QB - Edmonton 83 - 87, B.C. 88 - 89, Toronto 90 - 91, Winnipeg 92 - 94 Birmingham 95, Hamilton 96
Grim Polaris lights the darkened skies over Concordia University College of Alberta. It is February of 1983 and Winter's frosted blue cape flaps over Edmonton as his cheeks fill again with the chilled breath of his domain.
Cold. So cold you can see the wisped breath. The freezing would tickle facebars, leave glistening hoarfrost evidence of effort, the breath that escapes into the quivering northern Alberta winter air.
In the cold, silent morning the whitened grass glistens on the waiting field. The stillness reached here on this practice field in the dead of an Edmonton February winter would foreshadow the ending of an era.
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Traditions can typify a football team. They can become habit. And despite seasons when the pattern swirls and is lost, long-time followers recall. They remember and once the tradition returns they bind memories of past glory to those of the present. Winnipeg boasts of swift-striking linebackers, Calgary has long been a stronghold of offensive linemen and in Hamilton; it is simply great defence that binds the team's history.
In Edmonton, a knight's lineage is evident at one position; quarterback.
Jackie Parker was the first great one. Bruce Lemmerman and Tom Wilkinson brought back the glory. Warren Moon took them to the summit.
But a twinkling trio of Edmonton quarterbacks would immediately follow and ensure an Eskimo reputation for quarterbacking excellence: Tracy Ham, Damon Allen and the one who followed Warren Moon and five straight Grey Cup wins; the intrepid Matt Dunigan.
By June, the Concordia practice field would be abandoned by Winter and the five-time defending Grey Cup Champion Edmonton Eskimos would return to their training-camp ground at Concordia.
Stalwart quarterback Warren Moon would indeed be returning to help the team defend their crowns and their glory. And apprenticing under him would be first-year hopeful Matt Dunigan.
One quinquennium would follow another. Five Grey Cups ending in 1982 would precede five fiercely imprinted years on the snow-striped fields of Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium. In 1987, Matt Dunigan's lumberjack whoop would punctuate an Edmonton football quinary and his grizzled catamount lope would remain an Eskimo motif even as he moved west to British Columbia's Lions.
Edmontonians would remember a bearded man tremoring fists in pride while others would recall a bold insistence on staying inbounds. Dunigan's bravura, thud to tundra touchdown runs and bulldog pride would jolt, mortify and captivate. And although he would move on to stir viewers in five other stadiums, it would be in Commonwealth where his legend would shimmer to frost.
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Matt Dunigan spent his collegiate career at Louisiana Technical University where he surpassed many of Terry Bradshaw's long-standing school records. Bradshaw spent 12 seasons with the NFL Pittsburgh Steelers, leading his team to four Super Bowls. Louisiana would produce other noteworthy athletes including NBA star Karl Malone and CFL standout John Henry White, the durable B.C. Lion fullback.
Dunigan reflected on his Louisiana career, "It wasn't like I was goin' out to get Terry's records. And when it happened and when they started fallin' I didn't realize what was going on it was just somethin' that happened on the way and so be it..
From 1979 - 82, Dunigan aerially amassed 550 completions, 7042 yards passing and 40 touchdowns. All were record-breaking totals. In addition, he established a new team mark for most TD passes in a season with 23 in 1982. And, yes he did break the record for interceptions, with 50 career picks. But, without risk, there is no gain.
And Dunigan would risk it all routinely. His brazen running style was infectious even as it was effective. And his deep ball was already dangerous. Dunigan concluded his interception total was critical to his career, "But the [record] I'm most proud of is the interception record because that one built the most character and that's the one that gives you that tough backbone..
Playing at Joe Aillet Stadium, Dunigan would be coached by Larry Beightol, Pat Patterson and finally, for the bulk of his collegiate years, Billy Brewer. With Brewer, Dunigan would help the Tech Bulldogs improve from 3-8 in 79 to 5-6 in 1980. In 1982, Dunigan's Bulldogs would break the leash, capturing the Southland Conference crown while finishing 10-3.
The Bulldogs would finish with 340 points for, a school record at that point. Their defence would finish with 177 points against; the second-best Techtotal for the decade. On the way, they would avenge three years of defeat at the hands of dominant McNeese State. The 35-14 win on November 6th, 1982 would be the sixth straight victory for the Bulldogs, a Dunigan career-best. In the playoffs, the Bulldogs neutralized South Carolina State 38-3 before falling 17-0 to a strong Delaware team.
That loss couldn't erase the evidence of Bulldog progress. Dunigan finished the year with three 300-yard passing games including a 396-yard effort against Texas A&M (a 38-27 loss) which placed him third all-time for Louisiana single-game passing yardage behind Ken Lantrip and Bradshaw. Tech was 5-0 against all Southland Conference opponents. And the Bulldogs 10-3 mark was the best since 1974's 11-1 mark under legendary coach Maxie Lambright.
But the Bulldogs would have to enter 1983 without both Dunigan and Coach Brewer. Brewer went on to a turbulent 11-year career as head coach of the Mississippi Rebel (Ole Miss) football program. And without Edmonton-bound Dunigan in 1983, the Bulldogs would fall to 4-7.
* * .
Nineteen eighty-three would mark the end of the greatest dynasty in pro football history. The Edmonton Eskimos' quest for Lord Earl Grey's double-handled silver flagon had resulted in five consecutive clutches, the most recent in November of 1982.
The Eskimos' cold legacy of triumph would be best served by two field leaders and one sideline master. Quarterbacks Warren Moon and Tom Wilkinson would lead on the field while masterful head coach Hugh Campbell would conjure from the sideline.
By 1983, Campbell had moved south to coach the USFL Los Angeles Express, and Wilkinson had retired. In seeking a sixth ring, Moon would be joined by new head coach Pete Kettela.
And soon to be appointed as fleet apprentice to the ring-master was spirited Louisiana Tech graduate, Matt Dunigan.
Moon would certainly be the starter and it seemed as if the returning Cliff Olander would be the number two man. Rookies Victor McGee and young Dunigan were seen as outside chances for the spot. Also returning for his second year would be Mike Williams of Grambling.
An intrasquad match on Sunday, June 5th at Commonwealth Stadium yielded unflattering results for both McGee and Dunigan. In front of some 7,000 viewers, they joined tryout receivers Jeff Boyd and Ned Armour in the bland-or-worse category. Of McGee and Dunigan, Edmonton Journal columnist Barry Westgate noted, "They're unlikely to stay long." Both Boyd and Armour dropped catchable balls.
Of the new names in camp, only running back Willard Reaves would be a standout throughout the selection process. Some compared his showing with incumbent tailback Jim Germany's own debut, the best in recent memory. Cam Cole identified "Sarge" as "the best all-purpose back the Esks have had since Jim Germany's rookie year". It would take Dunigan some time longer to prove his own worth.
