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Gaels reunite to celebrate remarkable 1983 season

September 6, 2013

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

Lots of things can happen in 30 years. People move, change careers, have children, send them to university.

Thirty years on, however, some things don’t change.

“I’m totally fine to live my life normally,” John Corrigan says, “and then somebody mentions that Vanier Cup game and my body temperature seems to rise and I start to sweat a little bit.”

Corrigan’s sense of humour being what it is, you wonder how much drama is being inserted into the paroxysm.

“I’m not joking,” Corrigan says, before an inquisitor has a chance to ask, and you start to believe him as, even over the telephone, you feel the temperature surely must be rising as the tone of his voice darkens and its cadence quickens. “That’s really the case when I start thinking about it.

“We came so close and maybe that’s why but in the whole scheme of things, I mean, we won, we lost, 30 years later it doesn’t matter — but it does. It still does.”

Corrigan is one of several members of the 1983 Queen’s Golden Gaels who will be reuniting Saturday for the 30th anniversary of their championship season. The Gaels won the Ontario-Quebec conference and defeated the Varsity Blues in a national semifinal that year before bowing to Calgary in a thrilling national championship game at Varsity Stadium in Toronto.

A few years ago Corrigan’s sons gave him a CD for Christmas with the telecast of that final game. It wasn’t quite a lump of coal in the stocking but viewing it still causes him to squirm.

“It was the first time I watched it in 15, 20 years,” Corrigan said. “It was hard to watch, still.

“We still lost.”

That doesn’t mean the stories of a team that accomplished more than almost anyone expected won’t be shared this weekend with fondness.

“There were a lot of really neat moments in that whole season,” Dave Dakers said, and being the underdogs almost everywhere they went helped to make the season special, despite the outcome of the final game.

“You might remember Doug’s great line,” Dakers said of a quip coach Doug Hargreaves used to describe his team to reporters who were unfamiliar with it: We might be small but we sure are slow.

“Doug knew what he was doing. He was motivating us to overachieve and that was a group of over-achievers, there’s no doubt about it.”

The Gaels in 1983 were coming off their first losing season since Hargreaves became coach in 1976. After a 3-4 regular campaign the year before, the Gaels lost the conference final to Concordia, a game Dakers, the nose guard, remembers as one that got away.

“It was a bit of a debacle the way the season ended,” he said. “Coming back the next year, most of us were in our fourth or fifth years of school and we knew there was a bit of finality to it.

“I don’t think we expected to be quite as good as we were going to be but I do recall that year during the rookie initiation we had the rookies chanting, ‘Touchdown, field goal, we want the College Bowl’ … and while I thought that was a great goal I can remember thinking to myself, ‘Geez, I’d love to do it but I don’t know if this is the group of guys that are going to get there.’”

Queen’s won its first four games that year, then came back-to-back ties with Ottawa, a team that ultimately did not make the playoffs — “not exactly a feather in our caps,” recalled Ross O’Doherty, the wingback on that team and organizer of this weekend’s reunion. Then followed a Homecoming loss to McGill but the Gaels rallied in the playoffs and defeated Carleton and McGill to earn a date with Toronto in a national semifinal at Richardson Stadium.

It snowed heavily the night before that game. “Doug made us all go out on the field and shovel,” quarterback Peter Harrison recalled, but nobody shovelled out the stands. As a result, any time a Toronto receiver tried to run a pass route down the sideline in front of the students, he often had to deal not only with a defender, but a barrage of snowballs.

“I remember that clearly,” O’Doherty chuckled.

A 22-7 win that day sent the Gaels to the Vanier Cup game against the heavily favoured Calgary Dinosaurs. Once again Queen’s got little respect from the pundits — or their peers.

Dakers, now the president of RG Properties, a Victoria-based management company that bid unsuccessfully last year to run the K-Rock Centre in Kingston, said the all-

Canadian awards that year were typical. “Tony (McDowell) and I were the only two guys nominated, neither one of us gets picked, but we end with a team in the Vanier Cup. That same year, Carleton had three all-Canadians.

“I think we were a little bit slighted by the national media. We didn’t really feel it at the time. We were a bunch of university guys who were just happy to be playing, but it was a little insulting when we got to the playoffs and all these teams that we had defeated were still expected to beat us.

