Glory ... 30 years ago

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 8:56 AM ET

Jeff Avery, the former Rough Riders receiver, was sending out an e-mail yesterday to former kicker J.T. Hay.

As an aside in the e-mail, Avery remembered today being the 30th anniversary of the Rough Riders' last Grey Cup win.

"God, are we old," wrote Avery.

Not really, Jeff, and the story of Ottawa's last Grey Cup championship only seems to get better with the telling over the years and the lustre of Tony Gabriel's game-winning catch polished a little more, the way wave after wave on the beach might polish a stone over the years.

Thirty years is more than a generation removed from November 28, 1976. Exhibition Stadium, where the game was played between the Riders and the Saskatchewan Roughriders, is gone.

Ottawa doesn't even have a CFL franchise these days.

All the futility and ineptitude that has marked CFL football in this city since that championship only serves to make 30 years seem even longer ago.

LAST OF A GREAT ERA

Some of the people reading these words, maybe quite a few, weren't even old enough to remember the last time Ottawa's CFL team was a champion. That 1976 team was the last of a great era for Ottawa in the CFL, the end of a time when Ottawa was associated with class and accomplishment and its CFL teams revered, not its ownership reviled.

Avery was near the back of the end zone when Gabriel made the catch at the end of his flag pattern, Gabriel's huge hands reaching out to cradle the sinking pass from the hand of Riders quarterback Tom Clements.

It was a 24-yard touchdown reception giving the Riders what would turn out to be a 23-20 win over their Western namesakes.

Shortly before that, the Rough Riders had failed to score after gambling on the Saskatchewan goal line, Clements slipping on a quarterback sneak and the Green Riders' defensive line getting a great surge.

Avery remembers coming to the Ottawa sideline where linebacker Mark Kosmos had a message for the offence.

"He told us to be ready, they were going to get the ball back for us," said Avery. "He was a big cheerleader."

Avery was a rookie that year, coming off a Vanier Cup victory with the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees, maybe the best Canadian university team ever.

CLEARING ROUTES

He had spent most of the season running, clearing routes for Gabriel, shifting the zone to open up space for the lanky receiver with the deceptive stride.

That's what Avery was doing on the winning play, having lined up on the same side as Gabriel and drawing coverage away. There was confusion in the Green Riders' secondary --Gabriel was a good five yards behind Saskatchewan's Ted Provost -- and Avery was also wide open, way off to Clements' left.

Did he yell for the ball?

"Oh, hell, no," laughed Avery yesterday. "It was my first year. Rookies didn't yell for the ball."

Clements had run a play-action fake to fullback John Palazeti, rolling gently to his right. After the fake handoff, Clements continued rolling to his right, giving Gabriel time to get downfield.

"It was like practice, like were playing 7-on-7," remembered Avery yesterday. "There was some confusion in their secondary. Nobody touched anybody. Anybody who saw Tony in person would look at him and say he didn't look very fast, but he had a long, long stride."

With a bit of a hop and skip, Clements fired the pass.

Gabriel got behind Provost and the ball, looking at the video now, seemed to hang an agonizingly long time before floating down to Gabriel.

He didn't cradle the ball to his chest, but simply stuck out his hands and plucked it out of the air.

'HE HAD BIG HANDS'

"He had big hands," said Avery, who had watched Gabriel catch balls that way all season. "He generally caught the ball with his hands. If he was squared up to the quarterback or coming back to the ball, he would use his body, but on this one, he was heading to the corner and ball was coming in from on high. He just stuck out those great big mitts."

Gabriel gathered in the ball, raised it for a moment in his right hand and then used both hands to spike it back over his head.

He raised both arms in triumph as he went out the back of the end zone to the edge of some steel bleachers where several fans, and, a moment later, Avery, the first Rider teammate on the scene, mobbed him.

You look at that clip now, look at the ball in the air, in the four seconds or so that it was between Clements' hand and Gabriel's hands, and think: there was no way Riders fans, in those few seconds, could have imagined that it would be 30 years (and counting) that a pro championship for this city would turn on the loose spiral of a football.


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