Chilly, rainy Vancouver was the "neutral, warm-weather site" for this year's Grey Cup, the Canadian equivalent of the Super Bowl. Warm weather is a relative concept this time of year in Canada, but the concept was more easily understandable in Vancouver last week when you realized that the nickname of one of the participating teams was the Eskimos. Besides, Vancouver had distinguished itself in the past as host of this lively event, which spawns a week-long bacchanal. In 1966 the city had set a Grey Cup record the night before the game when 689 people had to be locked up, ostensibly for their own safety.
This year the Edmonton Eskimos had won the CFL's Western Conference behind the league's best-balanced offense. Their opponents, the Montreal Alouettes, had won the Eastern Conference title with the league's best defense. Montreal Coach Marv Levy, who was in charge of Washington's special teams back when George Allen's Redskins played in the Super Bowl two years ago, had emphasized defense because, he says, controlling the ball on offense is virtually impossible in the CFL, where there are only three downs instead of four. The architect of the Edmonton offense, Coach Ray Jauch (pronounced Yock), is a disciplinarian who might have earned himself more recognition had he ever attempted to endear himself to the Canadian press. But, alas, as one Edmonton reporter put it, "If nice guys finish last, Jauch should never lose a game."
Despite this ideal matchup of offense vs. defense, most of the attention during Grey Cup Week centered around two individuals, both offensive players: Montreal Wide Receiver Johnny Rodgers and Edmonton Quarterback Tom Wilkinson. They were the two finalists in the balloting for the CFL's Most Outstanding Player, an honor bestowed annually during Grey Cup Week at a lavish Academy Awards-style presentation put on by Canadian Schenley Distilleries Ltd., a company that has good cause to feel magnanimous at Grey Cup time.
In the two seasons since he won the Heisman Trophy at Nebraska, Rodgers has become Canadian football's most spectacular player and biggest gate attraction. Last year he won a Schenley Award as the CFL's outstanding rookie. This year he was the only receiver in the league to gain more than 1,000 yards on passes.
December 2, 1974
Wilkinson, on the other hand, had such an undistinguished career at Wyoming that his only professional offer after graduation in 1966 came from the shortlived Continental League. He moved into Canadian football the following season, without distinction, and five frustrating years later the B.C. Lions cut him during 1972 training. Wilkinson phoned Edmonton for one last shot only because his route home to Wyoming took him through that CFL city. There he won a backup job to Bruce Lemmerman, and then became a starter when Lemmerman got hurt. That was all he needed. He set a CFL mark for percentage of completions by connecting on 66% of his passes, a record he equaled this year. Last season Wilkinson led Edmonton into the Grey Cup and had them ahead in the game before an injury forced him to the sidelines. The Eskimos eventually lost to Ottawa, 22-18.
Wilkie, as he is known, hardly looks his part. A short, potbellied, bowlegged tobacco chewer, he says, "If they put 10 guys in a room and asked somebody to pick the football player, I'd be there after they turned out the lights and locked up." When Jauch was asked about a supposed injury Wilkinson had suffered in the Western Conference final, the coach replied, "Tom just pulled some fat in his back. He doesn't have any muscles."
Rodgers, like Joe Namath, is becoming a legend in Canada as much for his life-style as for his play. He signed a new contract this year that, if rumors are correct, makes him the CFL's first million-dollar ballplayer, a speculation that Rodgers is taking no pains to discourage. He drives a $38,000 blue Rolls-Royce but plans to buy a Volkswagen with a Rolls grill for snowy days because he thinks the salt on Montreal streets will damage his fancier car. He lavishes clothes upon himself. His sartorial trademark is a rabbit's fur hat that he had custom-made.
At the Schenley Awards, Rodgers was resplendent in a white dinner jacket with black trim and a raspberry-colored shirt. Wilkie surprised a few people by wearing a blue tux jacket instead of black. "In a black tuxedo I look like a pregnant penguin," he said. But clothes do not make the Most Outstanding Player, and Wilkie was a popular winner. In his acceptance speech he thanked God. "If you're short and fat like I am," he said, "Someone must be helping."
Levy's game plan for Sunday's Grey Cup game was vintage George Allen—solid defense and error-free offense—but on Edmonton's second possession Wilkie took the Eskimos 62 yards to a 7-0 lead. On the play before the touchdown Edmonton was given a first down at the Montreal eight after Wilkinson was roughed up. He completed a scoring pass on the next play, but his shoulder was sprained and he did not play again until the second half.
While he was out, an Edmonton fumble, an interception and an interference penalty led to 10 points for Montreal. Rodgers drew the interference call that set up the touchdown and caught a pass at the 10 before a field goal.
Wilkinson was given a shot to deaden the pain and returned in the third quarter, but he was never the same. The Montreal defense stiffened, and its offense refused to turn over the ball until it was too late. The Alouettes maintained good field position, added three more field goals and won 20-7.
"You know when I knew we had it won?" Levy asked in a noisy Montreal dressing room. "When someone said it was a matchup of our defense and their offense. Defense will win for you every time." And so the Alouettes drank champagne out of the Grey Cup and poured some of it on their coach's head. And over in the quiet Edmonton dressing room Tom Wilkinson sat in front of his locker chewing tobacco and spitting into a Styrofoam cup.