Meanwhile, preparations for the team's first preseason game were in motion and it looked as if both Dunigan and Victor McGee would be getting more playing time than anyone expected. Cliff Olander's elbow had been bothering him and although "The Stick" would dress for the Friday, June 10th game against the British Columbia Lions, his on-field time would be limited.
British Columbia had long been a cooperative opponent for the Eskimos. Since 1970, Edmonton was 24-11-2 against the Leos. And since Moon first threw the majority of Esk team passes in 1979, the Leos were 1-8-1 against the dynasty.
But on that Friday night of June 10th, a pride of bold Lions would trot onto the grass at Commonwealth and foreshadow a new royal presence on the Canadian gridiron savannah.
Roy Dewalt, the new prince of the west coast had supplanted veteran quarterback Joe Paopao. And the royal cannonade began that evening. Following an early and promising 8-0 Edmonton lead, Dewalt completed a 31-yarder to John Pankratz and followed with a 46-yard pass to the splendid Swervyn' Mervyn Fernandez. A 12-yard scoring strike to Pankratz completed the drive and B.C. stalked onward from there. The fierce crunch and tear would yield a 52-20 final score, the worst Edmonton loss ever in Commonwealth.
The match marked first cuttings for several future CFL jewels.
Don Matthews, new Lion head coach and former Eskimo defensive coordinator would also relish the win despite its exhibition status.
That match would see Dunigan's first professional pass intercepted by gritty Glen Jackson, Lion linebacker and eight-year CFL veteran. But the Edmonton Journal reported positives as well. Cam Cole noted Dunigan "...showed flashes of a strong arm and a cool head in his one-quarter shot [and there were] good moments by Jeff Boyd, Ned Armour and Willard Reaves..." Ray Turchansky offered more plaudits," Esks may be more solid at quarterback than was initially thought...young Matt Dunigan was impressive...he shrugged off [the interception] and showed he not only releases the ball quickly but also can set up and fire it with gusto..
Dunigan commented on the interception, "I felt overcoming adversity was bred into me. At Louisiana Tech., we had to overcome a lot of adversity. We had three coaching changes in four years...it [the interception] is something I can tell my grandkids about." There would be much more information for the grandkids to absorb before Dunigan would be finished, however.
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Around the league, the arms race was bold and young. Boffins marveled at the new CFL quarterbacking talent. Rookies Prince McJunkins, Kevin Starkey (Ottawa), Tim Cowan (BC) and Homer Jordan (Saskatchewan) all drew accolades.
But Calgary's rookie boots were brightest. Three fleet flingers wore rookie spurs asparkle. Danny Barrett, a 21-year old from the University of Cincinnati was strong-armed and had out-of-pocket presence. He led the Stampeders to a 34-18 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders one night after Dunigan's 52-20 loss. Greg Vavra was the best quarterback in University of Calgary's history. At 22, the Canadian pivot was the position's brightest young Canadian hope since Gerry Dattilio. And the third and shiniest six-shooter was the University of Hawaii's Bernard Quarles. A splendid athlete, Quarles was the Man O' War of the stable. A canny and powerful deep thrower, BQ was also nimble and possessed top-level speed.
Along with Dunigan, the 1983 rookie crop was one of the best in recent memory. Although 1984 would produce Turner Gill, Kevin Ingram and Steve Smith and 1982 had introduced Johnny Evans, Carl Hall and Pete "Mr. Versatile" Gales, over the long run, 1983 would stand out as one of the top three quarterback crops since 1975. And it would be Dunigan who would ultimately ascend to become the best of this group.
The Louisiana prospect would begin showing more of that promise in his second and third exhibition games against Saskatchewan and Winnipeg, respectively.
In Regina, on Sunday, June 19th, 1983, the Bulldog would throw his first professional TD pass, an eight-yarder to Mike "Batman" Levenseller. The 20-9 loss to the Roughies was a solid playing opportunity for the three backup contestants. Cliff Olander played the first half while Dunigan and Mike Williams split the second. Coach Kettela noted, "Mike and Matt were in there in the second half and made more things happen." But Williams suffered a frightening concussion, which led to his hospitalization. He would eventually recover and return to compete in the CFL.
Meanwhile, Olander was under tighter scrutiny and received some sharp criticism. Journal columnist Barry Westgate offered a bleak prognosis of the Edmonton quarterbacking depth as a whole, calling Mike Williams "unlucky", tabbing Dunigan as "needing more time" and skewering Olander with, "He was lead-footed, tentative, dull...he was a disaster unrelieved..
On the Monday following the game, Greg Vavra, the Canadian quarterback hopeful was traded to Edmonton from Calgary for Mike Levenseller. Jeff Boyd was released and later picked up by the Blue Bombers.
On Wednesday, the Eskimos got their first win of the "silly season", a 34-16 decision in Winnipeg. Matt Dunigan added a scrambling 20-yard scoring pass to former University of Alberta Golden Bear Marco Cyncar with one minute remaining in the game.
And on Friday, Cliff Olander was released. It was as much a nod to youth as it was to the Bulldog's burgeoning skills. Kettela summarized," When you start developing someone with the idea of eventually replacing the No. 1 guy [Moon], well, we decided to go with younger people. Matt and Greg should be a pitched battle for the backup spot. They have similar strengths..
Olander, a well-liked person, was understandably saddened by the decision, "This is the greatest bunch of guys I've ever played with...it will be real hard to leave these guys. But I guess it was a youth move and I can understand that. Heck, I'm 28 years old, I'm almost out of this thing." Olander's likeability was reflected in Dunigan's generosity, "I've still got a gift from Texas coming up that I'll have to get to him." Journal columnist Ray Turchansky gleaned that "the gift was a hatband Olander fancied..
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With only Vavra and Dunigan in the running for backup, the club prepared for their final preseason test, a June 29th date at McMahon Stadium with the Stamps.
Vavra characterized Dunigan, "Matt's not very flashy in practice but when he gets into games he makes things happen. He's a winner..
Three days before the match, Turchansky penned a piece in which Dunigan was compared with Esk hero, Tom Wilkinson. Both chewed tobacco and both were small by NFL standards. More importantly, Dunigan appeared to evince the kind of respect that Wilkinson was known for. Added Dunigan, smiling, "I was attacked by [Esk offensive linemen] Hector [Pothier] and Leo Blanchard in the back of the bus if that's the way they show acceptance..
Eventually, Vavra was released and made the decision to return to the University of Calgary for one more year.
The aging Eskimos, led by Warren Moon and backed up by Matt Dunigan would go through a torturous 8-8 campaign, the team's first non-winning record in 12 seasons (6-12 in 1971). In comparison to the rest of the CFL, the slip was significant. In comparison to their own standards, the slip was critical. Edmonton had dropped from first in the league in points for and against to second and third, respectively. On the surface, not a calamity.
But their offensive production had gone from 34.0 points per game (544) in 1982 to 28.1 (450) ppg in 83. This was a drop-off of almost 100 points. This despite Moon's monstrous professional passing record of 5648 yards with 31 TD passes. (Moon's 353.0 yards per game remains second all-time in CFL and pro football history behind Doug Flutie's 367.7 with BC in 91.
