November 14, 2019

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The Class of 1990

Phenomenal defence anchored Blue Bombers' last Grey Cup championship squad

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Fans surround Rod Hill and the Grey Cup during the Bombers’ Grey Cup parade.</p>

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Fans surround Rod Hill and the Grey Cup during the Bombers’ Grey Cup parade.

Home Alone was the No. 1 film at the North American box office. Mariah Carey was at the top of the charts with hit single Love Takes Time. Toshiba advertised a "portable" personal computer ("weighs less than 8 lbs.," the ad said) in this very paper for a cool $3,995.

Euphoria of Grey Cup victory hard to match

Going from the dressing room to the head of the sports desk, Steve Lyons has seen many Blue Bombers teams, but says the 1990 defense was their best ever, “for sure.”

“That might have been the best defense we’ve ever seen in the CFL,” Lyons — who was the Free Press’s backup Bombers’ beat reporter that season and is now the paper’s sports editor — said last week.

Going from the dressing room to the head of the sports desk, Steve Lyons has seen many Blue Bombers teams, but says the 1990 defense was their best ever, “for sure.”

“That might have been the best defense we’ve ever seen in the CFL,” Lyons — who was the Free Press’s backup Bombers’ beat reporter that season and is now the paper’s sports editor — said last week.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a linebacking corps like that since, frankly,” Lyons said, rattling off hall-of-fame names — Greg Battle, Tyrone Jones, James “Wild” West, among others.

“All of those guys were super elite linebackers. Any one of them on any given day was a great player, and all of them together was just amazing.”

The defense’s “big personalities” were kept in check by cornerback Rod Hill, who Lyons said was as “an island” who “didn’t hang with the fellas” and didn’t drink, smoke or party.

“He was a bit of a loner,” Lyons recalled, saying Hill would often sit down with him in hotel lobbies to chat while the rest of the team cut loose.

“He was very brash and in the rest of his teammates’ faces about whether they were playing well or not. That didn’t always go over well, but he was such a… dedicated football player.”

Hill was the one to hand Lyons the Grey Cup in the locker room — yes, Lyons did take a swig out of it — after their rout over the Edmonton Eskimos, a game Lyons described as “kind of surprising, really.”

“The Edmonton Eskimos were a pretty good team that year and Tracy Ham was a really good quarterback,” he said. “Every facet of (the Bombers’) game was almost perfect that day. Greg Battle played a game that’s for the ages, really,” he continued, going on to acknowledge Tom Burgess’s performance.

Lyons described the scene in the locker room as “Like any other, mayhem, a bunch of guys yelling and screaming and (acting) like roosters, all strutting their stuff.”

“It’s hard to describe the jubilation that athletes feel when they win a championship,” he admitted. “They’re so euphoric.”

“I’ve watched (championship celebrations) many times and I’ve kind of thought to myself ‘Have I ever felt that type of jubilation in my own life’, right? I’m not sure. I don’t think so.”

— Declan Schroeder

And the 1990 Winnipeg Blue Bombers celebrated their Grey Cup victory by parading down Portage Avenue while "throngs of celebrants hugged, screamed, drank and danced in the streets."

Thunderstruck! The front of the Winnipeg Free Press’s sports section read Nov. 26, 1990, the day after the Blue Bombers decimated the Edmonton Eskimos 50-11 in the 78th Grey Cup in Vancouver.

Led by a dominant defense made up of now-Bombers royalty — Greg Battle, Less Browne, Rod Hill, Tyrone Jones, James "Wild" West — the beat down was the Bombers’ third championship in seven seasons.

"It wasn’t even fair," Free Press sportswriter Scott Taylor wrote in an article boldly headlined "Simply the best defence on the planet!"

"Blue Thunder," Taylor called it. "A defence without peer. A defence that might have only a few peers in the entire history of the CFL."

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Stan Mikawos won three Grey Cups in a career that spanned 15 seasons. </p>

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Stan Mikawos won three Grey Cups in a career that spanned 15 seasons.

