The 12 Months of Football – Continued (July)
But this was not my first encounter with the Canadian Football League.
I was in Las Vegas for a two-week deployment to Nellis Air Force Base with my Air National Guard unit from Michigan. The CFL was in its second season of trying to expand into the U.S. and the Las Vegas Posse was in its inaugural season. The team was practicing on a makeshift field set up behind one of the casinos on The Strip. I spent some time one afternoon sitting in the stands and watched them practice in the 100 + degree weather. The Posse was only in existence for that one season and the most recognizable player on the team to me at the time was Tamarack Vanover, a rookie from Florida State. The following year, the Kansas City Chiefs selected Vanover in the third round of the NFL draft.
Just a few months after seeing the Posse practice in Las Vegas, I traveled to Canada and saw the Toronto Argonauts play host to quarterback Doug Flutie and the visiting Calgary Stampeders at the Toronto Skydome. I had a great time while I was in Toronto. At the time, my kids were too small to go with me, so I went all by myself. Maybe that’s why I had such a good time!
Seeing the Skydome alone was worth the trip. I marveled at the way the roof opened and closed. There were hotel rooms and restaurants in the stadium that overlooked the field, gift shops filled with CFL merchandise and right next door to the stadium was the CN Tower, a huge observation tower that, on a clear day, allows you to see all the way to Niagara Falls.
I stayed at the stadium hotel and was even lucky enough to have one of the 70 rooms that overlooked the field! Even so, I bought a ticket to the game and sat in the stands with the rest of the fans during the game. It was a little strange hearing Oh, Canada sung before the game instead of The Star Spangled Banner, but, hey, it was all part of the CFL experience.
During halftime of the game, ushers handed out flyers on the main concourse to anyone who wanted one that contained the halftime stats. It was also the first time I had ever seen a mini McDonald’s restaurant inside a stadium as a concession stand. What a cool place to watch a football game!
By the fourth quarter, the game was a blowout in favor of Calgary so Flutie was pulled and they put in the backup quarterback. Flutie spent the rest of the game signing autographs for fans who were sitting in the front row of the stands behind the Calgary bench. Calgary won the game 52-3.
After Flutie was benched, I returned to my room and watched the rest of the game from my hotel window. I had the TV on to catch the replays, but the volume wouldn’t go loud enough to hear the TV announcers over the crowd noise coming in through the open window. I had to tune the radio in to the game in order to hear the play-by-play.
When I returned home, I brought a plastic toy model of the Skydome for the kids. The roof of the toy opened and closed, just like the real one. The toy got broken and was thrown away many years ago, but to this day we still have a magnet on our refrigerator with a picture of the Skydome and the CN Tower that I also brought home from that trip. I also still have a videotape that I bought in Toronto with highlights from the 1991 Argonauts season when Rocket Ismail was on the team and Toronto won the Grey Cup.
I have wanted my sons to see the Skydome (sorry, I mean the Rogers Centre, as it’s now known) for several years now. The fact that Rampage quarterback Michael Bishop was the backup quarterback of the Argonauts helped make the decision to go this year an easy one. Bishop’s only playing time up to that point in the young CFL season had been in one of Toronto’s two preseason games. He threw two touchdowns in a game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, including the game winner. He did not play in either of the first two regular season games in June. The Argonauts were playing the Saskatchewan Roughriders on July 9, the third game of the CFL regular season, and I decided that the time had come for me to expose the boys to the Canadian version of the game.
Bishop is number two on the Argos depth chart behind 42-year old quarterback Damon Allen, who is playing in his 21st season in the CFL! Allen is the older brother of NFL Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen, who played for the Los Angeles Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs.
The boys and I crossed the Ambassador Bridge from Detroit into Canada on Thursday night (July 7) and we spent the night in the town of Chatham, Ontario, which is about an hour’s drive east of the bridge. After we checked into a hotel, we found a CFL game on TV between the Calgary Stampeders and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. (As it turns out, we would see Canadian football all three nights that we were in Canada)
Friday morning we drove to the campus of the University of Toronto at Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto, and watched the team go through their final walkthrough on an outdoor practice field in preparation for their Saturday night game against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. We got to meet with Bishop after the team practice and I interviewed him for an article that was posted on the Rampage team website.
After practice, we continued on to Toronto, checked into our hotel a few blocks from Rogers Centre and spent the rest of the day taking in the sights around downtown Toronto. We purchased tickets to the game at the stadium box office and then took a guided tour of the stadium. We were shown a luxury suite, the baseball press box and we were also shown samples of the different types of artificial playing surfaces used for baseball and football. We then had dinner at the Hard Rock Café that is part of the stadium and offers a terrific view of the field. As we ate, we got to watch as stadium workers changed the artificial field from baseball to football. (The Toronto Blue Jays had played a home game their just the night before)
That evening at the hotel, there was a CFL double header on TV. The first game was between the Edmonton Eskimos and the Montreal Alouettes, which featured an incredible 125-yard missed field goal return for a touchdown by 5’ 4" kick returner Ezra Landry of Montreal. The second game on TV that night was between the Ottawa Renegades and British Columbia Lions.