Defensively, the drop-off was not as precipitous but their 23.6 ppg against (20.2 in 82) masked a growing gap between Esk defensive backs and the younger, faster receivers entering the league. Cornerback Larry Highbaugh and halfback Gary Hayes were both struggling on the right side of the secondary. A 49-22 strafing by the Bombers in the West semi-final was a forgiving score. The dynasty was over. And so was the era.
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Nineteen eighty-four would see a curt transition for the Eskimos. Gone were the Fennells, the Highbaughs and the Potters. On the lawn were names like Mandarich, Hunter, Hill and DesLauriers.
And for the first time in his professional career and in only his second year, Matt Dunigan was handed the keys to the castle. His five years with the Green and Gold would be pointed to as the next sparkling link in the Eskimos' princely quarterback heritage.
Training camp opened with Dunigan, Kevin Ingram, Harold Smith and Jamie Crawford as passer options. Innuendo was almost daily in regards to a veteran pivot being brought in as an "experienced option". Cam Cole first suggested Condredge Holloway and later in the preseason, Joe Barnes; both of the defending Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts. Six days before the season-opener against Ottawa, Cole pointed to a Toronto report suggesting that smoothly styled Tom Clements of the powerful Winnipeg Blue Bombers may have been approached by Edmonton. The deal? Thirty year-old Dan Kepley and a first-round pick for Touch of Class. Another, more realistic rumour had Big Blue backup, the resilient John Hufnagel for the same package.
Throughout the speculation, Dunigan excelled in his role as the man to beat. Edmonton's need for an experienced CFL quarterback would be offset by Dunigan's impressive preseason performance. He would also have one of the greatest quarterbacks, one of the greatest football players in CFL history as his head coach. Jackie Parker, ol' Spaghetti Legs himself, was the man with the plan in Eskimo-land.
It was the 52 year-old Parker's second coaching tenure, his first being with the Lions in 1969 and 70. He was still well respected, something of an iconic figure and "[one sensed] that what people really hope is that he doesn't fail".
Dunigan would ensure that Parker's image would keep glittering. Against Saskatchewan he would pass for 207 yards and 3 touchdowns without a pick in only one half of football. Although Edmonton would lose this and the remaining three preseason matches, Dunigan would continue to improve and earn the confidence of those around him.
Against the Lions at BC Place Stadium, Dunigan would play the first half to an 8-8 stalemate before giving way to Kevin Ingram. The Lions, an emerging force, would pile 24 unanswered points to win 32-8. Both Ned Armour and Mike Williams, former Esks, played effectively for the Lions.
Dunigan commented, "...I wasn't very happy with the way I played. We did some things right - I think we're on schedule - but I just didn't get it done the way I'd like to." His 6 of 17 passing night would be an aberration, however.
Against the Bombers at home, Dunigan went the distance for the first time and completed 19 of 37 passes for 206 yards in a 25-11 loss. But he continued to impress. Bomber linebacker Bill Sheppard observed, "Man, the first time I hit him, I figured he had to be out at least a play or two - but he got up. He's a tough guy. I've got a lot of respect for him..
Dunigan joked, "In the future, I'm gonna start working on my slide." The 31,382 fans present along with the rest of Canada would slowly come to learn how unlikely that scenario was. Dunigan cut no corners.
Against Calgary six days later, Dunigan completed 18 of 28 for 223 yards in another loss, 29-16. The Eskimos' preseason record was 0-4 but it would turn out to be time well spent.
The Eskimos had cut or traded several "dynasty" players but had gained youthful resilience and speed. And they had acquired their defensive centerpiece for years to come. Middle linebacker Danny Bass came to the team via Calgary for respected slotback Tom Scott. Bass, upon Dan Kepley's retirement after the season, would become the Eskimos' defensive engine. In the meantime, Kepley moved to the right side and the former Stampeder hit-man would take over in the middle.
A new-look Eskimo team lined up for the anthem on opening day in Commonwealth Stadium. The defence was the most changed. The days of "Alberta Crude" were over. Fans scanning the program would notice several key absences. Gone from the defensive line were Dave "Dr. Death" Fennell and James "Quick" Parker. Stewart Hill replaced Dale Potter at linebacker and Danny Bass stepped into the "Mac" spot. And only Mike McLeod and Joe Hollimon remained from the previous year's secondary. Darryl Hall, Cliff Toney and Laurent DesLauriers were the newcomers. The Eskimos also added much-travelled Johnny Evans as backup quarterback and punter.
The new lineup was capable hosts for the Ottawa Rough Riders. Dunigan threw four TD passes for a team that trailed for more than 58 minutes. Dave Cutler hit an 11-yard field goal to put the Esks ahead. And a DesLauriers interception on the Edmonton five ended a gallant effort by J.C. Watts and the Riders. On the way, the Eskimos overcame Ottawa leads of 14-0 and 24-14. Precise wide receiver Brian Kelly collected all four Dunigan touchdown tosses including a 65-yarder.
The 1984 season would be one of growth for the young club. Although the offensive line was essentially intact, defensive flux and the offensive search for cohesion would be the motifs for the year. Key wins came against Calgary (40-13) and Toronto (34-33). But the Lions clawed Edmonton 44-10 in week two and nipped them 34-32 in late September. Dewalt completed 34 of 47 passes in the first match for a team record 486 yards. The spectacular Swervyn' Mervyn Fernandez "leaped, lunged and pranced" for four touchdowns receiving. The Lions would finish first in the CFL with a 12-4 mark.
For Matt Dunigan, 1984 would be a 'rookie' year among the best in CFL history. And his 3273 yards passing yards ranked him fourth overall ahead of such able passers as Joe Paopao, J.C. Watts, Joe Barnes and Turner Gill. Almost unbelievably, his 21 touchdown passes were good for third overall in the league (tied with Dewalt and Watts). Dunigan's running was combustible and his sintered steps were strewn with seared tacklers. He averaged 8.9 per carry and was a threat to score from anywhere on the field. His long gain of 69 yards was a case in point.
Edmonton finished 9-7, exceeding most expectations. Their 464 points ranked them second overall. And once again they would open the playoffs facing the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Manitoba.
The Eskimos had already faced Winnipeg on the road in late October but without an ailing Dunigan they suffered a 30-11 loss. This time, Dunigan would be there. Could the Eskimos hope.
The Bombers seemed to think so. Bomber lineman Doug MacIver commented, "You take Matt Dunigan out of there and, all due respect...they wouldn't be here...He's a little bit crazy, the way he runs around back there but he's also a good, gutsy kid and he's the reason (the rebuilding program) turned the corner so quick." Indeed, under Dunigan the Eskimos would never have a losing season.
Tom Clements added, "I think he's terrific [but] it's tough to survive long that way, though. Look at the life expectancy of running backs. Matt avoids a lot of hits, but he takes a lot, too." Clements was no clairvoyant but similar comments would be echoed throughout Dunigan's career and to some degree were borne out.
