As told to Dave Zarum of Sportsnet magazine
Note: The below appears in the December 3, 2012 issue on newsstands now.
It had been 23 years since Saskatchewan had won its first and only Grey Cup — 11 since the Riders had even made the post-season. And despite a high-octane offence led by quarterback Kent Austin and receivers Ray Elgaard, Don Narcisse and Jeff Fairholm, a 9-9 regular season in 1989 was filled with “lots of struggle and desperation — the typical Roughriders story” (as Elgaard puts it). That wasn’t the case for Hamilton, which was three years removed from winning the ’86 Grey Cup with more or less the same roster intact, and the Eastern Division’s top team. The 55,000 fans (including 20,000 members of Rider Nation) who packed the SkyDome got their money’s worth; the teams combined for 83 points (then a Grey Cup record) and delivered the most exciting final minute in CFL history.
Down 40–33 with 48 seconds left, Hamilton had the ball on the Riders 10. That’s when a controversial non-call set the stage for “The Catch.”
Glen Suitor, Saskatchewan safety and holder: I remember talking in the huddle with [defensive back] Richie Hall: “Who should we double team?” The coaches wanted me to help on Rocky DiPietro. We thought [quarterback] Mike Kerrigan would go there. And on first down he did.
Rocky DiPietro, Hamilton receiver: I had a chance to score but the defence made a good play and got a hand in.
Al Bruno, Hamilton head coach: The defender held him by the jersey. DiPietro would have caught that ball — I know he would’ve.
Ray Elgaard, Saskatchewan receiver: There were lots of calls and non-calls that were a little bit questionable on both sides. There were three or four head-scratchers, but that’s the way it goes.
Bud Steen, Back judge: Rocky was a tough guy and always attracted attention; there were always a lot of people around him. So you let little bumps and stuff go on, as long as both teams are doing it.
The term we used was “there has to be blood on the knife.” It wasn’t enough for a guy to have a knife out — you had to see blood on it before making a call. We didn’t want to be the deciding factor.
DiPietro: You can complain all you want, but I was used to contact. I didn’t come back to the ball the way I should have.
Suitor: Before the next play, there was the same discussion, “Should we double DiPietro again, or should I go to [Tony] Champion?” The call from the bench was “back on DiPietro. Stay hard on the middle.” Me and Hall had a quick discussion as to whether or not we should change the call, “Shouldn’t we be thinking about Champion?” Richie wanted to make the change, [but] we ended up staying on DiPietro.
Bruno: We had a couple plays lined up and I told Kerrigan to look for Champion. If we’re going to score, he’s the one who can do it.
Tony Champion, Hamilton receiver*: I came back to the huddle, and [Kerrigan] looked at me and I looked at him. I knew I was getting the ball, and I was going to do anything I could to get it.
The first hand the ball touched was my left. My right hand wasn’t on it yet. I turned around but, if you watch the replay, you can see that I never took my eyes off the ball. Then I fell backward and caught it.
Miles Gorrell, Hamilton offensive lineman: Tony’s looking inside and the ball is thrown way over to the right — this was all in slow motion for me. I can still see it, him twisting and turning and coming down with the ball. We were elated. That’s what you play for.
Dave Ridgway, Saskatchewan kicker: That catch was as great as any of the ones you hear about — Lynn Swann down in Pittsburgh or any of those great catches in the annals of the NFL — it was unbelievable. Even more when we found out that he was injured.
Elgaard: Miraculous, unbelievable, all the superlatives you hear about it — it really was. Then factor in that the guy was injured. In that game at that time for him to make that play was unbelievable. Good for him. S–t, he was a great player.
DiPietro: When I turned to look back I saw the ball going up there. Touchdown. We were ecstatic. I knew Ridgway was a good kicker and playing in a dome, anything can happen, but we thought we’d be going into overtime.
Champion*: If the game had gone into overtime, I probably wouldn’t have played. I was done. It had reached the breaking point. Afterwards, I went to the hospital and got my ribs checked out. I couldn’t get out of bed for two or three days.
Suitor: I was coming from the middle, and had the best view in the place to see the best catch I’ve ever seen in my life, in any league. For a split second, I admired it. Then I went back to looking at the clock and thought, “We have time, can we block the extra point?” That’s the mode we were in. It wasn’t over yet.
Tommy Burgess, Saskatchewan quarterback: I thought it was going to overtime — not that Dave Ridgway hadn’t proved that he had a flair for the dramatic….
Ridgway: As soon as I saw Tony’s catch and saw the referee’s arms go up signalling a touchdown, I immediately turned around and went to the kicking net and started loosening up. I had that much confidence in [quarterback] Kent Austin. I knew he would get us in range for a field goal.
Rob Vanstone, writer, Regina Leader-Post: There were 44 seconds left, and the way Austin had been moving the ball that day, and the way the Riders had gotten to the Grey Cup, pulling out a late one in the Western semis against Calgary and putting together clutch plays against Edmonton the week before, you just knew if they get even close, Ridgway’s not going to miss. They needed two or three first downs.
