50 years ago: Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Chuck Ealey make football history

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Published December 2, 2022 at 11:39 am

The victory that Hamilton, its Tiger-Cats and their pioneering passer Chuck Ealey earned a half-century ago this weekend should retain the afterglow as long as footballs spiral through the sky.

Anyone with pretensions of being an armchair historian of gridiron football appreciates what went down on Dec. 3, 1972. First, the Coles Notes: the Tiger-Cats became the first CFL team to win the Grey Cup in their home stadium, defeating the Saskatchewan Roughriders 13-10 when teenage kicker Ian Sunter made a 34-yard field goal with triple zeroes on the clock, sending 33,593 fans at Ivor Wynne Stadium into delirium. Ealey was, in the deft phrasing of his daughter Jael Ealey Richardson, “a champion Black quarterback” up through the U.S. high school and college levels. The win made him the first in the pros, by any rules.

(Oh, and it was the first time since the CFL professionalized that the game was played at Ivor Wynne. It was also the last time that the legendary defensive tackle Angelo Mosca wore the black and gold.)

It is just a matter of what order to put the story elements after taking it all in secondhand.

The quarterback

Before 1972, pro football had never seen a championship-game QB who looked like Chuck Ealey.

The life story of Ealey has been covered well. Ten years ago, for the 100th Grey Cup, filmmaker Charles Officer wrote and directed the documentary Stone Thrower: The Chuck Ealey Story, as part of TSN’s Engraved On A Nation series. (Officer, by the way, is currently developing a reboot of the Hamilton-set junior hockey movie Youngblood.) Ealey Richardson has also written a book about her father by the same title.

Ealey grew up with hardships in Portsmouth, Ohio, a town on the border with Kentucky that was along the route of the Underground Railroad. As Officer’s fdoc detailed, as a boy Ealey practised passing by throwing stones at freight trains rumbling through town, aiming at a letter on the boxcars to simulate leading a pass receiver. He earned his tuition to attend a small Catholic high school by working as a custodian there in the summers.

Portsmouth, whose population is now around 20,000, punched above its weight when it came to sending boys to the big leagues. Ealey was a few years behind two future Major League Baseball all-stars who contributed to the success of the Toronto Blue Jays. Larry Hisle and Al Oliver were among the “older guys” he had to stretch to keep up with in pickup games.

Oliver became a three-time Silver Slugger-winning batter who was the first Montreal Expo to lead the National League in a traditional Triple Crown stat (batting average and runs batted in, in 1982). His last MLB hit was a game-winning pinch double for the Jays during their first playoff series in 1985.

Hisle once finished third in league MVP voting. He was the hitting coach for the Jays’ back-to-back championship teams in the early 1990s when Cito Gaston became the first World Series-winning Black manager. Gaston’s bench coach, Gene Tenace, was a one-time all-star who hailed from Lucasville, Ohio, about 15 minutes from Portsmouth.

Ealey, as Stone Thrower conveys, led his Notre Dame Titans high school team to successive perfect seasons and an Ohio state title. The Toledo Rockets were the only major college to give him a chance to play quarterback.

Up until that point, and for some time still in some places and leagues, a Black quarterback was rare. As Hamiltonians know, Bernie Custis was the first. In 1951, he quarterbacked the Tiger-Cats and had some success. However, he was switched to halfback the following season. His influence as a teacher and coach, including a run of guiding the McMaster Marauders, led to the high school across the street from Tim Hortons Field being named after him.

Shortly after Custis came north, Willie Thrower became the first African-American quarterback in the NFL but attempted only eight passes in his brief time with the Chicago Bears. No other NFL team showed interest after he was released.

In 1968, when Ealey was a freshman at Toledo, Marlin (The Magician) Briscoe got some run as a starting quarterback. But that could be asterisked. The Denver Broncos were in the upstart American Football League, and as NFL Films once put it, Denver in those days “was pro football’s Siberia.”

Briscoe made five starts for the Broncos. The following season, he was traded to the Buffalo Bills and converted to wide receiver, where he later became a starter for the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins.

Having never lost a game in high school, Ealey never lost one as a collegian. Over Ealey’s three seasons, the Rockets went 35-0 and were champions of the Mid-American Conference. As a senior in 1971, he finished eighth in Heisman Trophy voting. Game footage in Stone Thrower shows that he was a forerunner to the modern QB, comfortable in his skin, fluid whilst throwing on the run, but not necessarily a rusher.

Those who knew, knew what the NFL would end up ignoring.

Current NBC Sunday Night Football analyst Tony Dungy, a Super Bowl-winning coach, grew up about 120 km from Toledo. Dungy is five years younger than Ealey, and was also a QB through college. He switched to defensive back in the pros and that worked out for him, since he earned a Super Bowl ring with the Pittsburgh Steelers before becoming the first Black head coach to lead a team to a Vince Lombardi Trophy.

