Death of a legend

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 10:01 AM ET

ANAHEIM -- Annis Stukus was great, that's all.

The Loquacious Lithuanian, the first coach of the Edmonton Eskimos, died at age 91.

Stukus was a Toronto sportswriter who once wrote about a game in which he happened to have played exceptionally well, and began his story with the words "Heck, I was great, that's all.''

Stuke, who religiously returned to Edmonton every year to present the CFL Coach of the Year Award until a couple of years ago, made a grand entrance the first time he came to Edmonton to apply for the position.

"I'll never forget the day he came to town,'' remembered Erik Duggan, the Eskimo director, when I talked to him on the subject of "The Stuke" years ago.

"I picked him up. It was Feb. 14, 1949. And it was 20 below. He introduced himself to me as the world's greatest field goal kicker.''

Duggan told Stuke that most of the directors didn't know who he was.

"He told me, 'Give me a few hours sleep and I'll be better than Knute Rockne by 11 a.m.' And he was.''

Henry Singer, another Eskimo director of that first Edmonton team, said it was mesmerizing when I interviewed the late owner of the men's clothing store, on the subject of one of the true legends of Canadian football.

"Stuke had us spellbound. He talked to us for about 90 minutes and then walked out of the room with the job.''

SOLD FOOTBALL TO CITY

Walter Sprague, another director of that original Eskimo team, told me the man was amazing.

"He overwhelmed everybody. I don't even recall us even bothering to take a vote. He was our man.''

It was Stukus who sold football to Edmonton.

"It was Stuke who got the fervour and the fever going here,'' said Al Anderson, the forgotten general manager during Stukus's tenure who went on to run the Edmonton Exhibition Association for years.

"He could enthuse people. And he was very approachable. Everybody got along with him. Everybody but those Americans in 1949.''

Stukus booked himself to make 92 speeches around town in 110 days. He kept score. It was a statistic he intentionally tried to beat when he made 93 in 100 days when he was hired to get the B.C. Lions off the ground.

"They'd already hired a bunch of American players who were a long way over the hill,'' remembered Stukus one of the numerous times we sat down to talk about that original Eskimo outfit.

"I knew why they hired me. They needed Canadian players. They thought I'd be able to get them. And they were right. It was the Canadian players who made Edmonton so competitive so early.

"It has always bugged me that Edmonton never received the credit Edmonton deserved for forming the Canadian Football League.

"Back then the Western Football Union and the league in the East were separate. They met in the Grey Cup game, but that was it.

"I took a lot of players. By 1951 I had seven starters from the Argos and at least two or three from the other teams. I'd phone a player in Toronto and ask him what he was making and offer him more money.

"In 1950, the team came in at an even seven wins and seven losses."

Every time Stukus wound his wrist-watch he thought of that year.

"I was a quarterback and a kicker and one thing and another when I played, but I was 36 when I came to Edmonton and all that was long behind me,'' remembered Stukus in one of those old interviews we had before yet another Coach of the Year dinner.

"I didn't play at all that first year, in 1949, but in 1950 we lost our field goal kicker and I didn't have a guy. My brother Bill was with the team that year and he said 'What about you?'

"I said 'I have enough problems. I haven't kicked in five years.' But I was the only guy I had. I didn't wear pads and I didn't wear a helmet because it was my intention to get the hell out of there once I kicked the ball. The wrist watch kind of came into it by accident.

"Montreal had managed to beat Calgary in the Grey Cup game of 1949 and they were coming out to Calgary to play one exhibition game. I phoned the Als and convinced them to come out and play another for half of our gate.

"The game against Montreal would be my first as a kicker in addition to being coach. When I took the team out for warmups, I wanted to make sure we stayed out there for 17 minutes. So I wore my wristwatch to keep track of time.

"I forgot to take it off.

"Danged if we didn't score the first touchdown of the game. And out I went to try my first point after in more than five years.

"I still had the watch on.

"Now back in those days, you didn't just play the game, you had to sell the game. And I got a brainstorm.

"In the huddle I told our guys my watch was worth $85 and if anything happened to my watch everybody was going to be fined to make up that $85.

"After the game a Canadian Press reporter was in our dressing room and I grabbed one of our players and told him to go over and tell the reporter 'Stuke was so calm, cool and collected he didn't even take his wristwatch off.' The reporter then came over to me and I filled his notebook for him.

"The story ran in all the papers and everywhere we'd go that year my wristwatch was part of the hype. When I was on the sidelines, I'd pull up the sleeve of my shirt so the fans could see my wristwatch.

"And when it was time to go in, I'd look at my watch like 'ho hum, it's time to go in and kick another one.' I invented the three-quarter-length sleeves so the fans could see the watch.''

Then he manufactured some bounty baloney.

"When we hit Winnipeg for a game, I spoke at the rally they had there and told them that they were the cheapest town in the league. I said the people of Calgary had offered a $100 reward for anybody who could get my wristwatch and that the little town of Regina had offered $50 and that the best Winnipeg could do was $25. Boy did I get booed at the game the next day. It was a great promotional gimmick.''

CFL'S BIGGEST TUB-THUMPER

Stukus knew how to hype. He was the greatest tub-thumper in CFL history.

"What a lot of of people don't realize was the Eskimos forced the East and West to get together. All that raiding created a one-league situation. Trouble is, when I went to Vancouver to start the British Columbia Lions, I couldn't raid guys from the East anymore.''

Stukus, after launching the Lions, eventually returned to the media, this time in radio, where he worked for years in Vancouver. He retired to Canmore where he lived until his death.

He was predeceased by his brothers Bill and Frank and is survived by his wife of 67 years, Doris, and daughters Suzanne, Sally and Mary. He had two grandsons and a great-granddaughter.

When Annis Stukus died, an era ended.


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