But, on Sunday, November 5th, 1984, despite a still-sore ankle, Dunigan would play the entire Western Semi-Final against a peaking and disciplined 11-4-1 Bomber squadron. Dunigan was ready," We've got nothing to lose. Nobody thought we'd be here. The team never felt that...but we've got nothing to lose..
Shoes would haunt Edmonton again. The icy surface was a challenge and nearly all the Bombers wore broomball shoes. Just as in Edmonton's much-lamented 1977 Grey Cup loss in the "Staples Game" to the Alouettes, footwear would be a factor.
Jackie Parker concluded," It kind of reminded me of the Saskatchewan game last week. We handled the footing better than Saskatchewan did and it made an awfully big difference..
Winnipeg would move out to a 15-0 lead on the strength of the CFL's number one offence and Tom Clements' expert play-calling. Dunigan would lead the Eskimos back to 16-7 (qb sneak) in the second but a subsequent tipped ball intercepted at the Winnipeg 11 was the closest they would get. Winnipeg rolled up 388 yards passing while former Eskimo Willard Reaves ran for 2 touchdowns in a 55-20 blunting. Winnipeg taught us a lesson in postseason football. They whupped us, is about all you can say, " conceded Dunigan after the match.
Dunigan bravely played through the sore ankle and field conditions that limited a key element of his game. He finished with a respectable 19 completions on 30 attempts for 265 yards. But it wasn't his day, yet.
Ironically, Dunigan's future competitor, Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie would appear in an unrelated article in the next day's Journal alongside the Eskimo results. It would mark the first of many occasions when the Little Lightning Bolt would appear near Dunigan.
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By 1985, Edmonton's quarterbacking position was secure. The Eskimos invited Arkansas' Brad Taylor, sophomore Kevin Ingram and introduced elastic Cal State Fullerton graduate, Damon Allen. The fluid Allen would win the backup job.
The transition period from a Dynasty in its December was virtually complete. Craig Shaffer replaced Kepley while Cutler, Hollimon and Hayes were gone. On defence, only lineman Tuinei had a Grey Cup ring; earned in 1982 as a backup.
The offence still had Grey Cup experience. Eight of them had earned rings in 82. And it would be the offence that would continue as the team's bulwark. The team finished third overall behind league alpha males Winnipeg and BC, with 27.0 ppg. Edmonton ran the ball more than any other club yet averaged 5.9 per carry, best in the CFL. Dunigan's 737 yards were second in quarterback rushing to Ken Hobart's unprecedented 928 with Hamilton. "Dash" added 9 touchdowns rushing and a long gain of 55 yards and once again was a threat to score from any point on the field.
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Your mobility can get you in this league but your development as a passer will keep you here. Some of Canada's best passers possessed collapsed pocket explosiveness and little else. Russ Jackson, Roy Dewalt and Danny Barrett all were more feared for their running ability in the spring of their careers but each matured into a feared tactician and strong-armed passer.
In 1985, Dewalt, Clements, Holloway and Montreal's Turner Gill each surpassed 60% passing underscoring each one's development from flashy runner to canny passer. Dewalt's deep pass was unanimously the best in the league. Clements rose to a 60.3 career rating placing him second overall to Tom Wilkinson. Holloway's 66.19 mark was the most accurate season ever. And Gill's achievement came in only his sophomore season.
But Matt Dunigan finished 59.7% passing and was second overall in combined touchdowns passing and rushing and finished second overall in combined yards passing and rushing.
Yet the Eskimos were still on the cusp. A 10-6 finish masked an embarrassing 43-23 loss to Toronto's third and fourth-string quarterbacks and difficulties with eventual league champion B.C. Lions continued; the Eskimos lost the preseason and both regular-season games, 17-16, 25-10 and 42-29. Dewalt fired eight scoring strikes in the regular-season tilts, three to Fernandez.
Lumsden remarked during the season, "We have a pretty loosey-goosey team, but we have to learn when to get serious..
For the third straight year Edmonton would journey to shivering Winnipeg to begin and end their playoffs. But the abrupt 22-15 loss to the 12-4 Big Blue Machine was the last shuddering playoff instructional. That loss would ultimately herald Edmonton's return to challenge for Earl Grey's Goblet.
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Nineteen eighty-six would underscore and renew a wintry Canadian football notion. Recollections of calculating, cold-weather coaches calling on crisp Canadian double-husky formations featuring polar backs including Marshall, Soles, Santucci, Lumsden, and Floyd would crystallize in Edmonton to become legend today.
In 1986, Milson Jones and Chris Skinner would justify an all-Canadian backfield and evoke snow-swirling Commonwealth images with stout, powerful bursts. Jackie Parker abandoned the slender American scatback and went with Jones and Skinner, along with a third Canadian power-back, Chris Johnstone to ultimately dominate Canadian playoff rushing.
Edmonton's formula was to pair two power backs with equal running and blocking ability. When teams visited Commonwealth in the late season, the combination of the grass field (one of two in the CFL at the time) and potential snowy field conditions would give the Edmonton offence another edge. In 1984, with Lumsden, Larry Cowan, Jones and Skinner the Esks had the largest backfield in the CFL. Edmonton's winter backs weighed in at 209.8 pounds, well over the CFL backfield average of 194.3.
By 1986, some teams would evolve to "winter-back" status, most notably Hamilton (210.0) but Edmonton's 211.3 pounds was still first and compared favorably with the grown league average of 198.9.
Edmonton's heavy huskies, averaging 6.2 and 5.9 on tundra in 84 and 85, would drop to 4.8 in 86. The season's loss of 1981 All-Canadian right tackle Bill Stevenson to injury was critical. It was clear, however, that defences were enjoying a positive cycle in the CFL. The nine teams averaged 4.9 per carry in 1984 but dropped to 4.6 in 1986.
In addition, sack percentages were rising on the whole, pass percentages were dropping and the average points-per-game was lower. Part of this was attributed to the youth at the quarterback position. In 1981, offences were at a pinnacle and with established quarterbacks in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Hamilton and BC, CFL offences would continue to break points records.
By 1986, the situation had changed. Defences faced four rookie starters at quarterback compared to only one in 1981. They didn't have to play it honest. Jamming the line of scrimmage with 1-3 more defenders and using more frequent man coverage became the fashion. The running game would suffer as one of the results.
But Dunigan and his offensive troops would stand out. His 24-14 touchdown to interception ratio was the best in the league. And the team's improved 30.0 points per game was second only to Winnipeg. Critics of Dunigan's selection as 1985's All-Canadian quarterback over Roy Dewalt were stifled to grumbles as Dunigan's total yardage (rushing and passing) along with his touchdown to interception ratio and total wins all eclipsed the best pure passer in the CFL.
And on the field, the Eskimos would have a direct message for the Lions.
