It's been a heckuva ride so far
By TERRY JONES
Funny the way it worked with the fabled flagship franchise of the Canadian Football League, the all-time title team which celebrates its 60th season this year.
One of the most successful teams in professional sports history had a humbling, humiliating, even embarrassing beginning.
THE LEGEND BEGINS
The Edmonton Eskimos essentially began with the 1948 Grey Cup and a bunch of rootin' tootins from Calgary who turned a little competition for a $48 trophy into a festival, which that year became known and loved as the Grand National Drunk. And Edmonton didn't even have a team.
The truth is if Les Lear hadn't run that old (even then) sleeper play to win the Nov. 27 Grey Cup game in 1948, Edmonton wouldn't have been green and gold with envy and suddenly shamed into starting a football team of its own.
"A bunch of us were sitting at the Edmonton Club and frankly our noses were out of joint," said Walter Sprague.
"Those cowtowners had just won the Grey Cup and we weren't even in the league!"
The way Sprague told it, a liquor salesman by the name of Bob Bradburn, Hudson's Bay manager Lucien Maynard and he were sitting at the posh club when an overwhelming urge to start a football team came over them. They got a gang together.
Ken Montgomery and Moe Leiberman, men who would later be elected to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, questioned why, after two pre-war flops, anybody thought football would go now. And Eric Duggan, who also would end up in the Hall of Fame as a builder, suggested they start a junior football team instead.
"They asked me how much it would cost to get a football team going," said Duggan.
"I said between $75,000 and $100,000. I added, in my opinion 'Edmonton just ain't a $100,000 town.'"
That team in that town would go on to produce a winning percentage and attendance numbers beyond compare and set a North American professional sports franchise record of making the playoffs a staggering 34 consecutive seasons.
Since they were formed in 1949, the Eskimos have won 13 Grey Cups. In that same span, Hamilton has won eight, Toronto and Winnipeg seven, Ottawa six, Montreal and British Columbia five, Calgary four, Saskatchewan three and Baltimore one. The Eskimos are the only outfit in league history which has won the Grey Cup more times than they've missed the playoffs.
Since 1949 Edmonton has made 22 Grey Cup appearances, Hamilton 18, Winnipeg 15, Montreal 14, Toronto, Calgary and BC 10, Saskatchewan nine, Ottawa eight and Baltimore two.
Edmonton's community-owned franchise has finished first 22 times, second on19 occasions and third 10 times.
Add the firsts and seconds up and that's a lot more home playoff games than anybody else, too. In fact Hugh Campbell, with six trips to the Grey Cup in six seasons as a coach and then returning for all those years to keep the playoff streak alive until he stepped down as GM and CEO, says it's his ultimate accomplishment.
"Only twice in all my time here did we not have a home playoff game," he said. "I took a lot of pride in having home playoff games. It's a remarkable record and I really believe a lot of the credit should go to people like Joe Healy and Jim Hole, two former presidents. They decided to put a guy in charge and let him do the job without interference from the board members.
In all that time there was only Norm Kimball and me in that job. The orders from headquarters haven't changed.
Nobody else has had anywhere near that kind of consistency." And no team in Canada has a Wall of Fame to compare with the names which you see on the facade at Commonwealth Stadium. Jackie Parker. Warren Moon, Johnny Bright. Tom Wilkinson. Normie Kwong. Gizmo Williams. Rollie Miles.
Dave Fennell. Frank Morris. Dan Kepley. George McGowan. Frank Anderson.
Cutler. Roger Nelson. Tommy-Joe Coffey. John LaGrone. Brian Kelly. Don Getty. Danny Bass. Oscar Kruger. Tom Scott. Larry Highbaugh. Willie Pless.
In all, there are 32 Eskimos in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in Hamilton and one of them, Warren Moon, is also in the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
The CFL record book is loaded with numbers which tell the story of what has happened here over the years. Most consecutive winning seasons (14), most wins in a regular season (16), most yards rushing in a regular season (4,345), most touchdowns in a regular season (46) and on and on to include dozens of playoff and Grey Cup team records, individual marks galore.
That's not including the two highes coaches winning percentages of all time, Hugh Campbell's .773 and Pop Ivy's .772 and Campbell's marks for most consecutive first-place finishes (6), consecutive Grey Cup appearances
(6) and consecutive Grey Cup wins (5).
The two most storied CFL teams are arguably Campbell's five-in-a-row Eskimos of 1978-79-80-81-82 and Ivy's three-in-a-row Eskimos of 1954-55-56.
But it hasn't just been all about numbers.
"I've been exposed to a number of leagues and a number of teams in pro sport and I've come to know the Edmonton Eskimos are one of the great organizations in pro sports. There's been something special about it for a long, long time," said John Tory when he was CFL chairman a few years back.
"The Eskimos have been the cornerstone of the CFL. Edmonton has been the leader in times of crisis. Any time the league is in trouble, Edmonton steps in.
