"I have loved football as an almost mythic game since I was in the fourth grade. To me, the game wasn't even grounded in reality. The uniform turned you into a warrior. Being on a team, the mythology of physical combat, the struggle against the elements, the narrative of the game..." ~ Steve Sabol (NFL Films)

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

A Football Letter From CFL America- Old School Memories

It was on January 9, 1977 when I first felt the autumn wind I believe I witnessed (from what I can recall) was my first football game and NFL championship (Super Bowl XI), and was immediately hooked. Months later I turned ten years old, started the fifth grade, and began rooting for what was then my favorite team, which was not my now beloved Cardinals, but rather the Bob Griese led Miami Dolphins.

Why the Dolphins?  I honestly have no specific recollection some 40 years later; however I do know it stemmed from a few things I think, I liked their uniforms, a lack of any good football in Chicago, and our family trip to Florida. With that said though, exactly how it came to be that I became a Dolphins fan I don't really know for sure.  They were by then a team on the downward slide, and the only one I really identified with on the team was their quarterback, the by then bi-spectacle Bob Griese, who, as luck would have it, in 1977, was quarterbacking a resurgent offense in the post-Csonka era.  

I wore the same style glasses that I immediately became a fan. I was such an over eager Dolphins fan that for the remainder of the 1970s I asked for literally every NFL licensed piece of merchandise a boy could find in the Sears and J.C. Penny's Christmas catalogs (more on that facet of football culture in a future article). Back then of course I just couldn't stream a game or turn to the NFL Sunday Ticket to watch my team. No, back then we got what the networks gave us and relied on the newspaper and Howard Cosell on Monday Night Football to show and tell us what happened the day before. Or I could write a reminder for myself to watch the syndicated NFL Films Game of the Week highlight show.

For you see, this was before the advent of cable TV at my parents house, and on game day TV we had two competing pregame shows on CBS and NBC, of which I was an NFL Today fan, in part because of the introduction music and also because it was just simply better.   Of course I am not pining for those day here, with the exception of Brent Musburger, and the old "NFL Today," for advancing technology coupled with the Internet are truly a godsend for all sports fans.

I wasn't just a pro football fan either, besides being back then a giant Cubs fan, I loved watching high school football and going to games under the Friday night lights in my hometown at what would eventually be where I attended high school and played football for three uneventful years occupying the bench.

When I didn't go to the games I listened to my school if they were lucky enough to be on the radio, and followed them religiously in the home town paper, especially in 1978 when they made it to and lost their first trip to the state championship. However, despite my second and third string status I did get to write the story of my high school's first state championship for the school paper.  It was there I think that my love for writing was born.

For any kid of my time the portal to the world was obviously not the Internet, nor was it really the TV, though to be honest I watched way more than I should have ever been allowed, especially during the summer months.  The best portal was the library where I wished I would have spent much more time as a kid in grade and high school. Though I made up for that in college when it was my second home.  It was in the books my parents allowed me to order where my love of football was further grown. For most of us who grew up and loved reading, we had a chance nearly every month to place an order for books to read.  For me I loaded up on the football titles, for back then, as John Facenda once said (I will talk about the voice of God and NFL Films at some later date) our football heroes were larger than life.  There were no scandals, period, that a fifth grader like me could either could comprehend or take notice of in the news.

So, as a Dolphins fan back then I only had a few chances to see my  Dolphins (whom I still love) when they were on national TV. Sadly, in 1977, the Dolphins on national TV and in prime time was rare, as were the hometown Bears, who that year were a team on the rise. Nearly 40 years later, during the course of my career later in life, I had the privilege of having a long conversation with Walter Payton's fullback- Roland Harper, and felt like a fifth grader again. as we talked about Walter and the issues the NFL and football in general faces, as well as the plight of the players of that era.

Needless to say, football is a violent sport, but it is also a beautiful and poetic one, thanks in large part to the artists at NFL Films.  I have nearly every DVD made by the film house.  The music of Sam Spence, the words of Steve Sabol, and the voice of John Facenda turned what were highlight films, in to artistry.  Without NFL Films many of us would likely not be the passionate fans we are today, for the imagery of the game is what we remember, not the newscasters reporting.  Fortunately the other leagues are playing catch up, especially the Canadian Football League.