It was on defence that Edmonton's maturity had greatest impact. Their sparkling 13-4-1 league-leading record was based on a tough, young front four and stabilized through the middle with Danny Bass at middle linebacker and Laurent DesLauriers and Phil Jones at safety. The unit's 20.3 points-against average was the CFL's best. And they seemed at their best against British Columbia.
In week two at Commonwealth, the defending champion Lions seemed crouched, ready for their first 1986 game against Edmonton. But they never got out of the shade.
At the half it was 33-3. Edmonton. Two Dewalt interceptions led to Esk touchdown drives. A Dewalt fumble led to a third. Even Damon Allen came in for a cameo touchdown drive. Allen returned in the fourth to rake up the remaining leaves in a 36-13 victory. A disappointed Roy Dewalt said, "It was just a bad day at the office. Have you ever had a bad day at the office?.
When Edmonton entered BC Place Stadium on September 19th, they were 7-3 to the Lions' 8-2. An estimated 59,478 fans got comfortably prepared for reality to set in.
The reality was that the Eskimo defence was the best in the league. In the first half, the unit created 11 points through turnovers without a first down from the offence. At the half, it was 14-3, Edmonton despite only 13 offensive yards. The final was a halting 32-3 suffocation.
Sadly, defensive back James Bell suffered a neck injury in the game and although he would walk again with the use of a cane, he would never play football again. The Eskimos would dedicate the remainder of the season to James.
To prove they were no fluke, the Eskimos flayed the Lions once more at Commonwealth, the following week. In another snarling defensive pit fight, the Eskimos relied on a Dunigan pass to Brian Kelly for an offensive major but got a 100-yard punt return touchdown and a 45-yard interception from Stewart Hill for another major.
The Lions, who had finished first three straight years, settled for second and watched the Green and Gold capture the West division for the first time since 1982.
But the Lions weren't convinced. And the media seemed to expect Edmonton to fold in the playoffs. With the "frost on the pumpkin", both teams dispatched their first-round playoffs opponents each hungry to prove a point in the West Final.
Edmonton hosted BC for the third time and proved for good that they had arrived. The 41-5 final was cold wrath and vindication for a team and city which had longed to return to the finals for four long years.
The Eskimos, led by Dunigan's 186 rushing yards, led all playoff teams on the ground with 51 carries for 316 yards. They would face owner Harold Ballard's crafty Hamilton Tiger-Cats in BC Place Stadium.
The Tiger-Cats were a peaking team with a savvy, resilient defensive corps. They had been in the last two Grey Cups, both losses and they had enough sinew and sharpness left to go with their graying muzzles.
In the end, their experience and hunger were too much for the young Eskimo team. Despite a 9-9 record, the aging and proud Cats proved an old axiom, "Never count out an old champion for on any given night he could reach back and find that greatness again if only for one night." Those old Cat defenders were champions that evening.
Jackie Parker, following what would be his last full season as head coach offered, "We had to change our offensive line around. That really killed us because Hamilton was a really good defensive team..
The most telling statistic was Edmonton's 71 yards rushing on 19 carries, a weakened 3.7 average. Dunigan was sacked a painful 10 times and finished 11 of 26 with one interception and 158 yards passing. But his sun was just rising.
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The Eskimos continued their ascent to offensive superiority in the CFL. In 1987, they returned to first overall rushing with a 5.5-yard average. Dunigan's 8.6 yards per pass reflected his desire and effectiveness in throwing deep. It was his career-best mark and it led all starting quarterbacks. Better still, the Eskimos finished with 617 points for. It was the first time a team had cracked the 600-point barrier. The 34.0 per game average was second in CFL history to the 1981 Eskimos. Eskimo fans rejoiced.
However, the Lions had pulled even. Finishing first in the west at 12-6 and possessors of the best defence in the nation, they begged to differ. Their 2-0 sweep of the Eskimos in the regular season seemed simply token evidence. They would meet again in the West Final, this time in BC Place.
BC's chief weakness, Dewalt's immobility, seemed null against Edmonton's faded pass rush. The Eskimos had dipped from a respectable 66 sacks in 86 to an inadequate 50.
But they could still confront lions. Dunigan fired two memorable deep strikes to a streaking Stephen Jones and hypnotized the big cats 31-7 in one of the most satisfying games in CFL playoff history.
It set up what would be classed as the greatest Grey Cup of all time. For most the replays of Henry "Gizmo" Williams' 115-yard missed field goal return and Jerry Kauric's game-winning field goal are the signature images of the game.
For many die-hard Eskimo fans, the memory of Dunigan's body and head colliding off the unforgiving turf of BC Place, the subsequent fumble and return by Doug "Tank" Landry is the picture that won't go away. Dunigan suffered an injury on the play and didn't return. "It was a concussion. Kulka put a forearm across my chest and slammed me to the ground. When Glen hit me there was no way that I could go out there and do the things I was required to do as a leader and a quarterback. Unlike getting your bell rung, you can't play through a concussion..
The Eskimos won under Damon Allen's off-the-bench MVP performance. Dunigan's Grey Cup ring seemed a hollow symbol. But the fact was, without Dunigan, a Grey Cup berth and subsequent 10th franchise championship in 87 was debatable. Allen was effective off the bench but could he sustain that level as a starter.
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Eskimo fans would learn the answer soon enough. Unable to agree to terms, Dunigan and the Eskimos agreed to part company. In June of 1988, Edmonton's summer of discontent began. Dunigan, Canada's nonpareil football player would be traded to the BC Lions. In August, Canada's hockey hero, Wayne Gretzky, would also leave Edmonton in the infamous trade to the Los Angeles Kings. Prior to the trade Dunigan made a brief but gutsy foray into baseball and signed with a Montreal Expos minor league team. It didn't work out and Dunigan returned to the CFL content that he had at least tried.
Now both Dunigan and Allen would be undisputed starters in their respective cities. Graham Kelly's account of the trade appeared in his book The Grey Cup, a History, "The immediate trade was [Jim] Sandusky for Dunigan. At the end of the season, the Lions would protect two players and Dunigan. Edmonton could then choose anyone they wanted from the B.C. roster. The Lions would then protect two more players and Edmonton would select again. The Esks chose Gregg Stumon, Andre Francis, Jeff Braswell and Reggie Taylor. Part of the deal was BC's 1989 first-round draft choice...Leroy Blugh".
Although, the conditions were amicable, Canadian football fans couldn't help but remember the bitter 1983 Tom Clements for Dieter Brock trade and the controversial Sam Etcheverry deal of the sixties.
Dunigan's arrival in BC had an immediate positive impact. Dunigan replaced Dewalt who had moved on to Winnipeg. Ironically, both were teammates on the All-Star Team that faced the Eskimos on June 23rd at Commonwealth Stadium. Dunigan was the most successful quarterback that night as the All-Stars won 15-4 in the rain. Dunigan also celebrated the birth of his son Dane that week.