Indeed, the D put up some kind of display in front of 46,968 fans at B.C. Place, forcing seven turnovers. The stats, as Taylor put it, were "frightening."

"Three interceptions, four fumble recoveries. Two sacks, a safety, a touchdown and only one TD against," Taylor wrote, noting only "a large-calibre assault weapon or maybe Operation Desert Shield" could compare to the Bombers’ defensive weapons.

This author was born five years after the scene Taylor described, so I sought out fans who saw the game live.

SUPPLIED</p><p>Steph Snowdy (with her husband Alan) believes the Bombers have all the pieces to win it all this year.</p>

SUPPLIED

Steph Snowdy (with her husband Alan) believes the Bombers have all the pieces to win it all this year.

"I remember it being a very boisterous day watching our boys pound the ‘evil empire,’" Gerhard Peters, a fan since the Dieter Brock era, said.

Steph Snowdy, a fan for 32 years who was seven-years-old in 1990, recalled not missing a game that season, whether she went with her season ticket-holding parents or watched on television.

Her family watched the Grey Cup together and Snowdy remembers cheering "super loud for every exciting play" — and watching a season-in-review VHS repeatedly in the years that followed.

A lot of those exciting plays came from linebacker Greg Battle. The CFL’s and Grey Cup game’s top defensive player had a ridiculous performance, recording two interceptions, a fumble recovery, and four sacks — all while nursing a broken wrist, noted Steve Lyons, current Free Press sports editor.

"It’s one of the best games I’ve ever seen a football player play," Lyons recalled last week. "I mean, just watching him — so smart, such a good player."

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>QB Tom Burgess led the Bombers offence to grey Cup glory in 1990.</p>

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

QB Tom Burgess led the Bombers offence to grey Cup glory in 1990.

The Bombers scored four TDs in the third quarter to bust the game open. First, Battle took an interception 34 yards to the house. Then QB Tom Burgess hooked up with Perry Tuttle for a five-yard TD. Finally, the late Warren Hudson rushed for back-to-back scores.

The 28-point third quarter is a record that still stands to this day.

"Nobody thought a lot of this team," Taylor reported head coach Mike Riley as saying postgame while "covered in sweat and champagne."

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Head coach Mike Riley said his club was picked to finish last and won it all.</p>

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Head coach Mike Riley said his club was picked to finish last and won it all.

"We were picked last and we finished first…"

The Bombers finished 12-6 in 1990. They were coming off a 1989 campaign where they fell off a cliff, lost their final seven games of the season to finish 7-11, and failed to defend their 1988 Grey Cup title.

The team got off to a much better start in 1990, winning its first two games and only losing consecutive games once.

One game in particular that stands out in Peters’ mind is a Sept. 9 matchup between the Bombers and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Rod Hill intercepted five passes that afternoon in a 29-18 win.

It was a bounce back performance after being embarrassed 56-11 in the Labour Day Classic the week before.

Ironically, before the game, general manager Cal Murphy called Hill into his office and told him to "forget the interceptions and concentrate on punishing the receiver," Bombers beat writer Dave Supleve wrote.

ARLEN REDEKOP / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES</p><p>Rod Hill hoists Grey Cup after the Bombers’ 50-11 thrashing of the Edmonton Eskimos in Vancouver on Nov. 25, 1990. </p>

ARLEN REDEKOP / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Rod Hill hoists Grey Cup after the Bombers’ 50-11 thrashing of the Edmonton Eskimos in Vancouver on Nov. 25, 1990.

"As brilliant as the performance was, there was nothing spectacular about Hill’s larceny. All interceptions came with relative ease, a combination of Hill’s fine positioning and the Ticats’ overuse of (receiver Terry) Champion," Supleve summated.

Hill had 12 picks that season, but fellow corner Less Browne topped him with 14. Overall, the Bombers had 48, a CFL record that still stands.

"I think Rod Hill is just one of the most underrated football players that ever played here, really," Lyons said.