From time to time, Dungy has used his platform to call out the College Football Hall of Fame for not inducting Ealey — which was finally rectified this past January.

“Chuck Ealey was a beast … I was in high school when he played for Toledo and he inspired me,” Dungy wrote in 2018. “Too bad he was a generation too early.”

The NFL, though, preferred quarterbacks to be (code phrases alert!) tall, strong-armed, disciplined, drop-back pocket passers. Some scramblers got past the gate. Fran Tarkenton got away with it since he entered the league when the Minnesota Vikings were an expansion team with bottom-of-the-barrel blocking. Roger Staubach of the Dallas Cowboys could do it since he was Captain America, a Heisman Trophy winner who had served in Vietnam.

Deep-diving through long-ago games on YouTube, and pardon the presentism, but quarterbacks’ movements are almost comical. On most pass plays, the QB would herkily-jerkily pull back from the centre with the ball and take the prescribed seven-stop drop. It feels astounding anyone thought this was the best way to do it.

Ealey was not of that rigidity. The NFL teams that showed mild interest in him wanted to work him out as a defensive back or wide receiver. He made it known he was only interested in being a quarterback.

The NFL, at that time, drafted 180 more players a year than it now does. No one took Ealey. And a scan of Pro Football Reference shows that 1972 did not have a glorious quarterback class. Only one QB from that draft, Brian Sipe, passed for more yards in the NFL than Ealey did in his relatively short seven-season CFL career.

A fellow Black quarterbackwho was a drop-back passer, the late Joe Gilliam, was drafted in the 11th round in ’72 by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Gilliam at one point beat out Terry Bradshaw — the four-time Super Bowl winner who has been a fixture on FOX NFL Sunday’s studio panel for three decades — to become the Steelers’ starter. Gilliam went back to the bench after six starts.

In the other Steel City, another black-and-gold football team needed a quarterback in 1972. Joe Zuger, whose CFL record of eight touchdown passes in a game turned 60 in 2022 had moved on.

The Tiger-Cats general manager, Ralph Sazio, brought Ealey north.

The team

The tag ‘team in transition’ could be tied to Hamilton. The Tiger-Cats had not been to the Grey Cup for four seasons in a row after winning three in five seasons (1963, ’65, ’67).Legendary football men whose names and numbers are are emblazoned in the team’s wall of honour at Tim Hortons Field were still around. Mosca, though, was 35 years old. On offence, Tommy-Joe Coffey was 36 and Garney Henley was 35.

It was early days for some of the other central figures in the Grey Cup win. Ealey was a 22-year-old getting his first exposure to three-down football at a time when quarterbacks usually called plays. Tony Gabriel, the inside receiver who had been mentored by Custis with his junior football team in Burlington, was a 24-year-old in his second season.

At that time, it was not unheard of for CFL clubs to sign a local player out of Canadian junior football. Sunter, one of the first kicking specialists in the CFL, was only 19 years old.

There was also a coaching change. Head coach Jerry Williams was in his first season following an unsuccessful two-plus seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles.

As so often happens when a football team makes changes, Hamilton started slowly. They took L’s in three of the first four games. Ealey and the group built a mutual trust and a rhythm, as evidenced by a 10-win streak that carried Hamilton to a first-place Eastern finish. It illustrated that the NFL had missed out on a true leader.

Of course, the great and terrible part about the climax to any CFL season is that a dominant season can go up in smoke in the playoffs. Current fans need no reminder. In fact, the last three teams that went 15-3 or better in the regular season — the 2022 Winnipeg Blue Bombers, 2019 Tiger-Cats and 2017 Calgary Stampeders — each lost in the Grey Cup.

The Eastern representative in 1972 was decided through a two-game, total-points final. Hamilton dropped the away leg against the Ottawa Rough Riders by 12 points, putting the entire enterprise in peril. They adjusted and took the do-or-done return leg by 15 points to win on aggregate, 30-27.

The Western division had adopted this novel playoff format where its Grey Cup representative was decided by single-game elimination. Naturally, because CFL, the first run-through had the third-place team with a .500 record win two road games.

Granted, that third-place team was the Saskatchewan Roughriders, with Ron Lancaster passing the ball and George Reed rushing it. Three decades later, when the league and TSN ranked to 50 greatest players in the Canadian game’s history, Reed was ranked No. 2 (behind only Doug Flutie) and Lancaster was ranked No. 7, making them the most honoured pair of teammates.

The way the ’Riders punched their Grey Cup ticket still ranks among one of those chaotic finishes from a league that never pulled out its rugby league roots. Words would fail to describe it.

The city

In Hamilton, where the team sweatshirt should be tailored to leave room for chips on both shoulders, hosting the Grey Cup was a bit of a chest-pound.