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In Vancouver, Dunigan's mobility eased the pressure on an offensive line accustomed to Dewalt's drop-back style. Earnest Lions' general manager Joe Galat added cannonball Anthony Cherry to complement powerback Anthony Parker. Rubber-band quarterback Rickey Foggie, and brash linebacker Jeff Braswell were two other outstanding rookie additions.
The departure of Mervyn Fernandez to the NFL Los Angeles Raiders was eased with the signing of David Williams, a lanky, highly concentrated athlete who resembled a basketball small-forward loping upcourt. Williams' great leaping ability and deceptive speed mocked defensive backfield schemes designed to stop him.
Williams and Dunigan established an immediate rapport in camp and it translated to an MVP season for the 6'4" wide receiver from the University of Illinois. Williams, who learned of the CFL from Fernandez himself, finished with a league-leading 83 receptions, 1468 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Dunigan's respectfulness and enthusiasm won over his teammates. His "play to win" approach was aggressive and always yielded results. In week one against Winnipeg and Roy Dewalt, Dunigan led his club to a 36-3 win. Near halftime, holding a 21-3 lead, Dunigan elected to bomb rather than ground out the final few seconds. The pass was intercepted. Dunigan smiled mischievously when asked about it after the game by Dave Hodge, saying, " [Head coach] Larry [Donovan] said 'we need to talk about the last three plays of the first half'. He said kill the last few seconds, he didn't say how..
Dunigan earned further respect by lead-blocking on a reverse for Williams and in gaining game MVP. In discussing his game MVP, Dunigan characteristically deflected praise to his offensive mates, stressing that "AC (Anthony Cherry) should be standing here instead of me." Dunigan's 16 of 31, 321-yard performance with a touchdown passing and rushing set the tenor for his most productive CFL season thus far.
The Lions finished third overall in points scored and were first overall in rushing first downs, attempts and average. They would bring a 10-8 record to the finals against the surging 9-9 Winnipeg Blue Bombers. It would be Dunigan's third straight Grey Cup as starting quarterback for the West.
But it was an agonizing loss for his Lions. Late in the game, with the score 22-19 in favor of the Bombers, the Lions moved inside the opposition 10. Sturdy Winnipeg nose-tackle Stan Mikawos was injured on first and goal and was replaced. Instead of predictably attacking the Blue front three on the ground, Dunigan dropped back to pass. The ball was tipped up, floated down and was cradled by sliding defensive tackle Mike Gray. The awkward lullaby would be enough for the Bombers to withstand a determined Lion firestorm. The final was 22-21, Winnipeg.
Winnipeg had only survived. The Big Blue had only two second-half first downs. The Lions gained 414 yards and 24 first downs to Winnipeg's 304 and 12 respectively. The ground attack collected 218 yards alone. But the final score stood and it would be two years and in a blue helmet that Dunigan would finally overcome.
The Lions' season was remarkable, nonetheless. Dunigan, Cherry, Williams, Stumon and left guard Gerald Roper would each be named All-Canadian. They would be the early favorites for West supremacy in 1989.
But 1989 was a regressive year for the felines. They opened with five straight losses and mercurial Larry Donovan was fired. Some reports alleged that offensive coordinator Adam Rita and Dunigan conferred independently of the grimly determined Donovan on offensive play-calling. The Lions won four immediately but sputtered again. They finished 7-11 and a Dunigan team missed the playoffs for the only time in his career.
Fans would miss Dunigan's dynamite in the 89 playoffs. Over the course of his 14-year career, Dunigan would routinely perform highly in the divisional playoff games. His 8.3 career yards per pass in playoff games ranks first all-time (tied with Tom Clements). His 54.5 career playoff passing percentage betters such outstanding pressure pilots as Russ Jackson (47.8), Damon Allen (49.5), Ron Lancaster (51.1) and Roy Dewalt (54.4).
Dunigan's 1989 regular season performance was again an improvement on the previous year's and, as such, his best ever. His 4509 yards passing led the league and Dunigan, with an assist from Foggie and kicker Lui Passaglia, combined to place BC first overall in "Passer Efficiency Rating". The passer rating formula, developed in 1973, ranks passers in four categories and uses a weighting system. The system claims not to "reflect leadership, play-calling and other intangible factors that go into making a successful professional quarterback." But everyone was aware how highly Dunigan scored in these categories as well. And teams came calling in the offseason.
Unforeseen by Dunigan, the Toronto Argonauts gave up six quality players to earn his services for 1990. Dunigan would lead a frightening Argonaut offence to a 23-8 record over two seasons and to a stirring and very chilly Grey Cup win in 1991.
Dunigan discussed the trade prior to the season," I didn't know it was going to happen at all, so that was a bit of a shocker. [It was] more difficult to handle, more of a transitional period for my family and for myself. I feel sorry, I feel guilty in some ways - [I'm] sorry guys [BC teammates]...I didn't ask for the second one...I asked for the first one. It's hard to imagine one player being worth six players. I don't think anybody is. I think it's more [a reflection of] the position than anything..
But newly appointed Argo field boss Don Matthews understood the importance of that position and, to many observers, his acquisition of Dunigan was a critical coup. Under Matthews, Dunigan would have the CFL's all-round best coach who reveled in "on-the-edge offence" and innovative, risk-taking special-teams and defence.
The offensive roster read like a roll-call of CFL superheroes. Darrell K. Smith, Jeff Boyd, Paul Masotti, Michael "Pinball" Clemons and Emanuel Tolbert all wore double-blue in 1990. Ian Beckstead centred the five oaks on the offensive line. Chris Schultz, Jim Kardash, Kelvin Pruenster and respected Dan Ferrone flanked him. The Argos added Rickey Foggie in August and the cast was set.
That cast annihilated the CFL points record.
The 689 total points along with the 38.8 average were the best single-season totals ever for a team in CFL history. Dunigan's "linebacker mentality" would be a factor in his missing 10 games but in his 8 starts he was, once more, an improved player. Projected over an 18-game season, Dunigan would have finished with 38 passing touchdowns and 4563 yards. Argo depth was evident when Foggie stepped in and was at times more dangerous than Dunigan.
The double-blue offensive vigilantes were equally invincible. Smith set a CFL record with 20 touchdown receptions. Pinball's frantic 3300 combined yards was another league first. Foggie made limp pasta of tacklers in setting a quarterback's record for most 100-yard single-season rushing efforts with four. Toronto posted 59+ points five times and bombarded Doug Flutie's Lions 68-43 in the highest-scoring game in pro football history. On September 20th, Dunigan teamed with Foggie in a 70-18 humiliation of Calgary.
Although the high-voltage Argonauts were eliminated in a close East Final by Winnipeg, the attitude was set. With a red glare over the horizon, Argo fortunes would ascend to a peak in 91. Further injury would limit Dunigan to another eight games but the Boatmen would add the defensive elements needed. And they would mix in some Rocket fuel.
The high profile signing of the Heisman runner-up was a move no other pro team could match. Raghib "Rocket" Ismail was the fastest player in the league, an elusive returner and reliable receiver. The Notre Dame grad's rookie receiving totals (64 - 1300 - 20.3 - 9 TD) recalled Mervyn Fernandez' gaudy first-year numbers (64 - 1046 - 16.3 - 8 TD).
