It Was a B.C. Year
Early in his career Lui Passaglia, the placekicker and punter for the British Columbia Lions, used to invite his mother, Natalina, now 66, to come along with him to a park in Port Coquitlam, B.C., explaining that while she was a terrific cook, she needed more fresh air and exercise. The workout wasn't too strenuous, but his mother did risk ending up with a case of holder's knees. Natalina had to bend down and steady the football, a maternal Lucy to her son's Charlie Brown.
"Gira la palla," Lui would say, and Natalina would dutifully turn the football so that the laces faced the goalposts.
"I was afraid he was going to kick my finger," recalled Natalina outside the bedlam of the Lions' dressing room on Sunday. "But he never did. He was a good boy."
Lui still is a good boy, even at the advanced age of 40. In the 82nd Grey Cup, his 37-yard field goal attempt with 1:13 to go was wide right, but he didn't sulk. Given a second chance, again from the left hash mark but this time one yard farther back as the clock wound down to 0:00, he buried the kick through the uprights at B.C. Place Stadium for a 26-23 Lion victory.
This championship game was supposed to mark the beginning of a new era in the CFL, because the Eastern Division representative was the expansion team from Baltimore, the first U.S. team ever to make the final and a club without a single Canadian on its roster. Instead the game turned on the gnarled foot of the oldest player in the league, whose four field goals kept the Grey Cup in Canada.
Passaglia, who has been with the Lions for 19 years, is the alltime leading scorer in pro football history. With 2,966 points he is well beyond the 2,002 accumulated by the NFL record holder, George Blanda, who played for four different teams over 26 seasons. Passaglia has missed only one of 794 extra point attempts. He also has punted for 104,184 yards, or 59.2 miles.
Passaglia tried to earn a spot on the Cleveland Browns' roster in 1988 but washed out and returned to Vancouver, which meant he also returned to off-season jobs as a substitute teacher, an insurance consultant and a contractor. Even though the CFL field is 110 yards long and wide enough to put an airport runway between the sidelines, the Canadian game offers football on a more modest scale, including a $2.5 million (Canadian) salary cap for each team. Passaglia, who earned $64,000 this season, has worked in all but three of his 18 off-seasons, although his $12,000 winner's share for the Grey Cup might keep him off construction sites this winter.
"After I made the kick, I started hyperventilating," said Passaglia. "I thought I was having a heart attack. You want the winning kick whether it's Pop Warner or high school or whatever, but doing it in the Grey Cup, that's Number 1."
That view is not shared by many, even in Canada. During the week leading up to the title game, Prime Minister Jean Chrètien said that while he hoped B.C. would win, he prefers watching the NFL on Sundays. In a country where the populace sometimes takes a jaundiced view of its rollicking game—the Hamilton Tiger-Cats may fold this winter, and the Calgary Stampeders, led by former Boston College hero Doug Flutie, are pondering a move to San Antonio—Chrètien is hardly alone.
For those who are fans of the CFL, though, the Grey Cup (or the National Drunk, as it is sometimes called) remains the most Canadian of institutions. The appearance of the first-year Baltimore No Names—the NFL obtained a court order preventing the team's owners from using the name Colts—was cause for alarm: Take our cold fronts, sure, but leave our football alone. Baltimore should have been sensitive to Canadian feelings (it had its beloved Colts wrenched from it 10 years ago), but the No Names were more interested in probing the soft underbelly of the Lions' all-Canadian offensive line than in peering into a nation's soul.
"Grey Cup—named after kick returner Mel Gray's grandfather?" asked Shahriar Pourdanesh, Baltimore's left tackle who hails from Reno by way of Iran.
"I know it's named for a dead guy," said receiver Walter Wilson, a Baltimore native, "because I read he'd be spinning in his grave if we won." In fact, Lord Earl Grey, the Governor-General of Canada, donated the trophy for the Canadian amateur rugby championship in 1909, 13 years before the NFL was formed, and 62 years before Vince Lombardi lent his name to the Super Bowl trophy.
In any case, if the Prime Minister and his like-minded constituents chose to tear themselves away from the Sunday night game between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, they would have seen some first-rate football, of the Canadian variety. For the second straight week, former Florida State quarterback Danny McManus relieved injured starter Kent Austin and led the Lions to a last-play victory. On a snowy field in Calgary on Nov. 20, McManus had thrown a touchdown pass to Darren Flutie, Doug's brother, to win the Western Division final. This time, in his home dome, McManus entered the game after Austin had separated his left shoulder, taking over on the Lions' first series of the third quarter with B.C. trailing 20-10.
McManus wasn't feeling all that well himself. His right thigh was badly bruised, but he didn't tax it much on the first drive. He kept calling 46 search or 47 search, allowing running backs Cory Philpot and Sean Millington to choose a hole after reading the nosetackle. "My linemen, my Canadian linemen, were saying in the huddle that we had to run the ball," McManus said later.
The Grey Cup might never see a drive like it again. The Lions went 75 yards entirely on the ground, with Flutie's 17-yard run off a fake field goal setting up McManus's one-yard scoring keeper three plays later. McManus completed only three of seven passes for 93 yards in his two quarters of work, but he directed B.C. to 16 points.
"I found out Friday I wasn't starting," McManus said, after learning that Austin was healthy once again. "But that was O.K. with me. I told [coach Dave] Ritchie that as long as we have more points when it's over, that's wonderful."
And at the end it was wonderful for the crowd of 55,097 when the Lion defense held Baltimore inside its own five after Charles Anthony of the No Names fielded Passaglia's 37-yard shank in the end zone and returned it only to the Baltimore two. A punt gave B.C. the ball on the No Name 34 with 28 seconds left, and two plays later Passaglia had a chance to redeem himself. Afterward he was lifted onto his teammates' shoulders while fans stormed the field, their fears of a U.S. team winning the Grey Cup assuaged—at least for the time being. Holding the line against Stateside invaders will become even more difficult next year when Memphis is expected to join the CFL, and the league's owners seek to halve the quota of 20 Canadians per team, a rule that applies only to the Canadian franchises.
"Canadians proved tonight they can play this game," Passaglia said. "The powers that be might not want Canadians, but I want my boys to have a chance to play. I've got nothing against the U.S. It's a great country. But if we don't give our kids a chance to play, who will?"
His nine-year-old twin sons, Colby and Chris, listened as Passaglia delivered his impassioned plea for protectionism. Who knows what the CFL will be like when Colby and Chris are ready to suit up? In the meantime, they can always ask Grandma to come out and play.