OTTAWA - I spotted him sitting near the back, and when it came my turn to speak at the head table, I said again what I told him the last time I saw him, which was many years ago.
“Stephen, you made the second-greatest football catch I ever saw. With the Edmonton Eskimos. You were going left to right on the TV screen, along the sideline. How you made that catch I’ll never know because it was impossible.”
And then smiling at him: “I say the second-greatest catch because the first-greatest catch was by my childhood idol, Prince Hal, No. 75 with the Montreal Alouettes, Hal Patterson.”
From another table in the packed room a man jumped up in umbrage. “So where, then, do you rank Gabriel’s catch in the end zone?”
Referring to tight end Tony Gabriel’s dying-seconds heart-stopping catch against Saskatchewan that won the 1976 Grey Cup for the Ottawa Rough Riders.
“It was a good catch,” I say. “But not an impossible catch. Stephen’s catch was impossible.”
For one long beautiful evening at Montgomery Branch 351 of the Royal Canadian Legion on Kent St., CFL football fever reigned again in Ottawa, six years after the death of the Renegades, 15 years after that of the Rough Riders: An old-fashioned quarterback club, the way it used to be and, hopefully, will be again when the game returns to the capital.
Gord Bunke, director of marketing and communications for the Rough Riders from 1982 to 1987, organized this night, primarily to pay homage to Ken Lehmann, the great and frighteningly destructive Rider middle linebacker of the ‘60s who was recently inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
Proudly wearing his Hall of Fame ring and blazer, Lehmann sat at the head table along with me; Dave Schreiber, who did play-by-play of the Ottawa games; Jeff Avery, the fine ex-flanker for the Riders who was Schreiber’s analyst; and Bunke, the emcee.
This was a hard-core Rough Riders crowd, their passion for the team having never dwindled, and among them along with Stephen Jones, the splendid former wide receiver with Edmonton, and then Ottawa, were such ex-Riders as Larry Cates, Dan Dever, Ted Smale, Frank Reid, Marv Bevan, Jim Cain, John Kruspe.
But the star of the show was Ken Lehmann, who was presented with a lovely watch on behalf of the Montgomery Branch by its president, Tim Blanchard, and then from the floor the questions flowed.
Lehmann was asked what middle linebacker of his era impressed him most and he named another Hall of Famer, Wayne Harris of the Stampeders.
He was asked his toughest opponent to stop. Two, he said. One, George Reed of Saskatchewan. “He ran hard and he’d suddenly shift left or right just when you thought you had him.” The other: Mack Herron of Winnipeg, who was 5-foot-5. “He was small, but quick and powerful. He had a lot of moves. He was a great running back, but he didn’t play more than a couple of seasons. He got kicked out of the CFL over drugs. He went to the NFL and got kicked out there, too, for drugs.”
Little has changed with Mini Mack Herron. Now 62, he’s down and out in Chicago, living on welfare, diabetic, hardly able to walk. He was busted in May for cocaine trafficking, his 20th drug charge since 1969, and faces where he’s been numerous times: Prison.
At the end of evening as he was leaving, I caught up to Stephen Jones, graduate of Central Michigan, two-time CFL all-star, who played with the Eskimos four seasons and then Ottawa from 1990 to 1994.
“The ball was over your head, way out in front of you,” I said to him. “You were running full speed. You went about four feet in the air, your body parallel to the ground. It was like you were shot out of a cannon. And you made the catch. Impossible.”
He laughed. “Actually I was with Ottawa. I made it against Winnipeg.”
“No, Stephen, you were with Edmonton. You were in green and gold, I can still see it.”
My friend Mike Milligan: “It was Edmonton, Stephen. I saw it, too.”
Stephen Jones wouldn’t budge. Ottawa. When he’d left, I said to Milligan: “I think maybe Stephen’s mind is going.”
Milligan: “Or ours.”