On Saturday, we visited a sports memorabilia shop a few blocks from our hotel where I bought three souvenir programs from past Grey Cup games. One was from 1995 when the Baltimore Stallions won the league championship. The Baltimore CFL team played in 1994 and 1995 and became the first and, as it turns out, the only American team to ever win the Grey Cup.
That evening, we walked to the game from our hotel. It was a beautiful evening at the Sky…uh… Rogers Centre, and the retractable roof was open for the game. When I was there in 1994, there was simply a team logo in the middle of the field. This time, however, the team logo was nowhere to be found. Instead, nine corporate logos dotted the playing field. My how things have changed.
Before the start of the game, the crowd was asked to observe a moment of silence in memory of the victims and the families of those injured or killed in the terrorist attacks in London, England, which occurred just two days before the game on July 7.
The fact that there were 12 players on each team, or that they only had three downs to make a first down, was hardly noticeable during the course of the game. Football is still football. The most glaring differences to me were the 20-yard end zones and the two 50-yard lines on the field! Some of the terminology is a little different too. For example, a touchdown is sometimes referred to as a major and a quarterback is sometimes called a pivot.
At the start of the fourth quarter, the Argos trailed by 12 points, 26-14. It was looking bad for the home team, but the Toronto defense shut out the Roughriders in the final quarter and quarterback Damon Allen threw two touchdown passes in the final four minutes of the game, the last one came with only 23 seconds left on the clock. Toronto escaped with a 27-26 win! A crowd of 26,218 was on hand that night and the Argos improved their record to 2-1. The previously undefeated Roughriders lost their first game of the season and dropped their record to 2-1.
After the game, fans were allowed to go down onto the field just like in the Arena Football League. I’m told it’s something they started doing late last season. We caught up with Bishop one last time on the field as he signed autographs for the fans and then we returned to our hotel. It was surreal to turn on the TV and watch the Canadian version of SportsCentre showing highlights of the game we were just at!
Even though it had been 11 years since I had last attended a CFL game, I did make a football related stop in Canada last summer. On our way to Niagara Falls for a family vacation in August of 2004, we stopped by the Canadian Football League Hall of Fame in Hamilton, Ontario. It was a very small place, but they had many interesting displays as well as the busts of all their inductees including former NFL quarterback Warren Moon, who played for the Edmonton Eskimos from 1978-83 and won five straight Grey Cup games and former Minnesota Vikings head coach Bud Grant, who coached the Winnipeg Blue Bombers from 1958-63 and won four Grey Cups.
On our way home from Toronto the day after the Saskatchewan game, we drove right past the city of Hamilton, so we decided to stop at the CFL Hall of Fame once again. Unfortunately, when we got there, we discovered that it is closed on Sundays.
If you live near the Canadian border, you might get to see CFL games on TV all the time. But if you don’t, you might be surprised to find that your local cable or satellite provider just might be carrying CFL games from time to time. For example, the satellite system I have recently added Comcast SportsNet-Chicago, which is one of several networks across the country carrying selected CFL games this year. The CFL web site (www.cfl.ca) contains a U.S. Broadcast Schedule under the heading of "The Game" on its home page. Some games are broadcast live while others are tape delayed. Who knows, you might just recognize some current or former players from the Arena league or af2 playing in the snow north of the border come this November.
While the trip to Toronto was a great time for the boys and me, we didn’t necessarily have to leave the country in order to catch a football game in July. There was still af2, UIF, AIFL and NIFL games going on, among others. In fact, two indoor football championship games took place on July 16. In the Atlantic Indoor Football League, the Richmond Bandits beat the Erie Freeze 56-30. Meanwhile, that same day in the American Professional Football League, the Kansas Kyotes won the APFL championship for the third year in a row, beating the Iowa Blackhawks, 26-24.
On July 30, two other football leagues crowned their champions. The National Women’s Football Association championship game was played in Louisville, Ky. And saw the Detroit Demolition win their third straight NWFA title by defeating the Pensacola Power 74-0. The National Indoor Football League championship game was played in Kennewick, WA and saw the Tri-Cities Fever defeat the visiting Rome (Ga.) Renegades 47-31.
Anyway, I can now cross off July as yet another month this year where I attended a football game. The Argos game was my 14th game of the year so far. What will the month of August bring? Stay tuned.
Next Scheduled Game
August 29 – A preseason Monday Night Football game at Ford Field in Detroit between the St. Louis Rams and the Detroit Lions. Also, the af2 and UIF seasons come to an end the high school football season gets under way.
Randy Snow covered the Grand Rapids Rampage of the Arena Football League for ArenaFan from 2003-2008. He also covered the Fort Wayne Fusion of arenafootball2 in 2007. From 2004-2008 and in 2010, he was a member of the Arena Football League Writer’s Association and, since 2011, has been a member of the Professional Football Researchers Association. Randy lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan but will travel just about anywhere for a football game or a great football story. He runs the web site www.theworldoffootball.com and hosts a podcast with his son, Adam, called “This Week in The World of Football.”