He was the Calgary Stampeder who could catch a football, intercept a pass, run and tackle with the best of them then line-up and kick a game-winning field goal in the worst weather conditions imaginable. That was Larry Robinson, the virtuoso who became a winner; the champion who became a legend.
Through 14 Canadian Football League seasons, from 1961 to 1974, no other player was as versatile and productive as Mr. Robinson. He was the first to score 1,000 points, almost all of them as a kicker. As a defensive back, he was a three-time West Division all-star (1965, 1971 and 1972) and still holds the all-time franchise record with 50 interceptions. In his first two seasons, he did double duty by playing receiver and catching a combined 32 passes for 668 yards and four touchdowns. He also returned punts in an era that didn’t allow for blocking on punt returns. And durable? Not once in 224 regular-season games and 36 playoff games did he sit out with an injury.
So when news began circulating of his death from cancer on July 18, there were memories galore for family, friends and fans to share, including his role in two of the biggest plays in Calgary football history – his last-second field goal that won the 1970 West Final, and the Leon McQuay fumble that secured the 1971 Grey Cup. Both happenings were Mr. Robinson at his offensive, defensive, opportunistic best.
“He didn’t have a lot to say and he never got upset about anything,” former Stampeder linebacker Jim Furlong said of his defensive teammate, who died at the age of 76. “He was very talented. You could always count on him.”
Mr. Robinson was born in Calgary on April 18, 1942. He went to Western Canada High School then played quarterback for the Mount Royal College juniors. He signed with the Stampeders in 1961 as a kicker who could play defensive back while still eligible for junior football. He finished his first professional season as the West’s most outstanding rookie. He soon became a top Canadian finalist for a team that was on the cusp of greatness. It was in 1970 that the Stampeders scored a seminal win against their rival, Saskatchewan Roughriders, in a best-of-three West Final.
Calgary won the first game at Regina’s Taylor Field, 28-11. 'Riders took the rematch 11-3 at McMahon Stadium. That set up the deciding clash in Regina on what has been labelled the coldest game day in CFL history. The temperature was minus 16 degrees C, but with assault winds attacking from the north, the temperature plummeted to minus 37 degrees C. Prior to kick-off, the coaches, general managers, referees and the CBC met to decide if the game should be postponed for another day.
CBC argued that getting the fans to come back the next day wasn’t realistic, so the game went ahead as scheduled. Mr. Robinson used the pregame warm-ups to gauge his field-goal kicking range. His last try from 30 yards away didn’t make it to the goal line. By halftime, one Stampeders player was so cold he refused to go back outside. (“I can’t think of the guy’s name,” linebacker Joe Forzani once admitted. “He said we were crazy playing in that weather. He was probably right.”)
With Saskatchewan ahead 14-12 late in the fourth quarter, the Stampeders moved the ball into 'Riders territory before settling on a 30-yard field goal attempt from almost the exact spot where Robinson had missed in warm-ups. There were three seconds on the game clock when centre Basil Bark snapped the ball to Ron Stewart, who pinned it for Mr. Robinson’s kick. CBC commentator Don Wittman sounded gobsmacked in his call, “It’s good! Holy cow!”
“I aimed it about 10 feet right of the goal posts and the wind carried it through,” said Mr. Robinson, whose field goal pushed the Stampeders one point ahead of the 'Riders for a 15-14 win. Mr. Bark and halfback Dave Crabbe carried him off the field on their shoulders.
Calgary lost to the Montreal Alouettes in the 1970 Grey Cup. But by the following November, the Stampeders had fought their way back to the CFL’s grand finale, this time against the Toronto Argonauts and a lineup that featured luminaries Joe Theismann at quarterback, Mel Profit at tight end, Dick Thornton at defensive back and Leon (X-ray) McQuay at running back. (Why X-ray? Because it was reasoned X-rays move so fast you can’t see them at work.)
“The Argos had a lot of big names,” Mr. Bark said. “And we had guys with two hearts.”
Although Calgary was ahead by three points late in the fourth quarter, an interception by Mr. Thornton put the Argos in position for an easy field goal or a winning touchdown. Mr. McQuay took a hand-off and ran to his left. Mr. Forzani filled the gap and Mr. Robinson led the charge forcing Mr. McQuay to cut back when suddenly the ball came loose and Stampeders’ defensive back Reggie Holmes recovered it.
To this day, Mr. Bark insists it was Mr. Robinson who got a hand on Mr. McQuay to send him sprawling.
“Robby came up and slapped Leon’s leg and tripped him. It’s hard to see [on film]. You don’t see Robby’s hand, you see Leon fumbling,” Mr. Bark said. “Robby caused the fumble. The ground didn’t.”
After retiring from football, Mr. Robinson spent four decades as a salesman in the oil and gas business. As always, he was the consummate team player, even agreeing to dress up as Santa Claus to entertain kids at a Christmas party.
“There are 20, 30 kids downstairs so I go check on him,” said former Stampeder Bob Viccars, who was hosting the Christmas bash for his children. “And he looks at me and goes, ‘Santa needs another Scotch.’”
Mr. Robinson is a member of the Stampeders Wall of Fame along with the Canadian Football and Alberta Sports Hall of Fame. He leaves his wife of 42 years, Donna; sons, Kirk, Scott, Tyler and Wesley; 10 grandchildren; and his sister Sharon.