Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/7/2019 (1050 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
For nearly three decades, it has been a mystery, a bit of Canadian folklore that everyone who saw remembers vividly. And yet nobody who saw it seems to know the full story.
Who threw the beer can at the Rocket?
The Rocket in question was Raghib (Rocket) Ismail, star player for the Toronto Argonauts in the 1991 Grey Cup in Winnipeg.
The beer can in question was thrown from the stands, barely missing the Rocket as he raced into the end zone to score the game-clinching touchdown.
It’s a moment that has been replayed endlessly — one of the most memorable plays in Canadian football history.
And yet for nearly 28 years, the story behind the throw has remained a mystery to all but a few individuals.
Researching for a book about the 1991 Argonauts, I became determined to unravel that mystery.
With 11 minutes left in the 79th Grey Cup at Winnipeg Stadium on Nov. 24, 1991, the Calgary Stampeders narrowed the Toronto Argonauts’ lead to a single point, thanks to a touchdown by Allen Pitts. Awaiting the ensuing kickoff was the man who had been the focal point of the entire season, not just for the Argos, but the CFL in general.
Seven months earlier, on the day he was expected to be one of the first choices in the NFL draft, Ismail had signed a massive contract to be the marquee player for the Argos. The speedster from Notre Dame would be paid between $4.5 million and $6.5 million per season, in defiance of league rules limiting teams to total spending of $3 million... for all players combined.
While Ismail couldn’t possibly generate enough new revenue to justify the salary being paid to him by new Argos owners Bruce McNall, Wayne Gretzky and John Candy, he and the Argos drew big crowds everywhere they played. And he showed why he was so highly touted, as he gradually became the focal point of the Argos offence. His punt-return touchdown a week before the Grey Cup had plunged a dagger into the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ hopes of playing at home in the big game, the first played in the city.
Now he was trotting onto the field before 51,985 frozen spectators, the vast majority of them staunchly anti-Argos. He scooped up a bouncing kick and cut to his right, instantly exhibiting the breathtaking speed that had earned him his nickname. The late Don Wittman, calling the game for CBC-TV, described what unfolded. "The Rocket looks for a hole! If he gets to the outside this time, he’s gone!"
As Ismail hit the Calgary 10-yard line, no tacklers within 20 yards, he spread his arms in triumph and looked over his left shoulder towards the Argos’ bench on the far sideline. To his right, something landed on the field, nearly hitting his feet. In those days, before high-definition television, it almost looked like a snowball — and Wittman thought it was, too.
But it was a beer can, spinning its contents out into instantly frozen foam on the rock-hard artificial turf. A beer can thrown by someone in the stands.
But by whom? And why? What type of beer? I needed to find out.
Surely someone in Winnipeg would know something. As reporter Gary Lawless said on TSN in 2014, "no one really knows who threw it. But everyone knows someone who knows someone who knows the guy."
Would the thrower even still be alive after 28 years? And would he or she (in my mind’s eye, it was always a he) be willing to talk? Or, since anything I heard was likely to be unverifiable, might many people claim to be the culprit?
I outlined all this to Free Press humour columnist Doug Speirs, who wrote about my compulsion to solve the mystery. His story mentioned that, by watching video and examining an old seating map, I had deduced that the throw almost certainly came from Section S, the northernmost section on the east side of the now-demolished stadium.
The story immediately drummed up tantalizing clues. "His name is Dwayne," someone with the Twitter handle of @TheDirtyBird22 tweeted. Claudette Thibert wrote to Speirs: "I know exactly what happened as I was sitting beside the guy who threw it." Patrick Dirks wrote that he had sat in Section S and the can had almost certainly been thrown by someone sitting near "the famous underwear man." This was getting crazier.
I followed up the leads. @TheDirtyBird22 is Trevor Finch, a Bombers fan who had season tickets in Section S, which he and others described to me as "the infamous student section," notorious for partying and the birthplace of Winnipeg’s "beer snake" — hundreds of emptied Solo cups stacked together and winding their way through the stands.
“I was standing right beside him when he threw his half-frozen OV tall boy from our seats in Section S, Row 7 at the old stadium.” ‐ Dave Heywood
Finch, who was not at the 1991 Grey Cup, said he was told by fellow fans that the thrower sat in Section S. "One person says it was this guy Dwayne, someone else says no, it was another guy."
Despite his own efforts to get to the bottom of it for me, "none of these people have come up and said, ‘Yeah, it was me.’"
After reading Speirs’ piece, Dirks asked some colleagues what they remembered about the 1991 Grey Cup. "I talked to a person in my office who’s a big CFL fan. I said, ‘Did you go to the ’91 Grey Cup?’ He said, ‘Yes, but I didn’t throw the beer.’ Instantly went right there."
Thibert became a Section S season-ticket holder in 1990, sitting near guys she knew only as Glenn and Dave. Dave, she said, was one of the underwear-clad guys known as "gotchmen." And she was certain the can had been thrown by Glenn.
