Ottawa Foot Ball Club a.k.a. Rough Riders

19 September 1876

A small advertisement appeared in the Ottawa Daily Citizen in mid-September 1876 inviting those interested in forming a “Foot Ball” club to meet on Monday afternoon, 18 September next, at 4:30pm sharp at the pavilion of the Ottawa Cricket Club located at Rideau Hall, the home of Canada’s Governor General.

Announcing a meeting to form the Ottawa Football Club, Ottawa Daily Citizen, 16 September 1876.

The meeting went on a long time as it was adjourned until the following evening when “a goodly number of gentlemen” assembled in a private room at the Russell House hotel. There, on 19 September 1876, a club to be called the Ottawa Football Club was formed with thirty-four members. The president of the new sports club was Mr. Allan Gilmour, a pioneering Ottawa lumberman for whom Gilmour Street is named.  

There seems to have been little doubt that a team would be established as the uniforms for the Ottawa Club’s footballers had already been ordered from England and were expected to arrive in Ottawa in ten days or less. The jerseys and stockings were in cerise and French grey—the colours of the new team. Their trousers were navy blue knickerbockers.

The new football club wasted no time in getting on the field. The following Saturday, the Ottawa Football Club took on the Aylmer Football Club. The game lasted one and a half hours with Ottawa emerging victorious. The score of the closely contested game was not reported. But Ottawa secured its first victory when Mr. Sherwood kicked the ball through the Aylmer goal.

During much of their early years, the team played in either the Quebec or Ontario Rugby Unions under the name the Ottawa Football Club, or more colloquially known as the “Ottawas” or even the “Senators.” It didn’t get the moniker, the “Rough Riders,” until 1898, the year the team won its first Canadian championship title.

1898 was the year of the Spanish-American War in which the United States intervened on the side of Cuban revolutionaries against Spanish colonial rule. In this conflict, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, later President Roosevelt, came to popular attention as the commander of the “Rough Riders” who distinguished themselves at the Battle of San Juan Hill. Up until then, a rough rider was synonymous with a horse breaker. Roosevelt’s regiment apparently received its nickname owing to many of its members being “bronco busters” from the western plains.

Ottawa Football Club, November 1890, Topley, Library and Archives Canada 3386008.

In mid-October 1898, the sobriquet “Rough Riders” was given to the Ottawa Football Club by disgruntled Hamilton sports journalists following a hard-fought game in Ottawa where the home town team defeated the visiting Hamilton Tigers 9 to 1. According to Hamilton players, the game was one of the roughest they had ever played in. The Hamilton captain said that “Ottawa has three of the dirtiest football players that ever played on a Canadian gridiron.” A news report from Hamilton declared that the “Westerners” (a.k.a. Hamilton) were “foully used in the capital.”

Ottawa had something of a reputation. The previous year, the Ottawa Football Club had been expelled from the Quebec Rugby Football Union in which it had played due to rough play. Ottawa journalists, however, attributed the team’s expulsion to personal spite and a desire to eliminate a contender for the Quebec Union championship. One article in the Journal called the team’s expulsion “the most disgraceful exhibition of unfairness recorded in Canada sports.”

The Toronto Star demanded an investigation into Hamilton’s allegations of Ottawa dirty playing saying that “either Ottawa does play a foul game, or that its disappointed rivals are not above the trick of exciting popular opinion against the team to such an extent that it may be expelled from the Ontario Union.” According to the Ottawa Journal, one aspect of the game in which the Ottawa Club was very weak was its lack of squealers. It also called the Hamilton claims “a very bad libel on truth.”

The rematch was held in Hamilton at the end of October. Again, Ottawa vanquished the Tigers. This time, there were few complaints. The Toronto Star reported that while fairly rough, “it was not a dirty game.” Even the Hamilton Herald thought that the Rough Riders’ [italics added] victory was well-deserved and that the team was forgiven for their treatment of the Tigers in the earlier game in Ottawa. This is possibly the first time that the Ottawa team was referred to as the Rough Riders.