John Gregory, Saskatchewan head coach: I was hoping it would come down to a kick. We had the best kicker ever in the CFL.
Ridgway: I was considered somewhat of a veteran at that point and had just come off all-Canadian all-star years in ’87, ’88, and ’89, so my career was sort of at its peak.
Paul Osbaldiston, Hamilton kicker: They had a pretty good kickoff return and from there the wheels fell off.
Ridgway: The first pass Kent threw was over the head. It almost looked like a clearing pattern but it wasn’t — he just threw it away long. The next pass was to Ray Elgaard down the right.
Vanstone: The play nobody ever talks about is the Ray Elgaard grab on second and 10.
Elgaard: I actually called that play. Well, Kent called it and I suggested it. I mentioned it to Kent in the huddle, he thought about it for a second and said, “Yeah, that’s a good one.” We’d used it a number of times over the course of the year, but it’s a situational play. It’s a wheel route up the sidelines, but then a stop. When you’ve got a defence that’s gonna play off because they can’t get burned over the top, that thinks if they keep it in front of them the clock will run out, then it’s a good play. We ran it and it worked out just right. They were in a zone and dropping off in the deep secondary and I just pulled up in front of where they were, Kent threw it to the spot and he knew I was going to be there. Then I stepped out of bounds.
Vanstone: Austin put enough touch on the ball to get it over [Hamilton linebacker] Pete Giftopoulos and into Elgaard’s hands.
Elgaard: It’s really the perfect play for that scenario — you get 20 yards and it only takes four seconds. So now we’re down to 35 seconds and we’re still stuck on our 30-yard line. If that play hadn’t been made we would’ve been punting.
Ridgway: That’s when Mark Guy came into being.
Guy was a rookie receiver who caught just 10 catches all year. In fact, his 100 yards in the Grey Cup were 14 shy of his season total. And two of those big catches came when it mattered most.
Vanstone: Guy had one touchdown catch that whole year and hadn’t been used a lot. That’s what happens when you have Narcisse, Elgaard, and Fairholm — there aren’t a lot of footballs left for anybody else.
Ridgway: The first catch was over the middle and he got hit by three guys simultaneously and managed to hold onto the ball. The second pass to Mark — I’m not sure many people thought Kent would throw it to him again — got us 10 yards closer. That was a great catch, too. He was such a great kid, younger than all of us, and he was just a first-class guy.
Elgaard: He hadn’t been there as long as the rest of us, didn’t have the same chemistry with the quarterbacks. But Mark was a good player. When Kent called his number, Mark delivered. He was always capable of doing stuff like that, he just wasn’t the
No. 1 guy in the rotation.
With the ball inside the Hamilton 30-yard line and two seconds on the clock, it was time for the man they called “RoboKicker” to step in.
Ridgway: Playing in a dome, you tell your coach 50 yards and in, maybe 52 yards you can maybe push it. The fact that we got to the 27-, 28-yard line was a bonus. Once you get inside the 40 everybody expects those field goals. Miss a 50-yarder and people will make excuses for you. Get inside the 40 and people expect it. Everybody thinks back to Scotty Norwood and what he did in Buffalo.
Suitor: As soon as Elgaard made his catch, and then after Mark Guy’s catch over the middle, I started getting ready. You’re looking from the field to the clock, to the field back to the clock. I wanted to stand by John Gregory to make sure I knew the play call. There was an out to Mark Guy on the next play, and then Gregory just said, “Field Goal.” And out we go.
Ridgway: All week long I had answered questions from the media. At the end of every interview, it was usually the same question: “This is likely going to come down to a field goal. How do you feel about that?” I would always deflect the question and say something like, “With offences like these two teams’ someone will end up pulling away. And I hope it’s us.”
Osbaldiston: I always wanted every game to come down to a game-winning field goal. And I wanted to be the one kicking it, not the other guys.
Elgaard: For some reason there was a lot of chaos before the kick. I don’t know why there would have been — we had a time out, we were in field goal range, we had RoboKicker on our team, we’re playing indoors so there’s no wind or anything. But there was anarchy on the sideline.
Suitor: Gregory wanted to run a snap-down, which is a deliberate attempt to draw the defence offside. As the holder, I yell out a cadence and the offensive line goes from elbow-on-knees to snapping your hand down. We had run it in the regular season because if we miss the kick it’s a way to get another chance. Or, if we get the offside and get a first down, we can get our offence back on the field. I remember not wanting to do it. I said to him, “Let’s just kick it and win this game.” My gut instinct when Gregory said, “Let’s snap down,” was, “He’s going to make the kick. Coach, he’s going to make it.” He finally looked at me and just said, “OK, go.”
Gregory: We had talked about running a shift. But we decided, “Nah let’s just kick it.” Everybody was prepared. I didn’t really need to tell them, everybody knew what to do. He and Suitor had their routine.
Suitor: When I got back to the huddle, the offensive line was standing around Dave and trying to talk to him — first time ever, by the way, that the O-line thought they were kicker coaches. They were saying, “Keep your head down. Make sure you follow through.” I had to get them away from Dave so we could have a conversation.
