Hero on the Battle-field
A quiet linebacker led the Blue & Gold to their last Grey Cup triumph
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/11/2019 (1220 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
They were likely the two biggest plays of his career in the biggest game of his life.
But linebacker Greg Battle, the hero of Winnipeg’s 1990 Grey Cup victory, remembers worrying the game was already slipping away from the Blue Bombers during Edmonton’s opening drive at BC Place Stadium.
Star Eskimos quarterback Tracy Ham had expertly moved his offence down the field with an accustomed precision. The ball was at Winnipeg’s 20-yard line when Ham dropped back, found his receiver and launched the ball only to see — much too late — that Battle was waiting at the one-yard line.
Battle intercepted, reversed field and romped 66 yards through a maze of would-be Edmonton tacklers to the Esks’ 43 before, completely exhausted, he fumbled the ball out of bounds.
"They were methodically moving the ball down the field and what I remember about that was I was just dead tired," Battle says during a phone conversation from his home in Phoenix, which is where he’ll be Sunday, watching the Bombers attempt to win their first CFL title since that day more than 28 years ago when they demolished the Eskies 50-11.
"I was exhausted, we didn’t have our legs under us… we were hyperventilating, and it was hard to think. When I got the interception, we just needed that so bad. As a defence, we just needed to get off the field. I think from a psychological standpoint, if they would’ve scored… I think that, in and of itself, would be hard to overcome."
The stunning turnaround, Battle says, was due in no small measure to assistant coach Bob Padilla and head coach Mike Riley, a defensive guru, who installed a new look in the week before the title game that eliminated linebackers in the second level of the Winnipeg defence when Edmonton deployed extra receivers.
Paul Randolph was covering the running back, Tyrone Jones and James (Wild) West rushed the quarterback and safety Dave Bovell helped out on double-coverage with one of the other defensive backs.
Battle dropped back into space, ready to pounce.
"That’s how I got that first interception," says the 55-year-old Battle, now an outreach pastor at Mountain Park Community Church in Phoenix.
"It was something we had never done before. We probably called that six times in the whole game and the circumstances have to be right. All the linebackers had an assignment, I was just the one that went back to safety…. It was a full-out blitz with no linebacker in the second level and I went back to safety because we didn’t have anybody in the middle."
Minutes later, Trevor Kennerd booted a 14-yard field goal to give Winnipeg a 3-0 lead.
"You couldn’t do that with every linebacker," says Riley, the newly installed offensive co-ordinator of the Seattle Dragons of the XFL, expected to kick off its inaugural season in February.
"It had to be a guy like Greg Battle, who was such a good athlete and was so smart. That was very, very unique. It just kinda showed the talent that we had. Greg was so stable, he was the guy who settled everything down."
The 10-point swing led to a 10-4 halftime lead and the Bombers were still nursing that cushion when Battle, dropping back into man coverage, made another highlight-reel play when he picked off Ham again and galloped 34 yards for a touchdown.
"It was a check-down by the quarterback and if you watch quarterbacks closely, the smart ones and the ones that know the offence, they will throw the ball to a check-down and not even look," says Battle.
"I felt like Tracy thought his check-down was over there and just threw it (to running back Blake Marshall). I don’t think Tracy saw me.”
The play ignited a 28-point Winnipeg outburst in the third quarter, which remains the highest-scoring quarter output in Grey Cup history.
"You can never say one play wins the football game for you but you can almost say Greg Battle single-handedly won that game for us," says Kennerd. "He was just such a force."
Battle was the game-breaker in 1990 and a superb all-round player, inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2007, but he was a quiet man on a team filled with brash, fun-loving characters such as Rod Hill and future Hall of Famers West, Jones, Less Browne and offensive lineman extraordinaire Chris Walby.
Riley, their leader, was uniquely qualified for the job of managing a free-spirited, loquacious bunch seemingly unconcerned about providing bulletin-board material for whichever team they happened to be playing. During Grey Cup week, they talked a pretty good game.
"Frankly, I’d been around those guys long enough to know that I wasn’t going to worry about it anymore," the 66-year-old Riley says from his off-season home in Corvallis, Ore.
"I was way beyond worrying about that stuff because it wasn’t the first time. They kinda liked that — they backed themselves into a corner and came out swinging. I think that was just part of who they were."
VIDEO: Bombers react to their Grey Cup win
Hired by GM Cal Murphy to succeed him in the head coach’s chair in 1987, Riley had already won a title in 1988 when he guided the 12-6 Blue Bombers to their third championship in seven years.
"He was a real players coach," says well-known Winnipegger Walby, a member of the TSN 1290 pre-game, halftime and post-game Blue Bombers coverage.
"When you come from Cal — and this is no bad reflection on Cal — but Cal ruled with an iron first and it was his way or the highway. Mike was more forgiving, he was more willing to listen, he was more willing to be patient… Mike was also a defensive guru. His schemes were amazing to watch. He was much more involved in the defence and special teams."
The ’90 Blue Bombers were the league’s lowest scoring team but their suffocating defence, which led the CFL with 398 points against (140 fewer than Toronto’s second-best unit), was the engine of Winnipeg’s last title team.
"Mike was someone you had to respect, but players loved him," says Kennerd, president of TKM Inc., a Winnipeg marketing communications firm.
"Players would play their hearts out for Mike and what was great about Mike, we had a lot of characters on that club, and lots of personalities and he just let everyone be themselves. He didn’t try to pigeon-hole you into somebody you’re not."
All-star Less Browne, who had worn out his welcome in Hamilton, arrived in Winnipeg and promptly registered 14 interceptions, two more than fellow corner Hill. The team picked off 48, a league record.
"Less came into our locker room and there had been some kind of controversies with Less in Hamilton," the 63-year-old Kennerd says. "He came into our locker room and he couldn’t haven’t been a nicer guy, couldn’t have been a better teammate. I’m not saying that was all Mike Riley, but that’s the kind of environment Mike formed."
Walby, 63, loves to talk about his 1990 championship squad, but there is an element of regret in all the happy memories.
Cal Murphy, Jones, defensive lineman Jeff Croonen, fullback Warren Hudson, offensive linemen Nick Benjamin and Steve Rodehutskors and assistant coaches Padilla and Jim Gilstrap, and Benjamin have all died in the intervening years.
"The saddest thing for me are the guys that are no longer with us…. Hopefully, next year we’ll have a 30th anniversary celebration, but you just wish these guys could be with you."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.