As an interesting aside, the Montreal Herald said that the Ottawa team was “composed of heavy men.” But the average weight of an Ottawa footballer was only 169 pounds—very light by today’s standards. Frank McGee, the nephew of D’Arcy McGee, the famed “father of Confederation,” who played for both the Ottawa Rough Riders and the Ottawa Senators hockey team, weighed in at only 143 pounds. Today, the average weight of a CFL football player is roughly 230 pounds, while the average NFLer weighs close to 250 pounds.

Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, soprano, whose Troubadours entertained Ottawa and Hamilton footballers at the Russell Theatre, October, 1898, Wikipedia.

Despite the supposed roughness of the game, there was no apparent animosity between the two teams. They went out partying together after the game and had a “good time” at the Russell Theatre where the footballers occupied two boxes to watch the Troubadours, courtesy of the manager of the Troubadours and Mr. Drowne, the theatre’s manager. Between acts, the footballers sang songs.

The Troubadours were an African-American musical and acrobatic group led by Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones. A New England Conservatory-trained soprano, she was the highest paid African-American singer of her age, performing for US presidents and the Royal Family.

The moniker Rough Riders given to the team by Hamilton journalists as a poke at Ottawa’s alleged rough play, was adopted by the Ottawa Club. Just days later, Ottawa footballer Fred Chittick showed off his Rough Rider cufflinks that were 1 1/8 inches in diameter, bearing the figure of a rough rider with a football enclosed in a border of red, white and black.

Along with the new name came new colours. While the original team colours had been cerise and French grey, at some point Ottawa footballers began to play in black and white. This posed a problem for the 1898 season when Ottawa shifted to the Ontario Rugby Football Union after its expulsion from the Quebec Union, as the Osgoode team from Toronto also played in black and white uniforms. Ottawa opted to dress in new colours, wearing heavy white jerseys with scarlet sleeves and scarlet stockings. The new outfits went on display in Young Brothers’ windows—a local store. There is no mention of black in the initial newspaper descriptions, but presumably the pants were in that colour.

Ottawa won the 1898 Ontario Rugby Football Union title as well as the Inter-Collegiate Championship when it vanquished the Toronto University’s Varsity squad 7 to 3—according to the Journal the team’s “greatest and most glorious victory.” The game was vicious. The Varsity men “liberally used knee or anything else to stop Ottawa runners.”  But notwithstanding the provocation, the Journal reported that the Rough Riders played a “clean, square game without a sign of temper.”  This win, in front of 2,000 fans, set the stage for the Dominion Championships between the Ottawa Rough Riders and Ottawa College, the champion of the Quebec Rugby Football Union for two years in succession. Ottawa College’s garnet and grey colours are today the colours of the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees.

Rough Riders’ Harvey Pulford who suffered a broken collar bone in the Dominion Championship with Ottawa College, Ottawa Daily Citizen, 25 November 1898.

The inter-city, Dominion championship was held at the Metropolitan Grounds. The grandstand and bleachers were packed with more than 3,000 rabid football fans. In a bruising contest in which the tackling was described as “vicious and in some cases brutal,” the perhaps aptly named Rough Riders won with a score of 11 to 1. But the College team gave as good as they got.  Rough Riders Harvey Pulford and Weldy Young received a broken collar bone and a concussion, respectively. (Weldy Young later left Ottawa to try his luck in the Klondike gold rush. Young, who like Frank McGee and Harvey Pulford also played for the Ottawa Senators hockey club, was to captain the Dawson City Nuggets, the team that challenged the Ottawa club for the Stanley Cup in 1905.)

Over the seven-game, 1898 football season, the Rough Riders went undefeated, scoring 188 points to only 24 points against.

