Obie Ended Our Longest Drought

TORONTO (Aug. 28) — Less than two months after his 75th birthday, Bob O’Billovich has been inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

His statue should one day be erected in Nathan Philips Square.

The biggest sports names in our city right now are David Price, Josh Donaldson and Mike Babcock. The first two play for the Blue Jays; the third will soon begin coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs. All are aiming to end interminable droughts — 22 years without a playoff appearance in baseball; 48 years without a Stanley Cup final appearance in hockey.

Neither famine measures up to the one O’Billovich laid to rest in 1983 when he coached the Toronto Argonauts to the Grey Cup. Brilliantly defying the law of averages, the Argos somehow persisted without a championship for 31 years in the nine–team Canadian Football League — the rough equivalent of a 96–year drought in the 30–team National Hockey League (the Maple Leafs, via quick calculation, are half–way toward such infamy). Which gives you an idea of the wretchedness endured by more than a generation of football fans here in town — those old enough languishing between 1952 and 1983 without reason to exult.

RSCN0444edited-XBOB O’BILLOVICH AT EXHIBITION STADIUM, NOV. 20, 1983, HAVING JUST COACHED THE ARGONAUTS TO THEIR SECOND STRAIGHT EASTERN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE TITLE — A HEART–THUMPING 41–36 VICTORY OVER HAMILTON BEFORE A CAPACITY CROWD OF 54,530.

MAKING THE CASE: It is nearly impossible for a Toronto sports fan less than 45 years of age to comprehend that the Argonauts were once every bit as popular as the Maple Leafs are today. Heck, it’s difficult enough to convince my 18–year–old son that the Blue Jays were, in fact, more popular than the Leafs between 1985 and 1993. Both, however, are true.

And, we’re not talking about the days before automobiles and television. Definitely prior to cellphones and the Internet, but still somewhat recently. When O’Billovich led the Argos to an 18–17 nail–biter over the B.C. Lions for the 1983 Grey Cup — right in Vancouver — our city went bananas. We were a three–sport town by then; the Blue Jays just beginning to show respectability. The Argonauts had tormented their fans through the 1960?s and early–70?s, when Toronto was a two–sport city: Football in summer and autumn; hockey in winter and spring. In late–1983, the Leafs Stanley Cup drought was a mere 16 years. The Grey Cup famine here, by comparison, went back to the Medieval period.

When it finally ended, the city stopped.

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FRONT SPORTS PAGE OF THE TORONTO STAR ON MONDAY, NOV. 28, 1983.

The purpose of this blog is two–fold: a) as a tribute to O’Billovich — one of the most popular figures in Toronto sports history and as fine a gentleman as I’ve known in my writing and broadcasting career, and b) to show you unequivocally — through the pages of my 1983 Grey Cup scrapbook — just how berserk our city went in the hours and days after the Argos’ long–awaited triumph. Try and pay heed to that, above all else, as you look at these newspaper stories and photos. It is enduring proof that the Argos were every bit then what the Leafs are today.

For me, there was emotional conflict.

I had suffered with the multitudes at old CNE Stadium in the late–60?s and early–70?s, when the Argonauts impossibly and routinely snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. By 1983, at 24 years of age, I was a full–blown skeptic. I was also privileged to attend the Grey Cup that November at the new air–supported dome in Vancouver — working, part–time, for International Sports Properties, the company that published CFL game programs. When the match ended, and the Argonauts had won the championship for the first time in my life, I was beside myself.

To this day, I remember approaching Ralph Sazio — the legendary GM — outside the Toronto dressing room and thanking him with a monstrous hug. He hugged me right back. When I left B.C. Place Stadium an hour or so later, I walked into a dead city. Though I had just seen the Argonauts win the Grey Cup in person, I so desperately wanted to be among the masses going wild up and down Yonge St. back home. As it were, I hung around Vancouver for the CFL All–Star Game the following weekend.

THE EVIDENCE: So, here it is. From a heavy, leather–bound scrapbook that ranks among my most coveted items. Visual proof of Toronto stopping in its tracks for a Grey Cup victory nearly 32 years ago. An example of what could happen if the Leafs ever… (you fill in the blank).

And, by the way, thank–you, too, Obie.

You are the essence of a Hall–of–Famer.

1983 EASTERN FINAL AT THE CNE

One of the greatest football games I’ve ever attended and the only time that every seat in old Exhibition Stadium was sold — all 54,530. Even the 1982 Grey Cup between the Argos and Edmonton Eskimos at the CNE had fallen slightly shy of a complete sell–out. Toronto bounced back from 15–0 and 21–1 deficits to win the game, 41–36, in the final minute after a dreadful pass–interference call on Hamilton that old–time Tiger–Cat fans still bemoan. It was on to the Grey Cup in Vancouver.

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YES, I WAS THERE…

Air Canada ticket to Vancouver and Grey Cup media passes (press box and dressing room) with CFL commissioner Jake Gaudaur’s signature:

FSCN0545edited-XRSCN0550edited-XPREVIEWS…

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AND, TORONTO GOES CRAZY…

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FRONT–PAGE RE–PLATES OF THE NOV. 28, 1983 TORONTO SUN.

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ARGOS ARRIVE HOME…

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GREY CUP PARADE…

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MY GIANT SCRAPBOOK…

RSCN9905edited-XEMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

 

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