November 24, 1977

Busch Stadium- November 24, 1977, St. Louis, Missouri
So it was that as a ten year old kid I found myself, during the Thanksgiving meal, on November 24, 1977, in football heaven watching first Walter Payton and the Bears torch the Lions, after which I saw my first Dolphins game in which Bob Griese destroyed an injury depleted riddled Cardinals defense for six touchdowns in a 55-14 embarrassment on national television.  As the score suggests, the Dolphins were in control of nearly all aspects of the game, with Griese connecting with Nat Moore for three of the six touchdowns.

Bob Griese under center
The first two drives of the game by the Dolphins ended in touchdowns with Moore hauling in the first from four yards out, with the second coming on a seven yard strike. After the second score, Jim Hart walked the Cardinals down the field and capped it off with a one yard run by Terry Metcalf to cut the lead to 14-7.

That was the closest they would get as the Dolphins took a stranglehold on the ballgame. The running game was setting up the pass and the offensive line was letting Griese do his job at ease.

In the second quarter Griese connected with Moore from nine yards out, then hit him again with a 28 yard pass that ended with seven more points to put the score 28-7, at the half.  With three touchdowns already thrown, Griese's All-Pro performance would continue in the second half. The first score in the third quarter came when he hit Gary Davis on a 17 yard catch, which was then followed it up by his longest and last touchdown pass of the day, a 37 yard strike to Andre Tillman to extend the lead to 41-7.  However, that was far from the end of the scoring in the third quarter as . Leroy Harris rushed for four yards to extend the Dolphins lead to 48-7.

The Cardinals finally answered back in the fourth quarter with a 19 yard touchdown pass from Jim Hart to Ike Harris from Jim Hart. The scoring came to a close with a touchdown run by Benny Malone that capped off the Dolphins win. The story of the day was Griese, yet when you see a six touchdown headline then you would expect to read about how the quarterback threw for 350, 400 or possibly even yards. Such wasn't the case for Griese, he went 15 for 23 and threw for a pedestrian 207 yards in this one. Instead it was the post-Csonka, Kiick and Morris running game that provided the wheels for the offense in this game, as the "no-name" backfield rushed for 295 yards.

The Dolphins handed the Cardinals the biggest defeat they would suffer during their time in between Chicago and Phoenix; however, as history has shown, the beatings would continue for years until finally, under a closed roof in Glendale, the team shocked the world in 2009 and hoisted the Halas Trophy on their way to a heartbreaking loss in Super Bowl 48.

Yet, as I reflect on that game, it isn't the six touchdowns that Bob Griese threw that I remember most. No, the most memorable moment came when Cardinal guard Conrad Dobler tossed his helmet into the Busch Stadium stands in complete frustration. After which, I became a football fan forever....

Which brings me to the CFL, for when I first began really watching the league, Bob Griese had long long since retired and at that time was eagerly hoping his son would be the next great Chicago Bears quarterback. Of course the CFL had been on TV sporadically here in the States for many years, but until the late 2000s the league was more myth than fact to American sports fans.  The failed American expansion passed me by in the 1990s due to the fact that I had a lot of other things going on in my life and football, neither the NFL, college or CFL variety.  

By the time the CFL became a fixture on my screen with the wonderful invention called ESPN+ I was more than hooked, I was a convert.  For me every game was after it first started streaming, and still is of course, must see TV.  When the CFL first aired their entire seasons I felt transported back to my childhood and slowly, but surely learning all the names of the current players, and went beyond just a Wikipedia knowledge of the league to one that was based on replays of old games and the consumption of all the wonderful history books I could buy on Amazon.  

In watching the CFL, I am transported back to the feeling of that ten year old geek and book worm with Bob Griese glasses, but this time and in this century, I no longer feel alone, for the Internet social media, despite it successfully dividing America, actually succeeds in bringing together our great fan base.  Because of Twitter, I met my From the 55 Yard Line cohost, and together we geek out with our fellow podcasters and bloggers on our football remembrances of the past and hopes for the future.  The CFL, for those of us to stubborn to let go of our old school 20th Century memories of football, has allowed Scott, I and countless others to embrace a league that reminds us of our youth. The CFL, for us, exemplifies the spirit of a time where sports heroes were just like our dads, working class men who measured their worth not in dollars, but in the effort they gave on the field, win or lose.

As we await the start of the very much long delayed season, let's us as CFL and football fans in general, remember what it was like when were ten years old watching our heroes on the field. Let's root hard for the working class men who play Canadian professional football, all of whom exemplify the spirit of what the legendary Voice of God, John Facenda, once said about the game of the 60s and 70s, and which still holds true in Canada today!

~ Greg James @CFLAmerica

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