In early December, a celebratory banquet for the team was held at the Russell House Hotel, hosted by its eccentric manager, François Xavier St. Jacques. More than 200 persons were invited to the feast, including Major Bigham. The dining room was decorated with streamers in the team’s red, white and black colours. In show of friendship, the Hamilton Tigers’ colours of yellow and black were also on display. Each table was decorated with bouquets of carnations, roses, mums and ferns. The menu featured such dishes as oysters à la scrimmage, boiled Saguenay salmon (Hold on the line) with referee sauce and Spec-“taters.” Also served were Stuffed young Vermont turkey (Tackled on the Run) with offside green beans and “scragged” potatoes. The meal ended with the “Sweets of Victory” consisting of a choice between umpire pudding with grandstand sauce and an apple turnover with a sauce “ruled off.”

In the following speeches, Fred Colson, President of the Ottawa Amateur Athletic Association noted that “Ottawa had defied the Tigers in their jungle, by Hamilton’s mole hill which was called a mountain.” President Seybold of the Ottawa Club said that the team was “called the Rough Riders like Roosevelt’s men.”

The 1898 Dominion Championship was the first of three Dominion championships and nine Grey Cup titles that the Ottawa Rough Riders were to win during their long, storied career. The club folded for good in 1996. Today, The Ottawa RedBlacks wear the historic red, black and white colours.

Sources:

McAuley, Jim, 2016. Inside The Huddle: Rough Riders To Redblacks, John Ruddy, publisher.

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1876. “Ottawa Football Club,” 20 September.

————————–, 1876. “Football,” 25 September.

————————-, 1898. “No title,” 28 September.

————————–, 1898. “Tigers Trounced By The Ottawas,” 17 October.

————————–, 1898. “The Rough Riders In Championship,” 25 November.

————————–, 1898. “Rough Riders At the Festive Board,” 10 December.

Ottawa Journal, 1897. “The Football Trouble,” 12 November.

——————-, 1898. “Ottawas’ New Uniforms,” 28 September.

——————-, 1898. “The Ottawa Suits,” 6 October.

——————-, 1898. “The Tigers Were Downed,” 17 October.

——————-, 1898. “Should Be Investigated,” 19 October.

——————-, 1898. “Where Ottawas Are Very Weak,” 19 October.

——————-, 1898. “The Toronto Star Man Can Always See Two Sides Of A Game,” 18 October.

——————-, 1898. “Ottawas Need To Be Careful,” 20 October.

——————-, 1898. “It Was Great Football,” 31 October.

——————-, 1898. “Seen Through Other Eyes,” 1 November.

——————-, 1898. “Rough Rider Buttons,” 12 November.

——————-, 1898. “Ottawas Down ‘Varsity,” 21 November.

——————-, 1898. “Rough Riders Win A Great Struggle,” 21 November.

“The Catch”

28 November 1976

The afternoon of 28 November, 1976 was chilly and overcast in Toronto, with the temperature hovering about the freezing point. A stiff northwesterly breeze made it seem even colder. But the weather did not deter the more than 53,000 exuberant Canadian football fans that crowded into Exhibition Stadium that afternoon for the 64th Grey Cup Championship between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Ottawa Rough Riders. It was a record crowd and a record gate of $1,009,000. Both teams had finished the regular season in first position in their respective divisions. To reach the Grey Cup, Ottawa had bested the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the eastern divisional final held the previous weekend in a close 17-15 contest, while Saskatchewan had topped the Edmonton Eskimos 23-13 in the west. The western Riders were five-point favourites owing to the strong arm of their veteran, all-star quarterback, Ron Lancaster, and the best defence in the Canadian Football League. Saskatchewan had also beaten Ottawa 29-16 in their only meeting of the regular season. Despite the youthful Ottawa team’s lacklustre play during the second half of the season, it was no pushover. Its coach, George Brancato, had been named the CFL’s coach of the year in 1975, and had put together back-to-back first place finishes for the eastern Riders.

