OTTAWA – The Grey Cup has long been about star power and unsung heroes, about heavy favourites and underdogs. There have been games staged in domes, but also in the wind, snow, ice and rain that comes with late November football in this country.
The 105th edition of the championship this Sunday has all those potential storylines and then some, as the powerhouse Calgary Stampeders meet the Toronto Argonauts, who began the calendar year as a tire fire and somehow, some way, kept punching en route to a place in this title game.
Now, there’s an element of this matchup that might look and feel familiar to many Canadian Football League fans, because it was 29 years ago in this town, on this same stage, that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers authored one of the most improbable championships in a 22-21 victory over the B.C. Lions in the 76th Grey Cup.
And so, as fans hunker down to take in one of this country’s greatest sporting traditions, we took the opportunity to revisit the 1988 Grey Cup game – the first in league history won by a team with a .500 record (9-9) – with three Bombers who played prominent roles in the franchise’s ninth championship: Bob Cameron, James Murphy and James West…
SETTING THE SCENE
The Bombers entered the 1988 campaign following the bitter disappointment of 1987. The ’87 Bombers were 12-6 and placed nine players on the CFL All-Star Team, but were upset at home in the East Final, losing 19-3 to the Argos.
Murphy: “I remember I had bought a bottle of champagne in 1987 to have ready to celebrate after we won the game. It was the worst feeling in my life when we lost that game in Toronto and then NOT being able to celebrate the way I had prepared. We didn’t want that feeling again. That bottle? I don’t know what happened to it… but it was expensive.”
West: “For years, people called that 1987 team the best Bombers team never to win a Grey Cup. That loss was heartbreaking.”
That offseason saw the roster dramatically change. Gone were quarterback Tom Clements – named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player in ’87, but who had retired – along with Williard Reaves and Tyrone Jones (NFL) and the league’s top Canadian in Scott Flagel (signed with Calgary).
The club had opted to sign Roy Dewalt, ex of the Lions, in free agency but he was traded to Ottawa during the season after struggling and replaced by Sean Salisbury.
The Bombers were 9-6 into October, but then lost back-to-back games to Toronto and were crushed 45-24 by the Lions in their regular season finale.
And so, when the playoffs began no one gave the Bombers much hope.
Murphy: “We weren’t expecting a whole lot that year. We were coming off that East Final downer in ’87, but we always had that tradition of going to the playoffs… that went without saying.
“We still had guys like Lyle Bauer and James West – our captains – and then we were able to fill in with a few pieces. We still had a core, but some of the leadership was gone. We had enough guys that understood that if we could just put ourselves in position to get to the Grey Cup, anything could happen.
“We also had (head coach) Mike Riley and (quarterbacks coach) Bruce Lemmerman, Cal (Murphy) was at the top as the general manager. So we had the people at the top and a core group in the locker room.”
West: “We lost some impactful guys. But there was a leadership… a guy like Lyle Bauer kept it together. I tried to lead by example and hoped the guys would follow. We knew we had the best everything from the top to the bottom. We just needed to operate in our space and not worry about anything else. All we had to do was play football. We had Mike Riley, the best coach, we had the best general manager, the best directors… even with us losing players we realized they were going to give us the things we needed.
“We didn’t have what you would call a traditional quarterback in Sean Salisbury who might have looked like he couldn’t get it done, but we realized that as long as he didn’t jack it up, we would still win.”
The Bombers hosted the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the East Semi-Final, but fans were so indifferent about the club’s chances only 12,210 were in attendance that afternoon to see the home side emerge with a 35-28 win.
That set up an East Final matchup against the Argos, who had rolled to a league-best 14-4 record.
Cameron: “Toronto had really lit it up that year. They were so cocky going into the East Final… I remember Lance Chomyc out on the field at CNE Stadium kicking field goals while wearing sunglasses. And it was spitting raining out. I mean, really?
“It was the way they carried themselves you could tell they thought they were going to kill us. We surprised them and we sort of surprised ourselves. And then we went up against a B.C. Lions team that, if you looked at their roster, had a ton of all stars, starting with Matt Dunigan, Tony Cherry, David Williams and they were heavily favoured.”
NOVEMBER 27, 1988
The 1986 and 1987 Grey Cups had been played at B.C. Place. Ottawa was the Grey Cup site for the second time – previously in 1967 – and the conditions at kickoff were listed as 14C, but with gusting winds of 40 km/h.
Murphy: “I remember waking up and checking the weather. It started off as a very calm day and then all of a sudden, the wind picked up. I knew we had the edge in the kicking game with Bob Cameron and Trevor Kennerd and James Jefferson returning punts. We had one of the best special teams that year. That proved to be a big difference.
“The wind never seemed to bother Bob Cameron, mostly because we played in the windiest city in the CFL. Cameron was almost like a meteorologist. He knew weather conditions, man. He was a master at that and it was so critical because offensively we really struggled, especially going against the wind.”
Cameron: “When it was that windy I thought, ‘This is perfect for us. This will hurt their passing game.’ Our defence was our team. We never turned the ball over and we had unbelievable coverage on special teams. I punted the ball 188 times that year, so I punted 10 times a game or more, but it was our defence and our coverage that helped us win games.
“Before the game I can remember punting the ball but the wind was so strong it was going only 15 yards past the line of scrimmage. I’m thinking, ‘This is the worst. I’ve punted in bad weather, but this is the worst.’
“But this is how luck can work: they had the extra stands at the one end and before they filled up with fans, if you punted out of your end zone into the wind it would go nowhere. Maybe 15 yards as hard as you could hit it. But if you got closer to midfield the wind would go over top of you and it was like an undertow effect.