Ridgway: Glen became my holder around 1984. There’d be times when I’d look at him before a kick and say, “Talk to me about something other than football.” In the past, he’d talked about restaurants, “Where do you want to go after the game? Are we going to golf on Tuesday?” — those kinds of things. We were both fans of Robert Bateman’s artwork, and sometimes he’d say, “Did you see that Robert Bateman print?”
Suitor: Yeah, Robert Batemen, absolutely. “Did you get ‘The Wolves’ by Robert Bateman?” [laughs]
Ridgway: We’re on the left hash so [the Hamilton players were] talking a lot of stuff, as you can imagine. But it was Glen I was paying attention to.
Suitor: Whenever we had big kicks to make, I’d try to lighten the mood a little. Or we’d make it like practice; I’d say, “If you bounce this in off the upright, I’ll buy you a steak dinner.” I know other kickers don’t like that — they want to stay focused and don’t want their holder joking around.
Ridgway: We were talking about going camping, and I had said something about bears and he started off with “I won’t be in trouble, because I can run faster than you.”
Suitor: We also talked about a woman who was… well-endowed.
Ridgway: He said, “Hey, did you see the blond behind the bench?” I laughed and shook my head. On the video you can see I put my head down a little before the kick, but what you can’t see is that I was laughing. He mentioned something about how, um, gifted she appeared to be. To this day, I don’t know if there ever was a girl in a red sweater behind the bench. I never saw her, so whether she was there or not, I don’t know. But he did his job.
Suitor: She was behind the Hamilton bench, so it looked like Dave was looking over there and laughing. I remember talking to one of the Hamilton linebackers after the game and he goes, “I don’t know why you guys were laughing at our bench.” And I said, “Did you see the girl in red about five rows up?’”And he said, “Oh yeah, we saw her.”
Dave and I had a good relationship. We were roommates, so I’d try to remember something that had happened on the road and use it during games. [Right before the kick] Dave actually said to me, “Hey, come back here. Let’s talk.” Not that he needed it, but he just wanted to continue with the regular routine.
Ridgway: Then he said, “To hell with it. Let’s just kick it and go home.” It put me in the zone. I remember Wally Zatylny with Hamilton had dove to block it, so I didn’t have my full follow-through, but I saw the ball in flight and I looked at Glen and he already had his arms up signalling it was good. We hugged and with all the crowd noise I just said, “Oh my god, we did it.” My eyes felt like they were silver dollars. I was just so aware of everything.
Suitor: I still to this day can’t describe the feeling. Because I don’t think anything I can say will do it justice.
DiPietro: Heartbreak. Just, heartbreak.
Osbaldiston: It’s funny. Some things in sports happen in slow motion and sometimes they happen before you know it. In movies there are scenes where things seem to take forever and that is actually one of the things the movies get right. The ball seems to take forever to travel a certain distance.
Ridgway: When we kicked that field goal, Paul Osbaldiston was stationed back in the end zone in case of a single. After we had made the field goal and were jumping on each other, everybody was ecstatic. As I walked back to the bench before that final kickoff, somebody tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and Ozzie was standing there and he had the ball in his left hand and had his right hand out to shake mine and said, “Hey Dave, I thought you’d like this.” I don’t tell that story very well because I get choked up every time. I’m one of those people who cries during long-distance commercials.
Osbaldiston: When I caught it I kind of realized, “OK, he made it,” and I didn’t know what to do with the darn thing. The way I thought about it was, “You know, he’d probably want to have this.” I was trying to get the attention of someone on the sideline to throw it over, but they were all too busy. Eventually, I just had to run over there and hand it to him. It just happened and I reacted. I knew it would mean something to him 10 or 20 years down the road.
Ridgway: It was probably the classiest thing that happened to me during my whole career, because as much as I’d like to think I would have done that in a similar situation, I don’t think I would have. He had played [in the Grey Cup] in ’86, his rookie year, and Paul had a tremendous career. He’d had a great game. I believe at that point he was 10 for 10 in his two Grey Cup appearances. He had [a CFL-record] six field goals in 1986 and was 4-4 in 1989. He was absolutely great in high-pressure situations. When you think about the magnitude of what he did… I still have that ball, it’s in a case in my basement, and every time I look at it I think back to what a gracious man he was for doing that.
Osbaldiston: There are all kinds of emotions when you lose a Grey Cup. I’ve won two and I’ve lost two, and I lost two on the last play of the game on a field goal. It doesn’t make it any easier. There have been times that I’ve looked back on that game, whether it was a half-hour after it ended or 20 years later, and whenever anybody tells me now, “Hey, that was a great game,” I always say, “Yeah it was, but the wrong team won,” and I seem to be the only person who wants to say that.
Elgaard: It meant a lot to us. There were people on the team who had suffered through many lean years in that province and it was a big deal for them. That was a big deal for us and the fans in Saskatchewan, yeah. It was a huge f—-n’ deal.
Ridgway: Thank God the kick went through.
Excerpted from The Greatest Game: An Oral History. For memories on the entire game get the e-book here.
This article originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine (December 3, 2012).