“Even against U of T in that snow bowl, the Toronto papers were all picking them to cream us and if you remember that game, they scored a touchdown the first time they touched the ball. Our offence went out and was done in three plays and the defence was back on the field right away. Then there was one of those moments you never forget. Jeff Kyle’s in the huddle and he goes, ‘OK, boys, that’s it. No more,’ and that was the only points they got the whole game.”

As many had predicted, Queen’s was overwhelmed in the first half of the Vanier Cup game, played on cold, gray Saturday afternoon. Trailing 17-3 at halftime — and by most admissions delighted only to be down 14 points — Queen’s scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and took the lead, 21-20, with about three and a half minutes to play. They couldn’t contain a Calgary team led by future CFL quarterback Greg Vavra, however, and he engineered drives for a touchdown and a field goal before the game ended.

O’Doherty, who was a spectator in 1978 when his brother, Bob, played for the Gaels in their previous appearance in the national final, remembers the Vanier Cup game for the energy of the crowd — one Toronto newspaper estimated that 80 per cent of the Queen’s student body of 11,000 was there — and the fact that the Gaels were underdogs.

“We were fortunate to be in the game as much as we were at halftime,” he said. “Vavra was moving the ball really well but they couldn’t punch it in from the 20- or 25-yard line. Our defence would come up big.”

The Gaels intercepted three passes in the first half — two by Corrigan, another by Kyle — to keep the game close despite a whopping disadvantage in offensive yardage.

“I remember coming in at halftime,” Dakers said, “and thinking, ‘Wow, we’re lucky to be in this game.’ Sitting in the locker room, Phil Marsland was our captain and he said a few words and we realized that we could play with these guys and it was time to tuck in and make it happen.”

Just before the first half ended, the Gaels pulled out their secret weapon. Harrison, the backup quarterback, had staged stunning playoff comebacks in each of the two previous years running the triple-option, an offence in which, reduced to its basic components, the quarterback takes the snap, the fullback runs up the middle and the halfback — in this case O’Doherty — runs wide. It’s the same play every time, the only difference being the direction of the play and what the quarterback does with the football. Depending how the defence reacts he has three options: Hand it to the fullback right away, keep it himself and cut up the field off-tackle or pitch it wide to the halfback.

It’s difficult to execute, rarely used and even then slightly archaic, and Harrison ran it brilliantly. Teams so seldom faced it, they were never prepared to deal with it. Calgary, in tune with the regular Queen’s offence being run by starter Bob Wright, was befuddled by the triple option.

“I was put in near the end of the second quarter,” Harrison recalled. “I came off the field after one drive and told Doug, ‘I think this is going to work.’ I could see that their defence wasn’t really aware of what we were doing, and their positioning was such that it was conducive to running the offence.

“In the second half it worked. We had them a little off balance and Ross O’Doherty did a great job.”

O’Doherty, whose touchdown early in the fourth quarter got the Queen’s comeback started, remembers it well — and painfully.

“I was running all over the place,” he said, “because to go 10 yards upfield I had to go 30 yards to the sideline (first),” he said.

“I remember a couple of plays where he was awfully tired,” Harrison confirmed, “and he was, like, ‘Don’t give me the ball’ but we were counting on him and it was working. And because it was working we kept calling the same play and he was the pitch man on most of them. I remember him huffing and puffing a couple of times and we called some other plays, almost because of that.”

Harrison, an insurance man now living in Ottawa, says his memories of that day are bittersweet. “There’s lots of nightmares, still,” he said.

“When you look at (the score), 31-21, it doesn’t really indicate how close and exciting that second half was, but it was certainly an exciting game and I’ll never forget it, for a lot of different reasons. The atmosphere in the stadium was pretty electric, pretty incredible. The stands were full and it was pretty much all Queen’s people. I remember the second half getting louder and louder and louder.

“For a lot of guys it was their last game. It wasn’t looking great at halftime but we had some comebacks prior to that, at McGill and Ottawa U in ’81 and ’82, and it was that kind of feeling all over again — could we do it three years in a row? We almost got there.”

The go-ahead touchdown was almost a catastrophe for the Gaels, who, after a Bill Barrable field goal, had closed to within six points and had moved the football to the Calgary one-yard line with less than four minutes to play.

