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The day the Alouettes were for the birds

In 1981, loaded with NFL talent, including Vince Ferragamo, Montreal lost to Winnipeg 58-2

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/8/2018 (229 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The truth is, you needed a ticket.

There were plenty of witnesses – a crowd of 32,936 made it the first sellout since the expansion of Winnipeg Stadium three years earlier and the biggest crowd to ever watch a sporting event in Manitoba to that date: Aug. 8, 1981.

A national television audience for the carnage that followed, originally scheduled for CBC, never materialized due to a four-month strike by members of the National Association of Broadcasters and Technicians. But they played. The game's 56-point margin of victory that night (equalled once since then) remains the biggest in Blue Bombers' history.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/8/2018 (229 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The truth is, you needed a ticket.

There were plenty of witnesses – a crowd of 32,936 made it the first sellout since the expansion of Winnipeg Stadium three years earlier and the biggest crowd to ever watch a sporting event in Manitoba to that date: Aug. 8, 1981.

A national television audience for the carnage that followed, originally scheduled for CBC, never materialized due to a four-month strike by members of the National Association of Broadcasters and Technicians. But they played. The game's 56-point margin of victory that night (equalled once since then) remains the biggest in Blue Bombers' history.

Montreal Alouettes' Vince Ferragamo in 1981.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Montreal Alouettes' Vince Ferragamo in 1981.

Oh, and it could have been worse.

"Yeah, I remember the Winnipeg game," says Vince Ferragamo, almost 37 years later.

"Dieter Brock… it was 58-2! All I can remember was that cannon going off (after every Winnipeg scoring play). I sat there on the sidelines, thinking to myself, ‘What play can I call to get two yards? I’ve gotta be able to call a play that can get me at least two yards. Gosh, what are we gonna do?’ "

The old '80s concept of hype seems quaint now when compared to modern approach to media coverage.

But it is fair to say the Alouettes caused a sensation when owner Nelson Skalbania went on a wild spending spree in the spring of 1981 by signing Ferragamo, the quarterback who had led the L.A. Rams to a near miss in the Super Bowl only a year earlier, along with established NFL wide receivers Billy (White Shoes) Johnson and James Scott and first-round NFL draft picks Keith Gary, a defensive end, and running back David Overstreet.

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
Vince Ferragamo
July 20, 1981

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Vince Ferragamo July 20, 1981

The Als also had linebacker Tom Cousineau, a No. 1 overall pick in the 1979 NFL Draft, who had spurned the Buffalo Bills to sign in Montreal. But Cousineau was hurt when the 1-4 Als arrived to take on the 4-1 Blue Bombers.

Two weeks before taking on the Blue Bombers, Ferragamo landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

"I thought we were good because we had some talented people, but you know, just because you see these great people on paper, great players, it doesn’t mean it’s going to mesh," says Gerry Dattilio, Ferragamo's backup that day.

"Sometimes it’s better to have a bunch of no-names playing for one cause instead of a bunch of superstars. We had a lot of superstars on paper, there’s no way it should’ve been anything but the Grey Cup… It was a wipeout that year but we made the playoffs that year, believe it or not, because the East was so terrible."

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKED

Ferragamo and his agent David Fishof were in a tough spot after the 1980 NFL season.

The young quarterback's star was rising but his bargaining power was limited. This was the era before free agency in the NFL, when teams dictated terms and big money deals were still a fantasy.

After earning $US52,000 in 1980, Ferragamo was looking for options and Skalbania, who had recently purchased the perennially successful Als from long-time owner Sam Berger, saw the charismatic star as his new, marquee attraction. It seemed like a good fit at the time.

Ferragamo earned US$52,000 playing for the L.A. Rams in 1980, taking them all the way to the Super Bowl only to lose to the powerhouse Pittsburgh Steelers 31-19.

Ferragamo earned US$52,000 playing for the L.A. Rams in 1980, taking them all the way to the Super Bowl only to lose to the powerhouse Pittsburgh Steelers 31-19.

