50 Years Ago – the 1971 Grey Cup Game
The CFL season is in full swing and before we know it the playoffs, and ultimately the Grey Cup will be upon us.
In the run up to that game in, (unusually for now), December, I thought it might be interesting to do a series on the recent decade anniversaries of the big game. Starting with 50 years ago, then 40, 30 and so on. A look at the 1971 Grey Cup is where we begin.
The 1971 contest saw 34,404 fans on hand at Empire Stadium in Vancouver. They witnessed the 9-6-1 Calgary Stampeders take on the 10-4 Toronto Argonauts in a game that Calgary won 14-11 and that would be remembered for a key play.
The Run up to the Game
The Calgary Stampeders were in one of the more successful periods of their early history. Not since 1946-9 had they been in such rude health. Back then they had gone 34-8, and played in 3 Grey Cups and had a near perfect season in 1948.
Between 1967 and 1971 the Stamps had played in five straight Western Finals. This off the back of a 49-29-2 regular season run. Now they were looking to go one better than they had the year before when they had lost the 1970 Grey Cup game 23-10 to the Montreal Alouettes. Or in 1968, when they had lost a tight Grey Cup game 24-21 to the Ottawa Rough Riders. It was a case of looking for third time lucky for the Stampeders faithful.
The Argonauts had not been to a Grey Cup since winning it all in 1952. Between 1953 and 1967 they had managed only two winning seasons. Going 17-10-1 in the 1960-1961 seasons was an oasis of success buried in a litany of miserable times for Toronto fans.
In the years preceding their involvement in this game though they had seen an uptick in their fortunes. Leo Cahill had become coach in 1967 and following a 5-8-1 opening campaign had guided the Argos to a competitive 37-19 record in the ensuing four seasons. Cahill also had the Argos in their fifth consecutive postseason.
Both teams were on somehting of a rise in the few years before this game then and whoever won it would put an exclamation point on the burgeoning success they had been enjoying.
1971 Grey Cup Playoffs
Both teams had finished atop their respective Divisions following the completion of the 1971 CFL regular season. This meant both teams got to sit out the semi-finals and rest up ready to face whoever made it through.
In the West this meant the Stampeders had a two game slate with the 9-6-1 Saskatchewan Roughriders. Whilst in the East the Argos squared off against the 7-7 Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
In a best of three series, Calgery won through 2-0 defeating Saskatchewan 30-21 at home and 23-21 away in the space of four days.
Over in the East, the Argos and Ti-Cats played a two game series that would see the team with the best aggregate score qualify for the 1971 Grey Cup. Over a six day period, the Argos won 23-8 in Hamilton and were then held to a 17 all tie at home. Good enough for a 40-25 aggreate win and Grey Cup berth.
The 1971 Grey Cup Game
The two teams found themselves playing the Grey Cup championship game on artificial turf for the first time ever. Despite that, field conditions were still poor for the game as a steady rain fell leaving a watery surface.
Defence was to the fore in this one. Which should not come as a surprise. After all, Calgary and Toronto each provided four players to the CFL All-Star cast on the defensive side of the ball going into the 1971 Grey Cup. And the Stampeders Wayne Harris took home the Most Outstanding Lineman award for the second year running.
Calgary’s Defence lived up to their reputation as they sacked Toronto quarterback Joe Theismann six times, broke his nose and held the Argos without an offensive touchdown.
But it was the Stampeders Offence that got things rolling in this one. A 14 yard strike from QB Jerry Keeling to receiver Herm Harrison saw the latter make a spectacular one handed grab for the touchdown. The Stamps were up 7-0 in the first period. The Argos countered with a big play of their own in the second period with a 55 yard pass to Mel Profit. But they were unable to convert that into anything more than an 11 yard Field Goal.
Before the end of the half, Stamps RB Jesse Mims ran in a 6 yard Touchdown to give Calgary a 14-3 lead. That would be the last score of the game from the men in red. But, their ferocious Defence would play its part from here on in.
The Second Half
The Argonauts scored their lone TD of the game in the third quarter. Calgary returner Jim Silye lost the ball on a punt return. The ball was recovered by Joe Vijuk who lateralled it and Roger Scales ran it in from 33 yards out to make the score 14-10. Toronto kicker Ivan MacMillan missed a Field Goal from 27 yards out in the third but picked up a rouge to make it 14-11. A one score game going into the final period.
In the fourth quarter it looked like there could be a barnstorming finish too. This was because Argonaut Dick Thornton intercepted a Calgary pass and wove his way 54 yards down field to the Calgary 11 yard line. A Field Goal would tie it. But Toronto were looking for more.
Leon McQuay and the fumble
Argos Running Back Leon McQuay had signed with Toronto as a rookie in 1971. This followed three years playing RB at the University of Tampa. Where in 1970 he had racked up 1,362 yards and 22 TD’s.
McQuay was 19 when he joined the Argos. He arrived alongside 1970 Heisman trophy runner up QB Joe Theismann and Outland Trophy winner DT Jim Stillwagon.
All the Way McQuay or X-ray McQuay as he was dubbed had led the team with 977 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. He was the Eastern Conference MOP. Yet none of this is what he is remembered for. He is remembered for a fumble in the 1971 Grey Cup more than anything else.
Stationed at the Calgary 11 yard line McQuay took the handoff from Theismann. Trying to make a cut to the inside he slipped on the soggy turf and fumbled the ball. Reggie Holmes recovered for Calgary. The play retains some controversy as McQuay’s elbow had hit the turf when the ball popped out and no Stampeder had tackled him. Was he down? Could the ground cause the fumble? In fact within the rules at the time, yes – the ground could cause a fumble. Subsequently, the rule was changed such that the ground was not allowed to cause a fumble.
It doesn’t matter. The play was called a turnover and the stamps went on to win. No controversy there.
Toronto had one more chance but nothing came of it. And the McQuay fumble became and remains the focal point of the 1971 Grey Cup game. Stamps Hall of Fame linebacker Wayne Harris was the game’s Most Valuable Player while teammate DE Dick Suderman took top Canadian honours.
What Came Next
For the rest of the decade the Stamps weren’t that competitive. We are used to seeing them as an uber competitive machine that regularly dominates the regular season. But in the Seventies they went 69-85-6 missing the playoffs from 1972-77 entirely.
The Stamps went 12-4 in 1979 and looked a more solid team. But they did not return to the Grey Cup until 1991 or lift their third title until 1992.
The 1971 Grey Cup game had been an opportunity for the Argos that punctuated the longest title drought in team history. As mentioned above they had last won the Grey Cup in 1952. They would not win it again until 1983. A 31 year title drought. During that time the Argonauts put together a 169-259-8 record. Highlights were few and far between but came in going 10-4 in 1960 and 1971 (the latter leading to this Grey Cup berth), and having made the Grey Cup in 1982 the year before ending their longest title drought.
Immediately following the 1971 Grey Cup defeat defeat however was a miserable period for Toronto. From 1972-1981 they went 51-100-5 whilst making just two short-lived playoff appearances.
Cahill, who had been Coach of the Year in 1971 was fired following a 3-11 finish in 1972. The rise of the Argos was over and he would later say, “When Leon (McQuay) slipped, I fell.”
For McQuay himself fumbling in the 1971 Grey Cup game became something of a turning point in his professional career. He would play up to 1977 but his best season after this was posting 745 yards for the Argos in 1972. Appearances with the Giants, Patriots and Saints in the NFL mostly focused around returning punts and kickoffs. His best year was 1974, when he rushed for 240 yards with the Giants.
Featured Image: Wayne Harris with the Grey Cup in 1971. Image from Calgary Herald.