“I told our centre, Tommy Stefopolous, that if they weren’t dead over the centre on him I was going to slap him on the butt and I was going to try to sneak right through for that last yard,” Harrison said, even though that meant going off-script. “I went forward, tired to score, the ball got knocked out of my hands and there was a mad scuffle for it. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my god, I fumbled the ball in the end zone,’ but it turned out fine.”

That’s because Queen’s lineman Steve Hudson smothered the ball for a touchdown.

For Harrison, one of the memories from that year that remains vivid comes from the Toronto game.

“(It was) the only game I was ever in where I almost didn’t care if I played or not,” he said. “It was near the end and Doug and (assistant coach) John Lynch told me to go in. Normally I would have been chomping at the bit to get in but … we were doing great and nothing really needed to change. Normally I couldn’t wait to get in but that game was all about getting into the Vanier Cup.”

Several other things were significant that year. Hargreaves won the trophy named for his mentor, Frank Tindall, as Canadian intercollegiate coach of the year. Underscoring the theme of over-achievement is the fact the Gaels made it to the Vanier Cup without two players who, in the opinion of many, were the best players on the team — linebacker Mike Schad and fullback Larry Mohr.

Schad, who later played offensive line in the NFL and Mohr, who two years later would win the Hec Crighton trophy as the outstanding player in Canada before going on to play in the CFL, made a poignant picture that afternoon, on the Varsity Stadium track, one on crutches, the other in a wheelchair, after suffering season-ending injuries.

“Those were two all-Canadians at very important positions,” Corrigan said. “You could just imagine if Calgary didn’t have Vavra or (running back Tim) Petros. That team without either of those two would have been a completely different team.”

Corrigan is at the centre of another thing that made that team distinct, an oddball defence crafted by coach John Thomson that placed the safety 25 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. It — and Corrigan — became known as the Lonesome Polecat

“I haven’t been called the Lonesome Polecat more than once or twice a year since then but somebody will always bring that up,” Corrigan said. “‘Oh, it’s the Lonesome Polecat.’ ‘Yeah, you’re right, that’s me.’”

Corrigan, the Kingston Collegiate grad who teaches elementary school in the city — and now lives just six blocks from the stadium — remembers the unusual concept was an easy sell for him. He had spent his first two years at Queen’s as a receiver and he remembers how he relished the sight of an opposing cornerback right in his face at the line of scrimmage.

“You kind of turn your head, look in at Bob, and he’d look at you. Nothing was said, but it was like, ‘OK, go ahead,’ so you’d just take off on the guy. It was such a disadvantage (for the defender).”

Then one year Corrigan found himself playing cornerback.

“I don’t know if I didn’t have the speed or I just wasn’t doing it right but John said, ‘What about moving back there?’ I said, ‘That’s fine. I’ll play back there,’ figuring the big guys will probably be tired by the time they get there and I have to hit them, so maybe they’ll just kind of fall down at my feet, but that didn’t work too well.

“I think I still have a cleat mark from Petros on my chest, but a lot of guys do from that game.”

Sorely missed this weekend will be Wright, for five seasons the Queen’s quarterback who died three years ago this December of a mysterious lung disease at the age of 50.

“Everyone’s going to miss Bob,” Corrigan said. “That was certainly special for me to go on from high school to university with your best friend on the football team as well.”

Corrigan said the group remains close in its own way.

“Life gets in the way,” he said, “but certainly when you get back together it only takes about 15 minutes for everybody’s personality to show back up and then it’s like you saw each other just last weekend. It’s fun that way. Everybody has memories of some plays so you share those and then other people have memories of different plays so they get shared, and usually it’s about picking on somebody who messed up or blew something or got run over.

“There’s lots of stories.”

O’Doherty, a financial planner who lives in Toronto, savours the circumstances in which this team found its success.

“A lot of people didn’t really have us in the picture but we felt that we could have a good year,” he said. “There’s highlights all through that season, and it wasn’t just one person. At different times different components of the game stood up to give us the victory. I think that’s what made it special.”

Dakers agrees.

“With age comes some wisdom and we accomplished a fair amount,” he said. “I don’t know that any of us expected to get as far as that team did, or be successful as we were. A lot of strong friendships were forged in that.

“There was a lot of stuff that went on that season. Not trying to be too deep but a lot of us knew we were going on to different things and we weren’t going to be around the next year so that brought a lot of poignancy to it.”

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