"He threw his can of beer. We saw it fall and we went, ‘Oh, what are you doing?’ Some guy said, ‘You’re wasting your beer.’"
Dirks said the can was thrown from the area in Section S where the underwear man sat. "You quickly look over and what I remember is the usual crowd. Underwear man and his buddy. (I) just remember everyone going, ‘What the heck happened?’ And there was only one person who wasn’t doing that. It had to have been him."
But who was this mystery man?
Then came information that lent credence to what I’d heard so far — there really was an underwear man, with a story to tell. "I know everyone says they know the guy that threw the beer," Dave Heywood wrote to Speirs. "But this is legit. He is my best friend, I have known him for 50 years.
"I was standing right beside him when he threw his half-frozen OV tall boy from our seats in Section S, Row 7 at the old stadium."
Heywood described himself as a member of the "‘gotchmen’ group who used to go to the games in our underwear for all those years."
The group, he subsequently told me, was started by his older brother and some friends, the rest of whom are now in their 60s and no longer attend games in their undies. He still does, though. "I’m the last? They call me the Lone Gotchman."
The beer can, Heywood said, was thrown by a guy he has been friends with since kindergarten. "For a while, he didn’t want to (discuss it) because he didn’t want to get into trouble."
Based on the can’s silvery appearance in the grainy TV footage, some commentators over the years have speculated it must have been a Coors Light. But Heywood insisted it was Old Vienna.
There were no immediate ramifications from the throw, he said. Security guards tried to identify the thrower, but fans were tightly packed into the flat benches of Section S, most wearing heavy parkas. (Except the gotchmen, of course. "We weren’t wearing parkas. I would have been wearing lots of underwear, right? I don’t wear parkas to the games, ever.")
The thrower, who lives outside Manitoba, would probably be willing to talk about it now, Heywood said — despite misgivings he set out in a text: "Jeez, I might end up in the slammer yet."
The alleged thrower — "alleged" because there is no way of independently verifying any of the tales I gathered — is not so sure about speaking to a journalist because of "the reality of the megaphone we’ve given through social media to put a shame on people."
After a lengthy discussion about the pros and cons of coming forward after 28 years, he agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity. I can describe him as in his 50s and living a quiet life tending to gardens on the West Coast. His name is neither Dwayne nor Glenn.
He, too, was dressed in gotch at the Grey Cup, he said. The underwear was a handy way to smuggle in cans of beer. (Brew could be purchased at the stadium, but only in plastic cups.) "I was often in a nightie and a bra on the outside, and gotch on my head. And I’d stuff a couple of cans in my bra."
He confirmed the beer in question was an Old Vienna. Asked if OV was his beer of choice back then, he replied, deadpan, "Beer was my beer of choice back then."
The man, who grew up in Winnipeg but was living in Calgary in 1991, insisted he never planned to hurl a frozen beer at the Rocket. It happened because he was unhappy about the Argos flouting the salary rules by signing Ismail to his record-breaking contract.
"Things can flash through your mind in a millisecond... I was thinking, ‘They’ve bought the Cup, they’ve changed the CFL... I’ve got a three-quarters (full) can of OV in my hand that I can’t drink because it’s mostly frozen. Away we go.’
"That all happened in probably two seconds. I never thought about it.
"It landed almost between his legs, kind of went through his legs. Whatever liquid was in there blew up. And then people were going crazy because it was... a hugely defining moment in the Grey Cup, and it was the Rocket, right?"
His identity went largely undetected, he says. "Not many people actually saw me doing it. They were watching the play; they weren’t watching (a) bozo in the stands throwing a can.
"(But) the security guards knew that I threw it. They saw me. The guy said, ‘Hey, take it easy, man.’ That’s all they did."
“I’m obviously glad nothing happened, more than it being a fun story.” –Beer thrower
He acknowledged the throw could have had far more serious repercussions than merely becoming an oft-replayed crazy moment in football history. Had the can hit the Rocket, he could have been injured and might, conceivably, have been felled before scoring. Had that happened, there might have been an immediate attempt to bring the perpetrator to justice.
"Oh sure," he said when asked if he ever had regrets. "Of course. You go, holy... that could’ve been problematic.
"I’m obviously glad nothing happened, more than it being a fun story."
For his part, the Rocket has laughed about it ever since. "I’m just glad that guy didn’t have a good aim, man," he told CBC in 2006. "He could have knocked that ball out of my hand. I’m showboating on the 10-yard line. What the heck was I thinking?"
The beer-can thrower said he saw Ismail breakdancing on a morning TV show years later. "He was absolutely horrible, and they said, ‘Where’s the guy with the beer can when you need him?’"
Paul Woods is a journalist, Canadian football historian and author of Bouncing Back: From National Joke to Grey Cup Champs, which chronicled the Toronto Argonauts winning the championship in 1983 after 31 years of futility and misery. His next book, about the 1991 Argonauts, will be published in 2021.