Televised coast-to-coast by both CBC and CTV, this Grey Cup game promised to live up to its pre-game hoopla. But fans could not have known that they were about to be treated to one of the greatest, if not the greatest, championship game in CFL history. It featured the heroics of unlikely players, broke Grey Cup records, and, with the outcome in doubt into the last minute, ended in one of the most thrilling plays seen in Canadian football. Sports fans will always remember it as “The Catch.”

Ottawa was the first to draw blood. With slightly more than five minutes left to play in the opening quarter, Gerry Organ scored a field goal from Saskatchewan’s 30-yard line. With the western Riders retaking control of the ball, Ottawa’s defence held tough, forcing Saskatchewan to punt, setting the stage for Bill Hatanaka, the 22-year rookie kick returner out of York University. Catching the ball booted by Saskatchewan kicker Bob Macoritti, Hatanaka scampered 79 yards for a touchdown, the first punt return touchdown in Grey Cup history. It was also the longest Grey Cup punt return to that time, and only subsequently surpassed twice. It was 10-0 Ottawa at the end of the first quarter.

Late in the second quarter, Ottawa’s fortunes soured when Macoritti finally put the western Riders on the board with a 32-yard field goal. With the Ottawa offence under the direction of sophomore quarterback Tom Clements (“Captain Cool”) unable to sustain a scoring drive, this was quickly followed by a Saskatchewan major when Ron Lancaster found wide receiver Steve Mazurak who ran 15 yards for the touchdown. With Macoritti’s convert, the game was tied at 10.  Seconds later, Ted Provost intercepted an errant pass from Tom Clements, intended for Ottawa’s star receiver, Tony Gabriel. This set the stage for another Lancaster touchdown throw, this time to tight end, Bob Richardson. Again Macoritti converted. The score was 17-10 in Saskatchewan’s favour at half time. Despite the score, everything had not gone in Saskatchewan’s way. Running back, Molly McGee, suffered a rib injury late in the quarter after a bruising tackle, crimping Lancaster’s running game.

In the third quarter, the two teams traded field goals. With a stiff wind favouring Saskatchewan, the Ottawa defensive team did great work in holding the western champions to only three points. Late in the quarter, Ottawa fans were brought to their feet by Jerry Organ, who faked a punt and ran 52 yards to bring his team deep into Saskatchewan territory.  Organ’s gamble, caught Coach Brancato by surprise. After the game, Organ revealed that the play originated in a half-time dressing-room discussion with linebacker Mark Kosmos about Saskatchewan not rushing punts. Organ said that he “ran like a scared rabbit,” and had planned to kick the ball had he got into difficulty. Unfortunately, his heroics were snuffed out when Saskatchewan linebacker Cleveland Vann intercepted another one of Tom Clements’s passes. Seven points continued to separate the two teams as they entered the final quarter.

With only 7.33 minutes left of the final frame, Gerry Organ kicked a 32-yard field goal to bring Ottawa to within four points of their rivals. On the next series of plays, the Ottawa defensive squad stopped Saskatchewan midfield. With third down and less than a yard to go, the Saskatchewan’s coach, John Payne, decided to punt the ball instead of trying for the first down. It was an uncharacteristic conservative play. It was also a fateful decision with huge consequences.

Macoritti’s punt gave the Ottawa Rough Riders the ball on their 26-yard line with five minutes to go. Tom Clements then went to work, methodically working the sticks down field to bring Ottawa just outside the Saskatchewan 10-yard line. After a short pass to Art Green, Clements attempted to run the ball in himself but was tackled short of the first down, and tantalizingly close to the goal line. It was third down and less than a yard to go. With 1:32 remaining on the clock, and Ottawa needing at least four points, Coach Brancato decided to gamble.  But the Saskatchewan’s defensive wall stopped the eastern Riders inches short of the first down.  With the western Riders taking possession of the ball, it looked like Saskatchewan had the Grey Cup in the bag.