Skalbania, inspired by the CFL's new three-year television deal with Carling O'Keefe breweries worth $15.6 million, was looking for ways to sell tickets at the still gleaming Olympic Stadium. Ferragamo signed a four-year deal reportedly worth $750,000 per year while Scott, Johnson also inked big-money deals.

"At the time, we didn’t have free agency in the NFL," says Ferragamo. "I was one of the pioneers, along with James Scott and Billy White Shoes, we kinda paved the way for free agency in the NFL. And having played in the Super Bowl and breaking most of the records the following year in L.A., you would think you would stay with the team.

"But when it came time to renegotiate, I wasn’t able to come to any conclusions with the team. There was no place (else) I could go. They knew I would never leave – but they were wrong. The only way I could go was to go to Canada, to a different league."

THE BLOWOUT OF THE DECADE

At the time, a Montreal-Winnipeg matchup on that cool summer night generated some serious heat and football fans couldn’t get enough of the debate. It became a contest of ideas: the greedy vs. the budget conscious, big city vs. the unassuming prairie burg.

The outrage from the typical Winnipeg fan was visceral: How dare they try to buy a championship?

<p>Bombers' quarterback Dieter Brock threw for almost 300 yards and three touchdowns.</p>

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Bombers' quarterback Dieter Brock threw for almost 300 yards and three touchdowns.

On this night, Montreal’s defence was no match for Brock, who was coming off an MVP season and very much at the height of his powers. The Birmingham Rifle went 19-for-30 and threw for 295 yards, including a trio of TD passes during a span of less than five minutes in the second quarter. He was pulled in favour of backup Mark Jackson in the fourth quarter.

Wide receiver Eugene Goodlow, in the midst of a season in which he became the first CFL player to reach the 100-catch plateau in a season, hauled in seven passes for 160 yards and two majors. The club's other main deep threat, Mike Holmes, did not play due to an injury.

<p>Bombers' slotback Joe Poplawski had four catches and one touchdown.</p>

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Bombers' slotback Joe Poplawski had four catches and one touchdown.

Winnipeg slotback Joe Poplawski, meanwhile, had four catches for 57 yards and a touchdown while running backs William Miller and Obie Graves ran for 108 and 92 yards, respectively. Graves rumbled for a pair of touchdowns; fullback Dan Huclack added another rushing major.

"I remember Leo Ezerins coming off the field and saying the quarterback threw the softest ball he’d ever caught," says Ray Jauch, then Winnipeg's head coach and now an 80-year-old retiree living in Waxhaw, N.C. "Of course, he was used to Dieter Brock and Brock was whistling those things (in practice). You had to thank God your fingers weren’t broken after you caught a few of those.

"We were really on that day, I guess, and they weren’t very good."

Ezerins, an outside linebacker assigned to cover Montreal tight end Peter Dalla Riva, remembers going into a three-point stance before dropping back into coverage to make one of his two interceptions — it looked easy against Ferragamo who was struggling to dissect CFL defences. Later in the game, Ezerins almost made it three. Before Ferragamo's night was done, he had completed only 11 of 29 passes for 97 yards and four interceptions.

Bombers' safety Paul Bennett on blitzing Faragamo: "He was looking down and I hit him as hard as I could. He was strong. It was like hitting a load – boom!"

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Bombers' safety Paul Bennett on blitzing Faragamo: "He was looking down and I hit him as hard as I could. He was strong. It was like hitting a load – boom!"

Meanwhile, Winnipeg's risk-taking all-Canadian safety, Paul Bennett, took advantage of Ferragamo's indecision.

"They called my number on a blitz," says Bennett. "I came around the left side, he was looking down and I hit him as hard as I could. He was strong. It was like hitting a load – boom! I took him down but I was surprised by how strong and heavy he was."

For Als linebacker and Canadian Football Hall of Famer Wally Buono, it was a season to forget and a game he can't remember.

"Yeah, that must’ve been such a bad memory it’s been erased," says Buono, currently in his final season as head coach of the B.C. Lions. "Vince was a great guy, OK? Honestly, what they did to him wasn’t fair. They brought him here and they threw him to the wolves. He was great human being about it because I can’t imagine it was easy for him."