Peters actually missed Hill’s "brilliant performance" despite having season tickets — he went skydiving that day for the first time (he’s made a further 11 jumps since then.)

Since their victory in Vancouver, Home Alone has become firmly entrenched in the Christmas-movie zeitgeist, and is even getting, controversially, rebooted. Mariah Carey has released 14 albums. Lightweight smartphones make the Toshiba computer look like a cinder block in comparison.

But the Blue Bombers have yet to win another Grey Cup.

Ah, the drought. The drought that will reach three decades if the Bombers don’t capture a championship in Calgary this November. The drought that lurks in the back of Bombers fans’ minds like Hill lurked in the secondary, looking to pick off Kent Austin, Tracy Ham or Mike Kerrigan.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>James West and Lyle Bauer escort the Grey Cup in the Winnipeg Arena.</p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

James West and Lyle Bauer escort the Grey Cup in the Winnipeg Arena.

They’ve had strong seasons and have been to five Grey Cup games since, but their 11th championship has eluded them. They’ve had utterly futile campaigns, too (hello, Joe Mack era.)

Could this finally be the year drought ends?

We are in the thick of the CFL season and the Bombers are 8-2, good for first place in the West Division. They possess a number of assets, such as ferocious running back Andrew Harris, a kicker who’s so reliable his moniker’s "Money" Medlock, and game-breakers on special teams.

Free Press sports multimedia producer Jeff Hamilton even described them as the "class of the CFL" after the team ran roughshod over the Ottawa Redblacks last month to start a season 5-0 for the first time since 1960.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Coach Mike Riley celebrates with fans at a Grey Cup party at the Winnipeg Arena.</p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Coach Mike Riley celebrates with fans at a Grey Cup party at the Winnipeg Arena.

However, the team is by no means a shoo-in. Starting QB Matt Nichols is out with an upper-body injury he sustained against the BC Lions on Aug. 15. The offence is sometimes too reliant on check-downs, when a QB tries to complete a short pass to a running back or tight end as a last resort when no wide receivers are open. The "bend-don’t-break" defense sometimes just breaks.

Despite the drought, Peters and Snowdy remain steadfast.

Peters moved back to Winnipeg from the "enemy state" of Saskatchewan in 2011 and is a regular at IG Field. He described his 10-year-old son Hudson as "a crazed fan."

When Peters pointed out Rod Hill to Hudson at a game last season, Hill introduced himself to the young man and took father and son up to the players’ lounge, where "Hudson was in autograph heaven."

Snowdy called herself "the most avid fan" in her family — she even sometimes paints up for game day — and holds season tickets with her husband Alan. Alan is a Roughriders fan, born and raised in Regina, but Snowdy said she’s "trying to convert him." He now wears blue and gold to all games not involving the Riders.

Peters and Snowdy take a cautious approach when asked if the Bombers will finally put the drought to bed this season.

"I’m not sure if this is the year," Peters admitted. "But I sure hope it is."

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>The plaque on the Grey Cup noting the Bombers’ 1990 championship. </p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The plaque on the Grey Cup noting the Bombers’ 1990 championship.

"Can it be done this year? Maybe," Snowdy said. "I think all the right things are in place for our team… and every year I’m hopeful that we can snap that drought. I don’t think we have seen the full potential of the team quite yet… lots to iron out, but the pieces are all there."

Indeed, the most important football is yet to come. As is often said, the true CFL season starts on Labour Day, which is just a week away.

Lyons was similarly noncommittal when asked the same question — "They could, that’s as much commitment you’re gonna get from me," he laughed — but has high praise for Bomber fans for sticking with their team through thick and thin.

"I’ve been in the sports department in Winnipeg for a long time, and certainly I’ve seen how Bomber fans, in my opinion, are the most dedicated fans, you know, right there with the Rider fans, anyways, in the CFL," pointing out the Bombers still regularly draw well and have season ticket holders of 50-plus years.

"You’d be hard-pressed to say there’s a more dedicated following."

A following well-deserving of a championship this millennium.

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