The league, in those days, usually rotated the game between Toronto in the East (usually without the Argonauts playing in it) and Vancouver in the West (usually without the Lions playing in it). That reflected both a risk-averse business climate and Canadian climate and weather patterns themselves. Toronto and Vancouver had the hotels and airports, and the only weather threat was rain or fog.

Hamilton, or so the lore goes, was not considered slick or sophisticated enough to handle hosting the big game and all the hoopla that is involved. Hamilton Mayor Victor K. Copps, though, was big on urban renewal and city-building projects, as Canada’s big-city mayors tended to be as baby boomers became voting taxpayers. (Boomers, of course, would totally remember to pay that forward, sure.)

Vic Copps’ drive to make sure Hamilton could pull off hosting made an impression. During a lull in play, the CBC telecast made sure to lavish praise on the mayor. The broadcasters also pointed out a uniquely Hamilton way of prettying up Ivor Wynne Stadium.

High school students painted giant posters that were hung around the stadium. The original fan art!

It is noticeable that Toronto and Vancouver’s joint grip on hosting loosened after Hamilton hosted in ’72. Three seasons later, the game was played on the Prairies for the first time, complete with minus-20C weather in Calgary and a female streaker at the coin toss.

By 1995, all nine Canadian markets in the league had hosted a modern-era Grey Cup. For a number of reasons, the CFL learned the Grey Cup becomes a capital-E Event when it can be the star attraction in a city for a week.

Hamilton, of course, is next host city up in 2023.

Game went to the wire

Since the 13-10 final score was mentioned up top, the deep rewind should be brief.

The gameflow was was all sweetish and no finish, which stoked the dramatic tension. The Tiger-Cats and Ealey scored 10 points in the first quarter. The Roughriders and Lancaster made that up by halftime.

Both had solid passing lines, but the next 28 minutes in football time were scoreless. Overtime — which was an additional 20 minutes then — loomed. Placekicking in those days was not an art form. Sunter, in the regular season, missed nearly twice as many field-goal tries as he made. Ssakatchewan’s left guard, Jack Abendschan, doubled as a placekicker.

Saskatchewan stalled at Hamilton’s 48-yard line with just over two minutes left, with Mosca batting down a Lancaster pass to break the sequence and help force a punt.

Ealey and Hamilton took over at their 15-yard line with 1:51 left. Gabriel, like any savvy inside receiver, ran his routes into the gaps between the linebackers and deep backs in Saskatchewan’s zone coverage. Ealey connected with him three times in a row, for a total of 53 yards. Henley caught the last pass of the day at Saskatchewan’s 26-yard line.

Timeouts were not yet a thing in Canadian football, so ‘icing the kicker’ and dragging out the endgame was not an option. So when time was whistled in with 13 seconds left and Sunter set up to kick out of the hold of Henley, that was it.

Aftermath

The Hamilton Spectator ran the front-page headline, PURRRR-FECT!, and an accompanying article said the game “couldn’t have been better” and was “the perfect climax to the storybook week.” A reproduction of that Page 1 was displayed in the lobby of the Spectator building at the foot of Frid St. for decades.

While Tiger-Cats titles have trickled down to just two in the last half century (1986 and ’99, thanks Tips), the success of Ealey started something that could not be stopped in the CFL. The league evolved and understood Black excellence behind centre was where football was headed. Any sports trivia nut can likely rhyme of a roll call: Warren Moon, who is in both nations’ football hall of fame; Condredge Holloway; Damon Allen; Tracy Ham; Henry Burris.

The numbers show which league, in coachspeak, made the adjustment quicker. Four of the 10 most prolific passers in CFL annals are Black. In the NFL, all dozen quarterbacks who have reached the 50,000-yard career milestone are white. Moon, of course, would be there if he had not had to wait until he was 27 to join the league after six seasons (and five Grey Cup rings) in Edmonton.

(The Denver Broncos’ Russell Wilson, who is having his own Siberian sojourn in the Rockies, is closing in on 40,000 yards, putting him two to three seasons away from breaking a colour barrier in the NFL’s 50,000-yard club.)

Ealey intuited that a playing career is short, and can set up a second career. He retired as a player after the ’78 CFL season and entered the financial services industry with Investors Group (IG), the same firm where recent Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Herb Carnegie broke racial barriers after his playing days.

Ealey became a regional director at IG, was a long-time Mississauga real estate agent and was heavily involved in several charitable events and ventures in Peel Region. He was a chair of the Mississauga sports council and was inducted into the Mississauga Sports Hall of Fame in 1989.

In Stone Thrower, his partner of 50 years, Sherri Ealey, says the couple are “Americans are birth, Canadians by choice.”

The technicality that delayed his College Football Hall of Fame induction by decades was the lack of a first-team All-American selection by a recognized media outlet. There is something symbolic about how a pioneering player was nearly cut out of the story of a sport since someone else did not check a box. Yet, as Ealey showed, as Hamilton showed, determination and talent should always win the day.


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