THE ROOKIE

He made his name in his hometown, but before Chris Walby became a CFL legend he was a 260-pound rookie defensive tackle with the Als.

What he saw in Montreal made his head spin.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' homegrown tackle Chris Walby was a league all-star nine times.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' homegrown tackle Chris Walby was a league all-star nine times.

"Ten guys in Montreal had guaranteed contracts," says Walby, now 61. "They didn’t even have to do anything. Tommy Cousineau, he got hurt and went to Hawaii. He said, ‘Mail my cheques.’ "

Walby, a 24-year-old grad of small college Dickinson State at the time, couldn’t get enough of the early season vibe with Ferragamo and his All-American appeal.

"I used to walk by him so the girls would scream at me," says Walby. "That’s the truth. He had groupies all over the place – a good looking Italian boy (like him)."

But his time in Montreal was short.

Walby played five games with the Alouettes but after weeks of secret roster manouvering by Als GM Al Geary left him without a contract and owed unpaid money, Winipeg GM Paul Robson swooped in and signed him.

With the Blue Bombers, Walby would be honoured twice as the CFL's most outstanding lineman, earn league all-star honours nine times and help Winnipeg to Grey Cup titles in 1984, '88 and 1990.

CAPTAIN CANUCK

You could say Dattilio was cursed by his versatility.

He played quarterback, defensive back, receiver and on special teams early in his pro career before finally getting his big break as Montreal's No. 1 QB in 1980, leading the Als to an appearance in the Grey Cup game while capping an incredible breakout season by being named the CFL’s top Canadian and the East Division’s nominee for most outstanding player.

Alouettes' backup quarterback Gerry Dattilio.

CFL

Alouettes' backup quarterback Gerry Dattilio.

But in fact, it was no break at all. Ferragamo’s arrival made that clear although he was sent in for mop-up duty against the Bombers when Ferragamo's futility reached the breaking point.

"I won the Schenley (Award) that year and I was going into training camp as the No. 1 quarterback," says Dattilio, now 65. "When you’re making 45 grand and somebody else is making 750 grand, you tell me who’s going to be starting? That’s what happened."

Even when Ferragamo was benched late in the season, he was held out of games. As part of a trade with Calgary for veteran American quarterback Ken Johnson, Dattilio found out later he was the future considerations in the deal. Montreal management was afraid to play him lest he get injured.

"When I think back, I don’t really think I was bitter," says Dattilio. "Disappointed? There’s no doubt about that. You know, I worked so hard to get where I was and had a pretty good year, I won a Schenley. But the owners wanted a big name for whatever reason and Vince filled the bill."

THE MUTINY

In the final minutes of the game, Winnipeg defensive co-ordinator Leo McKillop sent his final instructions — demanding his players maximize the pressure on the already vanquished Als. Bennett couldn't believe what he was hearing.

GAME RECAP - Aug. 8, 1981

Montreal 2 at Winnipeg 58

First Quarter

Wpg -- Single Cameron 48 3:32

Wpg -- TD Graves 1 run (Kennerd convert) 8:00

Mtl -- Single McGrath 47 13:35

Montreal 2 at Winnipeg 58

First Quarter

Wpg -- Single Cameron 48 3:32

Wpg -- TD Graves 1 run (Kennerd convert) 8:00

Mtl -- Single McGrath 47 13:35

Second Quarter

Mtl -- Single McGrath 48 0:18

Wpg -- FG Kennerd 27 4:44

Wpg -- TD Goodlow 29 pass from Brock (Kennerd convert) 8:22

Wpg -- TD Poplawski 7 pass from Brock (Kennerd convert) 12:07

Wpg -- TD Graves 9 pass from Brock (Kennerd convert) 13:05

Third Quarter

Wpg -- Single Kennerd 43 4:20

Wpg -- TD Goodlow 20 pass from Brock (Kennerd convert) 9:35

Wpg -- FG Kennerd 17 13:31

Fourth Quarter

Wpg -- Single Kennerd 44 5:05

Wpg -- TD Graves 26 run (Kennerd convert) 6:36

Wpg -- TD Huclack 1 run (Kennerd convert) 10:42

Montreal 1 1 0 0 -- 2

Winnipeg 8 24 11 15 -- 58

Attendence -- 32,936.

