Nov. 25, 1950 was a day made for kickers – and the day that made Nick Volpe a Grey Cup legend.
Volpe starred in the 38th Grey Cup game, destined to be known as the infamous Mud Bowl. On Monday, a recreation of the famous CFL contest will take place in Toronto as Grey Cup week festivities begin in earnest.
The day before the game, six inches of heavy snow blanketed Toronto’s Varsity Stadium field. The field could have been protected with a tarpaulin, but instead bulldozers were sent to clear the snow before the game.
The move turned out to be a disaster. The morning of the game the weather turned warm. The snow turned to steady rain that would continue through the game. The bulldozers rutted the field. They tore away at the Varsity Stadium turf, already in bad shape from the regular season. The Varsity field turned into a slippery, puddle-strewn bog. Winnipeg tackle Buddy Tinsley almost drowned in a mud puddle when he was knocked senseless.
“They’d tried to shovel the field, but they couldn’t. So they got bulldozers, but those chewed up the field so that we were running in literally four or five inches of mud,” he said. “It was almost impossible to play – you couldn’t run with the ball and it was very hard to kick the ball off the ground,” said Volpe, who lives in northern Mississauga with his wife Donna.
“Ted Toogood and I were punt returners and we decided rather than try to catch the ball – because we couldn’t – to let the ball hit the mud then pick it up and run with it.”
Both Winnipeg and Toronto found it difficult to advance the wet, hard-to-hold ball. Winnipeg’s star quarterback, Jack Jacobs, fumbled twice in the second quarter and was later pulled from the game. Toronto quarterback, journeyman Al Dekdebrun, taped thumbtacks to his fingers to help him grip the ball. “It was quite smart on his part, but the officials didn’t think that using them was legal, so they made him remove them at halftime,” Volpe said.
Volpe was seldom off the field for the Frank Clair-coached Argos. Besides handling the place-kicking duties, he served as back-up quarterback, safety (defensive halfback) and returned punts. He kicked two field goals in the second quarter – boots of 21 and 23 yards – “and I was surprised to get the ball off the mud. We didn’t try any field goal beyond 35 yards because it was so hard to kick.”
The two field goals were enough to give Toronto an insurmountable advantage. Dekdebrun scored on a quarterback keeper in the third quarter and the Argos went on to blank the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 13-0.
Volpe also made a game-saving tackle on Winnipeg’s George MacPhail at the five-yard line to preserve the shutout. He got the game ball in appreciation and it still has a place of honour in his Brampton home.
He attended the University of Toronto, helping them win the 1948 Canadian university Yates Cup, 18-7 over Western before 19,773 at Varsity Stadium. In 1949, he began teaching and coaching at Port Credit Secondary School.
The versatile Volpe played under Argo coaches Ted Morris (1949) and Frank Clair (1950-52), joining Clair’s staff as an assistant coach from 1953-56.
In 1953, Volpe helped coach the Argo farm team, Toronto Balmy Beach, taking them to the Ontario Rugby Football Union Championship. He also coached the Lakeshore Bears juniors from 1955-1963.
Volpe divided part of his time as a teacher and coach at Port Credit. Volpe had a 39-year career in education, teaching Latin, English and mathematics. He capped it off with his retirement as superintendent of schools in Halton Region in 1988 before moving back to Peel. Football remained part of his life. Volpe worked with broadcaster CFRB radio, then served as an isolation director for CTV football telecasts from 1972-87.
When he retired from education in 1988, he returned to be part of the Argonauts organization as personnel director. In 1994, Volpe took on the challenge of scouting the nation’s amateur and college ranks.
Volpe has been a part of six Grey Cup champion teams as an Argo (1950, 1952, 1991, 1996, 1997 and 2004). He has yet to lose a Grey Cup game.
“When I played you had only 28 or 30 players and many guys were two-way players,” he said. “I wouldn’t call today’s players wimps, but doctors are so careful about concussions and injuries. … I played a game with two cracked ribs. They taped them and I wore a rubber girdle. It was like getting pierced with a knife every time I got tackled.”
Though official retirement from the educational world was 21 years ago for the 86-year-old Volpe, football will never be out of his system. He is a well-respected consultant with the Argos, attends most practices and reviews CDs of prospects for the team. “When they tell me to go home I will, but I think I have a couple of years left.”
Other Grey Cup games to get nicknamed because of bad weather include the 1962 Fog Bowl at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, the 1965 Wind Bowl at Exhibition Stadium, the 1977 Ice Bowl at Olympic Stadium in Montréal, the 1982 Rain Bowl at Exhibition Stadium and the 1996 Snow Bowl at Ivor Wynne Stadium in Hamilton.