And they've supplied about half the league's great quarterbacks over the years," said former commissioner Bill Baker.
Once a salesman for the National Cash Register Company, Norm Kimball may deserve as much credit for the Eskimos' flagship franchise (known in Saskatchewan as the Evil Empire) as any individual.
"I would like to build this into the best professional football franchise in North America," Kimball said in the early 1970s.
Later Kimball defined his goal, not only on the field but off the field, by leading the league in class in every category.
He said he wanted the Eskimos to be viewed as an NFL operation in the CFL. With capacity crowds in Commonwealth Stadium and nine trips to the Grey Cup game in 10 seasons, which just happened to be the first 10 seasons I covered the club on a full-time basis as first a beat reporter and then columnist, Norm Kimball could claim mission accomplished from 1973 to 1982.
"I remember once suggesting we could have a few winning years. I said 'Maybe we can't be the Montreal Canadiens, but ...' and Norm said 'Why not?
Why couldn't we?' " said coach Hugh Campbell.
Jim Coleman, the dean of Canadian sportswriters at the time, would write 'the Edmonton Eskimos are the Montreal Canadiens of the CFL.' Kimball saw the 34-year record for consecutive seasons in the playoffs coming years in advance.
"There is no reason the Edmonton Eskimos should miss the playoffs again this century."
And while they've missed these past two seasons, perhaps sobering this year's celebrations somewhat, it also has illustrated the great expectations which exist here and the demands the city makes on the football team which, combined with the Edmonton Oilers winning the Stanley Cup the same season, put those City of Champions signs up outside of town.
While the beginnings were humble, and the last two seasons have been somewhat humbling, you could make a case that the Eskimos began as a special team in the CFL almost from the beginning. Annis Stukus, the first coach of the Eskimos and the man who sold football in this town, once told me Edmonton deserved the credit for the creation of the Canadian Football League itself.
"It's something that's always bugged me," he said on one of his trips to present the Annis Stukus Trophy to the Coach of the Year here.
"I don't think Edmonton ever got the credit it deserved for forming the CFL.Back then the Western Football Union and the Big Four in the East were separate. 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 getting paid and offer him more money.
What a lot of people didn't realize was that the Eskimos forced the East and West to get together. Edmonton created a one-league situation." The Eskimos have led the league in virtually every area you could lead a league over the years.
There's some symmetry involved. The 60th Eskimo season is also the 30th anniversary of Commonwealth Stadium. When the 371,476th fan goes through the turnstiles this year it will be the 10 millionth fan to watch Eskimo football at Commonwealth Stadium. It might even happen on Oct. 31 when the Montreal Alouettes play the Eskimos in what will be the 1,000th regular-season game in the history of the team. Going into this year they've won 572 of them with another 18 of them being tied. Edmonton's record at home is 328-156-7 and on the road 244-236-11. Including playoff games, the Eskimos are an all-time 638-440-18. They have a winning record against every team in the league.
The top 10 single-game attendance figures of the Eskimos < 62,444, 61,481, 59,979, 59,836, 59,723, 59,104, 57,843, 57,596, 57,444 and 56,345 are the envy of the league. The top ten season totals, 463,188 (1982), 399,899 (1983), 377,398 (2005), 371, 054 (2003) and 360,880 (1986), 359,103 (1981),
351,284 (2004), 344,496 (1980), 343,447 (2002), 340,860 (2006) say even more.
It's not all Eskimos. Some of it is Commonwealth Stadium.
"The thing I like best is that after you've been to some of the other stadiums, you walk into Commonwealth Stadium and it's like being in the major leagues," said Darren Flutie. "Like everyone else, I love the grass.
Maybe it's the crowds. I love Commonwealth Stadium. It's always so well-kept and just a good atmosphere to come and play." Edmonton and Commonwealth Stadium has always been a great place to hold a Grey Cup. Only Olympic Stadium in Montreal has been able to put up numbers which compare to the 62,531 (2002), 60,431 (1997) and 60,081 (1984) Grey Cups held here. And you could make a case that Edmonton has led the league when it comes to playing host to the event.
"If you had to print a handbook on how to plan a Grey Cup, the first three chapters would be Edmonton," said former CFL chairman Tory.
And on the years when the party wasn't in Edmonton, party headquarters at the Grey Cup has been at the Spirit of Edmonton event where they fill massive rooms with fans from around the league and host an annual breakfast for 1,000 which is sold out a year in advance.
But it all starts and ends with the team itself.
There's a sign above the locker room door which reads: 'Once An Eskimo Always An Eskimo'. It's not just a sign says '50s Eskimo and former provincial premier Don Getty.
"I don't know if there are stats to back it up but it was certainly true in my time and it seems to have been true ever since. It might come down to the winning but it spans the eras. I feel as close to the players of today as I felt to the players of my time. I don't know what it is, but I think they feel the same way. It's something special. There's a real sense of family.