But they hadn’t counted on the Ottawa defence.  Promising Coach Brancato one last chance, the defensive team gave up only six yards, forcing Saskatchewan to punt into the wind from their own 7-yard line. Ottawa’s Hatanaka, returned the ball to the western Riders’ 35-yard line. In two plays, Clements moved the ball down to the 24-yard line, with a pass to Tony Gabriel picking up the first down. With only 31 seconds remaining on the clock, everybody knew that Clements would try to find Gabriel again, his go-to-man the entire season…everybody, that is, except the Saskatchewan Roughriders who failed to double cover the scoring threat. Waving off a play from Coach Brancato, quarterback Tom Clements sought out Tony Gabriel who, first faking a post pattern, had turned instead to the outside. Clements found him in the clear, five yards behind Saskatchewan’s Ted Provost in the end zone. The Ottawa quarterback launched the ball. Gabriel reached above his head and pulled it in. Touchdown! Fans poured onto the field and mobbed Gabriel in the end zone. With Gerry Organ’s convert, the Ottawa Roughriders went ahead 23-20.

The Catch
“The Catch” by Tony Gabriel, CBC, 28 November 1976.

Although Saskatchewan had one more opportunity to score, with only 20 seconds left in the game, there was simply not enough time. Ottawa became the 1976 Grey Cup Champions. The perfectly executed 24-yard touchdown pass from Clements to Gabriel went down in CFL lore as simply “The Catch.” Clements was named the game’s most valuable offensive player, while Gabriel was named the most valuable Canadian. Saskatchewan’s Cleveland Vann was the game’s most valuable defensive player. Members of the winning team each received $6,000 bonus, with the losing team members each receiving $3,000. Tom Clements, as the top offensive player of the game, was also given a new car, a timely prize as is old one was the “team’s joke.”

Back home in Ottawa, the place went wild as fans poured onto the streets. Bank Street turned into a parking lot as fans celebrated their Rough Riders’ victory, honking horns and consuming vast quantities of beer as police turned a blind eye to minor infractions. At noon the next day, the team returned home, greeted at the airport by hundreds of fans and a brass band. A civic celebratory dinner was held for the team that night. The event totally eclipsed a black tie dinner hosted by Prime Minister Trudeau on Parliament Hill for Team Canada, winner of the 1976 Canada Cup Hockey Tournament the previous September.

The 1976 Grey Cup was the Ottawa Rough Riders’ ninth and last CFL Championship. Although the team again made it to the finals in 1981, they went down to defeat 26-23 to the Edmonton Eskimos. The Ottawa Rough Riders team collapsed in 1996 owing to falling attendance, poor management, and growing debts. Founded in 1876, the oldest professional sports team in North America was no more. In 2002, a new team, the Ottawa Renegades, briefly played out of Landsdowne Park, but it too folded after only four years. In 2014, another Ottawa team, the Redblacks, wearing the familiar colours of their storied predecessors, took the field.

UPDATE (27 November 2016): Ottawa Redblacks win the Grey Cup! In an exciting contest in Toronto, the underdog Ottawa Redblacks held off a fourth-quarter surge by the Calgary Stampeders to take the Cup 39-33.

Sources:

CBC, 1976. 64th Grey Cup Game, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3IZY6wCmo1Y.

CFL, 2014. 64th Grey Cup, November 28, 1976, http://cfl.ca/greycupcentral/year/1976.

The Globe and Mail, 2012. “Punt return in ’76 Grey Cup was one for the record books,” 23 November.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1976. “Grey Cup Returns to Ottawa,” 29 November.

———————–, “Football Fervor spoils hockey heroes’ dinner,” 29 November.

———————–, 1976. “Battle was saved in the third quarter,” 29 November.

———————–, 1976. “Organ weighs future,” 29 November.

———————–, 1976. “Clements, Gabriel dynamite,” 29 November.

———————–, 1976. “Inventive gambling pays,” 29 November.

Ottawa Citizen.com, 2006. “Our last Grey Cup ever?,” 26 November.