I’ll let you in on a little secret.
My bond with the Canadian game started at a very young age. It started on the knee of my grandparents as an 18-month-old. No, I don’t remember it, but I have been told that was my first trip to Empire Stadium sometime in the late 60s.
By the time I was three-and-a-half I was too big for a knee and was duly christened as a season ticket holder.
The only time I missed a home game at Empire during those years was a stop by the Argos in 1974, when I was bed ridden with the chicken pox. I was crushed. Back in those days, I had to wait another two years to see the Argos live.
Life was just too unfair.
In a country which does not celebrate or preserve its populist history very well, Empire was my holy grail with little hype to build it up.
Even if the Lions teams that played at Empire during my lifetime were either awful or heartbreaking.
Imagine my utter joy when it was announced that the Lions would find their way back to their ancestral home, circa 1954-1982. And over the last year and a half – true to form – the Lions have been both awful and heartbreaking.
Today, the Lions will play their last game at Hastings and Cassiar.
The trip back in time is no longer. The ability to watch the roller coaster rip and roll over the roofline of the west side stands is no more. And just like in 1982, many will say “good riddance” as they get ready for a state of the art facility which will reinvent sports entertainment in Canada.
So, I’ll share with you my four favourite moments from Empire, including one that happened before my time.
THE 1963 GREY CUP
I could only wonder what kind of frenzy the city was whipped into when the Lions not only played in their first Grey Cup, but played it at home. Lions fans in the 1970s, like me, could only wonder what it was like to have any kind of post season game at home. But we would always have our elders preach to us about the late hit from the evil Angelo Mosca on Willie Fleming that knocked the most prodigal running back of his era out of the game.
We’ve seen the film a thousand times, Willie stumbling to his feet with trainer Rocky Cavallin guiding him back to the bench like a human rubber crutch. The Lions lost in 1963, but would score revenge on the Tabbies the next year in Toronto.
THE 1977 WESTERN SEMI-FINAL
The 1977 season was a reawakening for football in Vancouver. The Lions hadn’t hosted a playoff game of any sort since their 1964 Grey Cup victory.
Not only was there an overhaul with their new coach Vic Rapp, but he brought in a former Nebraska Cornhusker legend of his era Jerry Tagge into quarterback and ‘Jerry and the Cardiacs’ were born.
Several jaw-dropping come-from-behind rallies wove themselves into a season which placed the Lions in a three-way 10-6 tie for first place with Edmonton and Winnipeg. Thanks to the tie breaking formula, Winnipeg came to town.
Ralph (not Dieter yet) Brock was just coming into his own as a deep threat quarterback. With the Lions hanging on 27-26, Brock went long down the seam for a wide open Mike Holmes with two minutes left.
Out of nowhere, a lanky defensive back by the name of Joe Fourquean guessed the arc of the ball correctly and extended over 10 feet in the air to spike the dagger out of the air. To this day Fourquean can’t remember the game winning play, after sustaining a concussion in the first half.
JULY 25, 1982
I had written a blog at a radio station I used to work at entitled, ‘The Edmonton Eskimos Ruined my Childhood’. That day, they didn’t ruin my afternoon.
It was the last year of Warren Moon. The last year of the dynasty. But it was also a huge win that helped the Lions unload the baggage that was the Eskimo invincibility of the era.
A 68-yard punt return late in the fourth quarter by a young Mervyn Fernandez brought 28,329 sun-soaked men sans shirts and women avec tube-tops into an eruption of rapturous glee that the Evil Eskimos Empire was buried for at least one day.
It was fitting that UBC product Kevin Konar sealed the deal with a pick off Moon.
The Lions had spent two full seasons at B.C. Place and Empire was slated for the wrecking ball and a case of dynamite. I went into action, with a crowbar, hacksaw, and bolt cutters. I managed to get into the condemned grounds, found my seats I shared with my grandparents at Section W, row 29, seats 9-10-11. I commenced to saw the numbered planks (they weren’t really seats) out of their concrete anchor.
By the time I got to the crowbar stage, I was tapped on the shoulder. It was the stadium custodian who asked me what the hell I was doing there. When I told him, he assisted me over to his office, where there was a giant “BC LIONS” sign from the scoreboard and the “E” from the Empire Stadium sign which resembled a giant Scrabble piece. It was mine if I wanted it, and so I hauled them off to the station wagon for transport. Life was fair.
A few years back, while moving from White Rock to North Vancouver, I had my van loaded up with some of this memorabilia. After a Lions practice, Province writer Lowell Ullrich told me that Bob Ackles might just have a use for that numbered plank.
I dragged it into the Lions office, where Bob was meeting with Wally Buono. Bob’s face lit up like a little kids. He promised me that he had something special planned for it.
Flash forward to yesterday, where the B.C. Football Hall of Fame announced their inaugural class. The seat will eventually make it to the hall. So will an unused ticket in a 1974 season ticket book. The same Argos game that I missed.
Argos. Lions. End of an Empire. I will miss it.