YARDSTICKS

Montreal Winnipeg

12 first downs 32

53 yards rushing 241

154 yards passing 334

180 net offence 575

14-37 passes made-tried 21-32

2 interceptions by 4

4-47.2 punts-average 10-42.1

3-2 fumbles-lost 1-1

7-5 penalties-yards 3-15

"He wanted man-to-man — it’s 58-2! — and I went, ‘Nah, we’re going to sit back 15 yards boys and play cover-4 zone,' " says the 64-year-old Bennett. "And we paid the price, we got shit for it but at the end of the day, if coaches are truly good coaches, they will allow input. Coaches make mistakes. And so if we can have our input when you have experienced players, you can’t do it with young guys because it’s too inconsistent.

"For us, we had played such a great, dominating game that we didn’t want it marred by a last-minute play where the DB gets scorched because he slips and falls on a cover-1. So it didn’t make any sense."

THE AFTERMATH

The Alouettes, en route to a dismal 3-13 regular season, struggled on the field and at the box office for the rest of the year. Skalbania had overspent massively and lost a reported $2 million on operations; he had trouble meeting payroll for the rest of the season. Skalbania got an ultimatum from the players with four games remaining.

Alouettes owner Nelson Skalbania reportedly lost nearly $2 million in the 1981 season. The franchise would later be revoked by the league that off-season. Skalbania would go on to spend time in prison in the 90's for stealing $100,000 from a real-estate trust account.

CHUCK STOODY / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Alouettes owner Nelson Skalbania reportedly lost nearly $2 million in the 1981 season. The franchise would later be revoked by the league that off-season. Skalbania would go on to spend time in prison in the 90's for stealing $100,000 from a real-estate trust account.

"We found out the club was not putting in our pension money," says Dattilio. "We had a team meeting, just players, and we discussed what our options were. We basically told them if that money’s not in within the next 72 hours, we weren’t going to play in the next game. Oh, yeah, it was serious.

"We couldn’t wait until the end of the season because we had no bargaining power then."

The pension money was paid but attempts to dump the franchise and its heavy debt load were unsuccessful; the CFL revoked the franchise in the off-season and granted Montreal billionaire Charles Bronfman, a new franchise called the Concorde for the 1982 season.

Before that happened, the Als had uncompeted business. After finishing third in their division, they were off to the post-season.

"Because it was such a weak division, you still had a chance at the playoffs and anything can happen in the playoffs," says Dattilio. "We lost to Ottawa (in the playoffs) that year and if we’d have won that game, we would’ve gone to the (East) final. It would’ve been a bit of a joke – imagine going to the Grey Cup with three or four wins under your belt?"

Vince Ferragamo, centre, on FOX Sports got most of his Alouettes salary up front in the first year.

Vince Ferragamo, centre, on FOX Sports got most of his Alouettes salary up front in the first year.

Ferragamo, his contract voided due to the demise of the team, returned to the Rams in 1982. Cousineau, Scott, Johnson also returned to the NFL while Overstreet and Gary played another year in the CFL before heading stateside.

"No, I don’t regret it," says the 64-year-old Ferragamo, who operates a real estate business and a small winery in Anaheim, Calif. "It was a very good experience in many ways. It was a business learning experience because I didn’t get nearly what my contract called for because the team went bankrupt but I was smart enough to get most of my salary up front in the first year. I didn’t defer any otherwise I wouldn’t have seen a penny of that.

"It hurt me that people thought I was there for the money; that was the business part. I was there to play and deliver some good football but I couldn’t."

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Sports Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Saturday, August 4, 2018 at 9:36 AM CDT: Date fixed.

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