“The first punt I hit went only about 15 yards but rolled about 35 or 40. So B.C. puts three guys back to return because they think I’m going to shank the ball everywhere. As soon as they did that I knew I had all day to punt the ball and didn’t have to worry about a block. So, I just set the thing up as good as I could, I was near midfield and I would just drive the ball low with a tight spiral and blew it right over their heads three times.”
The Lions led 7-4 after the first quarter, as Tony Cherry scored on a 14-yard run; the Bombers countering with a 22-yard Trevor Kennerd field goal and the first of two punt singles by Cameron. Kennerd hit a 43-yarder with the wind at his back in the second quarter before Dunigan connected with Williams for another TD.
Winnipeg would answer on a Salisbury-to-Murphy 35-yard TD and, just before the intermission, Lui Passaglia whiffed on a 41-yard field goal, but the single gave the Lions a 15-14 lead.
Both teams exchanged field goals in the third quarter – the Bombers’ three coming after the Lions had gambled on third down on their own 20 but were stuffed – and Rod Hill intercepted a Dunigan attempt to snuff out another drive.
The teams were knotted at 19-19 heading into the final quarter and the Bombers, who would manage just two first downs in the second half, took their first lead with 2:55 left on a 30-yard field goal. Dunigan then marched the Lions 75 yards deep into Winnipeg territory to set up one of the most memorable plays in Bombers history.
THE IMMACULATE INTERCEPTION
The Lions were second-and-goal from the Bombers seven-yard line with 1:45 left in the game when Dunigan dropped back, moved left and then rifled a pass attempt into the end zone intended for David Williams, but Delbert Fowler tipped the pass and it bounced into the arms of defensive end Michael Gray, who took a few steps with the ball before dropping to the turf and cradling the ball.
Said CBC colour analyst Ron Lancaster: “Defence wins football games for you and you won’t get a bigger play in 1988 than that one.”
West: “I had seen defensive linemen try to run with the ball and score. And, let’s face it, Mike wasn’t the most athletic guy… I knew Mike and we didn’t want him to lateral the ball and we didn’t want him to run with the ball. Once he got the ball I was pretty much telling him to lay down right there and we’ll take care of the rest.”
The Lions defence then held and with 1:06 remaining Mike Riley opted to give up a safety and have the Bombers kick off, rather than have Cameron attempt to punt out of his own end zone.
Cameron: “I’m talking to Mike Riley on the sidelines and he said we were going to punt. I told him we were kicking out of our own end zone and they’d be in field goal range immediately. I said, ‘Why don’t we try to win it right now? Let’s give up the safety.’ I guess we gave him some second thought and we did give up the two. We kicked off with the wind and relied on our defence to win, just as we had all year.”
The Bombers kicked off with 58 seconds remaining and Anthony Drawhorn returned it to their 45, but an unnecessary roughness penalty pushed the Lions back to their own 30-yard line with 49 seconds left. Dunigan’s first two pass attempts were incomplete and, on third-and-10, the Lions’ last hope was snuffed out when a third pass was knocked down at the line of scrimmage.
Murphy was named the Grey Cup MVP; Cameron the top Canadian.
Cameron: “Listen, in 1984 when we won the Grey Cup the award winners got trucks. Sean Kehoe was the top Canadian in that game and he got a truck. So then when I got the Outstanding Canadian and Murph got the Outstanding Player there was nothing presented to us or anything. But afterwards I’m thinking, ‘This is awesome. I’m going to get a car for this.’
“But 1988 was when we all took pay cuts across the league. So, what did I get after the game? I got a $200 Emerson TV set. It went from a car to four years later I get a $200 Emerson TV.
“It wasn’t even a Sony for craps sakes!”
Murphy: “The best thing about it is I can put that tape in and watch that game and recapture those moments and remember how proud we made the province of Manitoba. It’s something people still talk about.
“The funny thing about it, talking about it now, it still feels like it was yesterday because I can still see things in my mind about that day. I remember our families being there to be a part of that and to be able to bring the cup home and share it with the city and the province… it’s special, even now.
“I go to high schools sometimes to talk about opportunities in construction (Murphy is a program coordinator for the Manitoba Construction Sector Council). They don’t know who James Murphy is, but when I tell them I’ve got three Grey Cup rings, I get their attention. They become engaged in what I say. That’s the kind of impact something like that can have.”
Cameron: “When I look back… there are so many games where as a punter what you do really means nothing. You just kick the ball and the other punter does about the same as you and there’s no advantage given. But in that game, I got to punt a lot from midfield while Lui Passaglia seemed to be backed up near his own end zone all the time. That was a huge factor.
“Funny thing is, I lived off that one game for the next 15 years of my career. It was always, ‘Well, it’s windy weather and this guy knows how to kick in the wind… we can’t get rid of him.’ I was fortunate to have a really good game in a Grey Cup. I’m proud of that game and that’s what people remember: they don’t remember your third game of the year in 1982, they remember Grey Cup victories.”
West: “That was so special for me because that was my first Grey Cup. The reason I came to Winnipeg was to get multiple Grey Cups… I thought I was going to have the opportunity to win three rings and I did get that (winning twice).
“Some of my best times were in Winnipeg, man, and that Grey Cup was by far my favourite one. The first one is so special because after that, you’re just trying to win more and more. Compared to the team we had in ’90, this team just figured like it had nothing to lose. We just played so freely.
“That comes back to what this team was about. We never put our head down on the pillow and said ‘Well, we might as well shut it down now. Somebody got hurt, somebody didn’t come back, somebody moved on, somebody went to free agency.’ We always believed that we could have somebody to replace them because our fellowship was so strong.
“I think about that all these years later. We went from a team in ’87 with multiple all-stars that lost in the East Final to come back the next year and be called the unlikeliest team to win a Grey Cup. We didn’t care about that then. We were the champs.”