through the ranks, being told he wasn’t big enough or fast enough until he’d win cynics over by unleashing his intensity.
“If you had to go to war and wanted a guy to go with you, you’d pick Danny Ray,” says former linebacker Tom Towns, who roomed with Kepley on the road. “We were about loyalty, and he appreciated those who played the game the way he did.”
Those who didn’t play to their abilities were quickly dealt with.
Kepley tells another story, this one about a rookie defensive back who wouldn’t put out in practice, who sat around on his helmet and copped an attitude. One early morning, knowing where the defensive back was staying, Kepley kicked in the door to the player’s bedroom, grabbed him by the hair, then smashed a bottle on a dresser. Kepley slowly dragged the jagged edge of the bottle along the player’s neck, all the while speaking in a low, deliberate tone.
“I said, ‘We have a problem. We don’t like the way you’re acting.’ And I started raking the broken bottle along his neck a little harder. I said, ‘I’m coming back to finish this job if you don’t change. It’s completely up to you if I come back.’”
And? “We never had a problem with him again,” Kepley says.
“It was [head coach] Hugh Campbell’s team, but it was Kep’s locker room,” says Dwayne Mandrusiak, the Eskimos’ long-time equipment manager and Kepley friend. “He’s the best player I’ve ever been around – the way he played, being a team guy. It meant everything to him.”
Kepley played through injuries, took painkillers and drank. The drinking masked the pain and helped him live up the Kepley credo: “To be the physical guy I had to be, I could never show how much I hurt. I’d rather be thought a drunk than a [wimp].”
When Kepley’s playing career ended, he was lost. He tried coaching but wasn’t ready for it. He did radio and television commentating on CFL games; he sold real estate.
In 1992, he suffered a perforated ulcer. Doctors said he was so far gone he had a 3-per-cent chance of surviving.
Ten years later, he returned to coach again with the Eskimos, only to resign midway through the 2010 season over what he calls “a matter of principle.” He leaves it at that.
These days, more than 10 years into sobriety, he is contemplating what is next in his life. Will he coach again? He’s not sure.
What he does know with all certainty is that he was a part of something historic, something special; a team that could set a goal and then achieve it, time after time, because it was that good.
“When we won in 1978 [20-13 over the Montreal Alouettes] it was payback for losing to them the year before. In 1979, it was, ‘Let’s beat their ass again to prove it wasn’t a fluke.’ In 1980, there was all the talk about the 1954-55-56 Eskimos and we were, ‘Okay, let’s go see if we can equal that record [of three consecutive Cup wins],’” Kepley says.
“In 1981, it was, ‘Let’s do something we’d never done before, win four in a row’ – and we won it for [running back] Don Warrington [who had died in a car accident that year]. By 1982, we had accomplished the impossible. We had no beacon. We played Calgary on Labour Day and got our ass kicked and we … were 3-5. Coach Campbell said, ‘Mathematically, if we win the rest of our games we have a chance to make the playoffs.’ It was, ‘Let’s do this for us. Let’s go play football the way we know how.’ We won eight regular-season games, a playoff and a Grey Cup in Toronto.”
He stops to let it all sink in. His condo falls silent. “It is the greatest team of all time,” he says of the five-in-a-row Eskimos. “I will go to my grave and it will never, ever be matched.”