In Edmonton, you could buy tickets for a quarter at Woodward’s that let you into the Knothole Gang section of Clarke Stadium (for 6- to 12-year-olds) to watch your beloved Edmonton Eskimos. This would have been in the 1960s, the glory years of the CFL.
Not everyone bought a ticket, of course. One group of kids propped a long plank against the fence behind the Knothole section of the stadium. If you ran at full speed toward the plank and didn’t fall off the side and maim yourself, you could grab the top of the fence and pull yourself over into the end zone.
When conversions and field goals fell into the end zone, relentlessly unsentimental staffers from the team snatched the balls back from the kids who longed to touch them. One year, a Knotholer caught the ball, and as the ball retrievers surrounded him, threw it backward over his head to a waiting compatriot outside the stadium. The chance to play a pickup game with an actual regulation J5V CFL football? Sublime.
How and why do we know these details? Because this is the mysterious stretch in Canada’s annual athletic calendar, Grey Cup week, when hundreds of thousands of men and women become deeply nostalgic for Canadian football, a game fewer and fewer of them follow or watch any more.
The nostalgia is even thicker this year because Sunday’s 107th Grey Cup game once again pits the Hamilton Tiger-Cats against their ancient rival, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the teams with the two longest Grey Cup droughts in the CFL. In ancient Canadian football times they were both working-class teams, and so this is the Battle of the Working Classes.
Plus, the game is being held in Calgary, the right ventricle of CFL football, at McMahon Stadium. The first time the Grey Cup was played at McMahon Stadium in 1975, it was -15 C with a headwind of 25 km/h. During the coin toss, a naked woman streaked across the field.
These are the details CFL nostalgists love, proof that they once inhabited a common country that had never dreamed of Wexit.
But for all their nostalgia for the Canadian game – the skinny but romantic cousin of the American brute – fewer and fewer watch it, nationally.
Last year’s Grey Cup game between the Calgary Stampeders and the Ottawa Redblacks (nostalgists remember when Ottawa was the Rough Riders, like the Saskatchewan Roughriders, which incomprehensibly meant two teams in a nine-team league had the same name) drew 3.1 million viewers on television, down nearly a quarter from the year before. Ten years ago, twice as big a slice of the Canadian population watched the Grey Cup. No team in Vancouver, Montreal or Toronto – crucial markets, if the league is to prosper – currently draws more than 23,000 spectators a game. Eight million Canadians watched the Raptors win last spring.
The nostalgia persists anyway. Why? What is it we are trying to remember?
Nostalgists remember the game’s human scale
The football era remembered by the nostalgists, who tend to be 40 and older, predates the age of technological distraction. There were nine teams then in the CFL, and there are still nine teams. Cable was rare, the internet was science fiction. Toronto and Montreal were the only Canadian cities that had hockey teams.
The writer and novelist David Macfarlane rarely attends or watches CFL games today (the Grey Cup will be an exception), but “growing up in Hamilton, every fall, from Grade 3 to Grade 9, we were totally obsessed with the Tiger-Cats. Until the Beatles came along, they really were the only game in town.” The father of one of Macfarlane’s friends was treasurer of the CFL, and stored the Grey Cup in the off-season in a sideboard in his Hamilton house. When the treasurer and his wife went out, their son and his pals quaffed ginger ale from it.
Don Gillmor, another writer who recently won the Governor-General’s award for non-fiction, and who now watches only NFL football, recalls his church minister in Winnipeg asking Gillmor’s Sunday school class who God would be supporting in the Grey Cup that weekend. The correct answer was that God would support the BC Lions, because the Lions were from the West.
Nostalgists remember the game’s human scale. Tom Brady, the quarterback of the New England Patriots, makes US$15-million a year. The average salary in Canadian football today still pegs in just over $90,000. Bernie Faloney, the legendary quarterback of the Hamilton Ticats (Fernie Baloney to a Montreal fan) was lured to Canada to play for Edmonton for $12,500 in 1954, better money than he was offered in the NFL. But players still had to work second jobs.
Frank Andruski was a legend on the field in Calgary, but he spent the off-season as a substitute teacher in Hamilton. Frank Cosentino, the Hamilton-born quarterback for Hamilton, Edmonton and Toronto who won two Grey Cups and is in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, worked, even during the football season, as a salesman and later as a teacher.
The Bombers sometimes practised at a local high school. Talented players such as Lovell Coleman of Calgary and the great George Reed of Saskatchewan arrived from the United States but made their permanent homes in Canada.
“There were a lot of elements that heightened the presence of the CFL,” John Waddell, a lawyer and former Queen’s University varsity player who grew up in Calgary and now lives in teamless Victoria, explains. “The socioeconomic presence of the CFL was very approachable. These guys were readily understandable human beings. They were idols in the purest sense. They were just like us, but also really good at something.”
The Grey Cup: Weather or not
The most controversial of the nostalgists’ beliefs, of course, is that the Canadian game is as good or better than the U.S. one. Cosentino, who became a professor of athletics after retiring from the game at 30, maintains they are different games. Three downs (versus four in the NFL) played on a longer, wider field invariably means more throwing. In the NFL, where the players are bigger, only one player can be in motion before the ball is snapped, whereas in the Canadian game everyone in the backfield can get a running start. “That makes defence harder in Canada,” Cosentino says. In his heyday, the ratio of passing to running was 60-40; today, he says, it’s 80-20. It’s that intake of breath when the ball is in the air – that leap of faith – that makes the Canadian game chancier. You might even say it’s a metaphor.
But the most common point of Grey Cup nostalgia is the weather. Do not forget the Mud Bowl of 1950, in which Toronto beat Winnipeg on a field so muck-churned that Buddy Tinsley, a 260-pound Winnipeg lineman, was thought to be drowning in a puddle before a referee turned him over and found he had merely swallowed his tongue; the Turf Bowl, in which the field was so torn up the centres tossed plate-sized clods of earth aside before snapping the ball; the Ice Bowl, in which Montreal players shot staples into their shoes for traction; the famous Fog Bowl of 1962 that had to be finished the next day (Cosentino was Hamilton’s quarterback; he lost to Winnipeg); and the Wind Bowl of 1965, during which gale-like gusts blew the ball back to its kickers. That isn’t a sport so much as it is a reckoning with fate.
The Wind Bowl, turns out, was the first Grey Cup broadcast to use instant replay. But Grey Cup television is a well of nostalgia on its own. The Cup was first televised in 1952. Not that it mattered that much: even in the 1970s, watching an overcast, snow-covered outdoor Grey Cup game on a fuzzy black-and-white TV was often a guessing game. “It was not the brilliant high-def world of today,” Gillmor says. “Maybe there was something of the creative imagination involved.”
These days Gillmor follows only the NFL, albeit guiltily. “I’m a lapsed CFL fan,” he admits. “But I do watch the Grey Cup most years. I do carry that care for the CFL with me.” It’s the unshakable obligation of his youthful obsession. “It’s about a thing that has not changed. I guess that’s the thing that keeps the nostalgia bubbling.” Because 24 heroes carrying a holy orb through lakes of frozen snow and mud at 20 below zero is infinitely less predictable, in the end, than watching giants triumph on a sunny California afternoon in early February.
In our game, we take what we get, and make what we can of it. There is no hope of total triumph. It feels like the country we live in.