The studded Argos burst from the pad and thundered into the stratosphere. At season's end, Toronto glanced earthward from their 13-5 first place finish. They were Canada's best football team but they had to prove it. And Dunigan was determined to lead them.
Pinball Clemons elaborated, "We threw the ball all the time...that's why we scored so many points: we were wide open and very creative in our strategies...Matt Dunigan, obviously one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history, and arguably the greatest leader at that position, was on the job..
The 689 points, a startling CFL points record, were a direct result of that leadership. In history only five teams have eclipsed 650 points; Dunigan quarterbacked two of them. In fact, Dunigan was quarterback of four of the top ten offences (points per game) in CFL history. No quarterback has ever done better (Doug Flutie also led four teams into the top ten).
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Dunigan and Foggie teamed in the much-anticipated East Final where Toronto incinerated Winnipeg 42-3. It was sweet payback for 1990 and for older Argos, the 1988 East Final when the 9-9 Big Blue bumped the 14-4 Double Blue, 27-11.
Dunigan separated his shoulder in the East Final but would start the Grey Cup against the surprising Calgary Stampeders led by a typically tough Danny Barrett.
A very cold day in Winnipeg was the setting for this memorable final. Barrett was intercepted early by Ed Berry who returned the ball for a jarring opening score. Calgary fought the elements and a frothing Argonaut confidence from that point.
Dunigan's shoulder was injected to freeze the limb, allowing him to perform his quarterbacking duties. Toronto took an 11-10 lead into the heated locker-room and plotted their next steps. Dunigan had the shoulder refrozen.
With the Stampeders holding a slim 14-11 lead Dunigan connected with Darrell K. Smith deep for a 48-yard score. The Argos added 4 more points for a 22-14 advantage early in the fourth. But Barrett kept the engine warm, hitting Pitts for 13 yards to close to 22-21.
On the subsequent kickoff, the Rocket's red glare was a fiery Double-Blue flare. His photonic 87-yard return rectified the eight-point lead. Less than a minute later, Dunigan catapulted a numb bomb to Paul Masotti. The slotback made the improbable catch amidst red jerseys. And Dunigan and the Argonauts would hold on for a tear-stained, eye-black and blue drought-ending triumph.
It was retribution for Dunigan's psyche as well. Observers reflected on his comments when joining the Argos two years earlier, "You know it [not leading his team to a Grey Cup win on the field] gets under your skin a bit. I'd be lyin' to you if I told you otherwise. That's one of the reasons I say I won't be satisfied until I do that. The day may never [come]...I may never get the opportunity.
"But certainly, in the meantime, I'm gonna work as hard as I possibly can to put myself in that situation and my teammates in the situation to be successful and to win a Grey Cup. And if it happens again where we get to the Grey Cup and I get hurt and John Congemi or Tom Porras have to go in there and win the game for us then so be it, I'll be happy with that..
But Dunigan could savor this victory and the orbit of this rewarding season.
Statistics couldn't reflect Dunigan's bravura and infectiousness. Pinball summarized his leader's impact on the Argonauts," He'd say, 'Let's get out there at five-thirty in the morning,' and you'd think, 'Oh no. He'll be there at four-thirty, waiting for us, champing at the bit.' Whether or not this was true made no difference; that's the feeling you got. He was a sort of Neanderthal Man who'd stop at nothing to win...not only would he get the ball to you, he'd throw it right through you. You sensed that whatever it took to win, he'd do it. He was relentless on the field...[He was] obviously one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history and arguably the greatest leader at the position....
He was Canada's best quarterback, the only player in CFL history to be the centerpiece of two 'six for one' trades, the quarterback of the defending Grey Cup champions and the emotional leader of one of the most powerful teams in CFL history. But Toronto and Dunigan couldn't agree to terms for the following season.
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The gritty, grizzled pivot was signed as a free agent in June of 1992 by a Winnipeg team that couldn't reach terms with quarterback Tom Burgess. The oft-underestimated Burgess moved on to the Ottawa Rough Riders.
Winnipeg would be the second CFL "home" for Dunigan. His three-year stint in Manitoba's capital would be his second-longest with any team. Galvanized by his leadership, passing acumen and elusiveness, the Bombers would return to power, winning three consecutive East division titles and earning two Grey Cup berths.
In that period Dunigan threw 85 touchdown passes, a remarkable achievement and a career total for many. Observers marveled that his skills hadn't reached a plateau stage. He showed characteristic improvement in slicing his interception percentage from 5.2 overall in Toronto to 3.3 in three seasons with the Big Blue. Dunigan's passing yardage per game also increased along with his winning percentage.
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No one could have predicted Dieter Brock's 41 of 47 passing day against Ottawa in 1981. Just as rare were Hal Patterson's 338 receiving yards against Hamilton in 1956 and Stampeder Vernon Roberson's three touchdowns on interception returns in 1973.
On July 14, 1994, Matt Dunigan made professional football history. His bombastic 713 yards passing in a 50-35 win over the Eskimos at Winnipeg Stadium is a CFL record that may stand forever. That it exceeded Danny Barrett's own preposterous record of 601 by over 100 yards (set the previous year) emphasizes the sometimes unpredictable and streaky nature of single-game sports achievements.
But it takes a special individual to do it even once. And of course, Dunigan was able to achieve highly consistently in his career.
Chris Walby, a Winnipeg fixture at right tackle said of Dunigan, "When he gets in the huddle he's so confident you just believe, no matter what the situation, he's going to take you down to score and win the game....
That confidence helped Dunigan lead teams in five different cities to winning records, the only CFL quarterback to do so in history. With Winnipeg, Dunigan's record was 39-16.
Dunigan also added power along the ground. Incredibly, with each team he joined, the rushing average increased. Equally significant, five of the six teams he left suffered a drop. (Only Doug Flutie's 1990 Lions were an exception, increasing from 5.3 to 5.8 per carry in Dunigan's absence).
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By 1995, Dunigan's robes and scepter were of his own color and hue. What he brought to an offence was his own unique blend of courage, competitiveness and flair. And Jack Pardee, head coach of the expansion Birmingham Barracudas wanted the best.
He got the best. Matt Dunigan signed as a free agent in the off-season as the quarterback of one of two new CFL franchises.
Dunigan commented prior to the season, "[There are] a lot of positives certainly - Birmingham being the biggest; the fans there, how smart they are, how football- conscious they are. The food, the weather, less taxes, great facilities...everything is falling into place [and I'm] looking forward to the opportunity and thankful..." The new Birmingham fan-core would be thankful as well.
Dunigan's 1995 campaign as leader of the young crew was his most impressive yet. Taking a franchise expected to win four to six games, the Western Wizard was at the zenith of his powers, guiding the 'Cudas to a 10-8 record and an unexpected playoff berth.
For only the fifth time in his frenetic career, Matt Dunigan played every down of the season. This, in effect his last season, was arguably his best season ever. He threw more passes, had more completions and had less interceptions (per attempt - 2.5) than ever before. His 34 TD passes was the best in the CFL and his second-highest career total.
Employing offensive coordinator John Jenkins' "superback" offence, the Barracudas averaged 6.8 yards on the ground. It was the top mark for the entire decade. The aggressive Birmingham offence found roots in the "Run and Shoot" and featured Keith Woodside, on most downs, as the superback or single back. The passing system featured up to five receivers including Marcus Grant (84-1559-11), Jason Phillips (76-1101-8), Ted Long (65-620-1) and Eddie Britton (49-681-4).
Jenkins' philosophy yielded a second-place finish in the passing charts of what had become a 13-team league. What was striking about the accomplishment was that Dunigan was working with a brand-new unit, again, and he was able to establish quick chemistry and mutual respect. It was this ability to respond positively to new situations that was a key factor in Hamilton's interest in Dunigan following Birmingham's folding in the off-season. And, of course, he was the most talented free agent available.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats, sadly, would be Dunigan's last CFL stop. And the ending was abrupt. Dunigan threw passes in only the first six games before a concussion, the last of many, required the end of his career.
But Dunigan's week two performance against Doug Flutie's Toronto Argonauts would be an image of solace for Dunigan's supporters. Dunigan fired five touchdown passes in a 38-36 shootout victory against Doug's Double-Blue. The fifth was a go-ahead game-winner which saw Dunigan elude a tackler in the pocket, escape to the right and torque a pass high where only Earl "the Pearl" Winfield could capture it. As Neil Lumsden might say, it was vintage Dunigan. Dunigan, helmet off, Tiger-Cat blonde hair gleaming, confronted Winfield vociferously in the end zone and hugged his new comrade in congratulations. One wonders if Hamilton could have been the East's beast to beat in the 1996 final.
Doug Flutie commented on that game and on what had been an unspoken competitive rivalry between the two over the years, "When we opened at home against Hamilton and it was one of the biggest crowds of the season...there was a lot of excitement about that game. I realized it was the rivalry with Hamilton and all that, but I think I underestimated how many people came from Hamilton for that game. Obviously it was Matt and I and when we played against one another there were usually a lot of points scored. There was definitely that little extra motivation, but there was also a lot of respect for each other. I respected his ability and think he respected mine. - That day Matt was on. People were getting open and he was putting the ball on the money. They were making plays. Matt threw five touchdown passes.
Doug added, "Unfortunately, it was the last game I played against Matt. He suffered a career-ending concussion a few weeks later in a game against BC. Without him and with the loss of others to injuries, Hamilton lost all hope. I felt bad for Matt. I had a serious elbow injury but I knew I would return. A head injury is completely different..
Dunigan joined a growing list of talented quarterbacks who have had careers shortened or interrupted by concussions. That list includes Turner Gill and the NFL's Steve Young and Troy Aikman.
It is only in very recent years that concussions have been accorded more serious attention. A concussion, in essence, is a bruising of the brain and repeated concussions can result in significant long-term consequences. Today, Matt Dunigan still suffers some of those consequences and his retirement, although a loss for both the CFL and for Dunigan and his supporters is considered in his best interest. The concussions have had their impact, however.
"It's just kind of like excess baggage you tote around with you. My long-term memory is excellent. My short-term memory is terrible. I can bring stuff up from way back. I can name probably the entire starting defence for the Esks in 83 and probably couldn't recall half the guys who play in Toronto's defence this year. It's kind of weird that way..
"I had a college buddy back in 1981. He had a serious concussion - several of them - and he had to step out of the game back then. It wasn't until 1996; 15 years later that the fog lifted and things just kind of came into focus with him. He said it was an incredible feeling. That's pretty cool. It kind of gives you hope..
Following his retirement from football, Dunigan was hired as offensive coordinator with Valdosta State University, a Division II school located in Valdosta, Georgia, a pleasant town of 40,000, the state's tenth largest.
On June 17th, 1999, The Sports Network (TSN), Canada's chief sports network, announced Dunigan's hiring as color commentator and panelist on the highly successful TSN Friday Night Football program. The network was rightfully optimistic in the decision stating, "We are thrilled to inject the enthusiasm and insight that only Matt Dunigan can deliver to our CFL telecasts. Matt has a presence and personality that will meld perfectly with the entertaining and informative format we moved to on our CFL shows last year." The entertaining program has ranked among the top three such shows in North America and Dunigan continues to be a vital player for TSN today.
One year later, Dunigan was considered for the position of head coach of the Argonauts. J.I. Albrecht, the outspoken managing director of the Argonauts at the time, made a difficult decision in choosing Michael "Pinball" Clemons over Dunigan. Albrecht opined following the hiring, "Yes, he applied for the job. Matt called me and I immediately asked him, 'You want to come back and play for us?' And he said, 'No, I'm ready to coach for you.'" Albrecht spicily added, "I have nothing negative to say about Matt Dunigan. He's the one guy I like on TSN. And I have always admired Matt's true grit..
Whether we see an enthusiastic and knowledgeable Dunigan follow in the steps of Danny Barrett and Clemons as former players turned to coaching remains to be seen. But there is no doubt regarding Dunigan's CFL legacy. In his wake, Dunigan evokes the type of sports eulogies reserved for only the most memorable of players.
Neil Payne, long-time CFL referee reflected in his book Crimes & Punishment - Life as a CFL Official," How about the toughest quarterback [ever] in the league? Without a doubt, Matt Dunigan. When Matt broke into the league in 1983, I thought he was a great player but only an average quarterback. He was the only player I knew who got better at this position every game until he was dragged from the field for the last time. Mercifully, he was forced to retire as not only the league's toughest quarterback, but also one of its most colorful and skilled..
Pinball adds, "He played the game with almost reckless abandon, which to some degree explains his problems with injuries. Amazingly, he could still function as leader when he was hurt and had to be replaced. He conveyed the impression that he'd give anything to be out there with you in the thick of battle..
On Dunigan's demolition day, his 713-yard passing effort in 1994, opposing head coach Ron Lancaster, himself a respected icon of CFL passing history, asserted, "When he's hot he's dynamite. When a guy gets on a roll like that, he's hard to beat. He's just a great football player..
On June 26th, 1983, a 22-year old Matt Dunigan, still in the running for a backup spot behind Warren Moon, grinned when describing his professional opportunity, "I jumped at it. I just couldn't believe somebody was going to pay me to do what I'd been doing for fun all those years..
In the snow, on asphalt, in a windstorm, or a rainstorm... anywhere, anytime: Matt Dunigan's fission frosted and flourished. From Joe Aillet to Commonwealth and from BC Place to the Skydome. His furious imprint was marked in Winnipeg, unique to Birmingham and rested finally, in Hamilton.
Grim Polaris remains glowering over a practice field in Edmonton. The brightest star in the constellation Ursa