Tight End - Hamilton & Ottawa
1971 - 1981
Ours is a passing game, and from week to week and from year to year, it seems more CFL games are decided in the final minutes then not. Yet, since its inception in 1909, the Grey Cup Game has only once witnessed a last-minute game-winning touchdown reception.
Certainly, receivers have etched numerous striking and historic plays in Grey Cup competition. Pete Karpuk's 3rd quarter over-the-shoulder catch provided the decisive points in Ottawa's 21-14 victory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1951. Hamilton Tiger-Cat Tony Champion's 3rd down cracked-rib, game-tying flyer in 1989 against Saskatchewan was anguished elegance. Champion's catch tied the game at 40 points apiece but the Tiger-Cats ultimately lost on a last-play field goal in what many say was the greatest Grey Cup game ever. Ned Armour's sudden 84-yard reception to open the scoring in 1985's final between the B.C. Lions and Hamilton Tiger-Cats was testament to Lion supremacy and depth. B.C. went on to post a 37-24 win on the strength of Armour's 3 catches for 151 yards. More recently, Eddie Brown's wonderfully improbable off-the-knee catch in the swirling snow was magical in 1996 when the Edmonton Eskimos lost gallantly but spectacularly, 43-37 to Doug Flutie and the Toronto Argonauts.
But only Tony Gabriel, tight end for the Ottawa Rough Riders, was able to do it late in the game and for a win.
It happened in 1976. And anyone who watched the play will smile fondly (or ruefully) and nod in agreement when it is referred to as "The Catch". With 20 seconds remaining in the 4th quarter, trailing the Saskatchewan Roughriders 20-16, Ottawa Rough Rider Tony Gabriel caught a deep touchdown pass from quarterback Tom Clements and effectively ended the Saskatchewan Roughriders Grey Cup dream.
Said Gabriel later describing the play, "As I watched him [Clements] released a perfect pass that headed right for me. Mentally I had my fingers crossed; "Let nothing distract me" I prayed ... I drifted in the direction of the ball, reached over and plucked it from the air. Gary Kuzyk who had come downfield on the pattern said he saw my face as I fingered the ball: "Gabber, your eyes were six feet wide open!" ... Had I dropped the ball I would have kept on running, right out of the end-zone, all the way back to Ottawa and would have retired from football."
Ottawa held on for the win and while he went on to add to his legend, Gabriel's catch was to become a touchstone memory for Canadian football fans.
Tony Gabriel was born on December 11, 1948 in Hamilton, Ontario, and had eleven other brothers and sisters to keep him company in their Burlington home. Years later, Tony's brother Peter would join him in a brief stint in the CFL. Young Tony worked on the family farm and perhaps it was this tough work which led to his strength and constitution in his playing days.
In 1965, while in grade 11, Gabriel made the junior team as a flanker. In 1967, Gabriel was encouraged by life-long friend Eddie Phillips to try out for the Burlington Braves junior football team. It was here he would meet the legendary Bernie Custis, former quarterback of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the first black quarterback to gain all-star status while leading a professional team. The experience was Tony's first as a tight end. And it was a lasting fit.
Following on Custis' recommendation, Gabriel was recruited by Syracuse University, as a tight end. In his 3 years with the Orangemen, the Gabber would play alongside Zenon Andrusyshyn of eventual Argonaut fame and also set 6 reception records including career catches (87) and most TDs in a single game (4). Gabriel distinguished himself as a tight end and was noticed by both the CFL and NFL.
At this time, Jim Trimble, former coach of the Tiger-Cats and Montreal Alouettes had taken over as director of player personnel of the New York Giants and was interested in Gabriel. He contacted Gabriel and invited him to New York on the Giants' expense. However, the Giants did not sign the young tight end and Gabriel eventually signed with the Tiger-Cats in 1971.
It was in 1972 that Gabriel began to make his mark. After a modest beginning in 1971 (20 catches for 285 yards), Tony was a significant member of the offence finishing with 49 receptions for 733 yards and 3 touchdowns. That year's Grey Cup game between the 11-3 Tiger-Cats and 8-8 Saskatchewan Roughriders was the first national showcase for Gabriel's big-game nerve.
With his Tiger-Cats tied at 10 with the staunch Wheatmen and less than 90 seconds remaining in the game, Gabriel came to the fore. Starting at their own 15, Hamilton relied on 3 successive completions to Gabriel to take them into field goal range. Finally, following an additional reception by standout Garney Henley, the Tiger-Cats were on the Saskatchewan 27 and in position to win the game. With 7 seconds on the clock, place-kicker Ian Sunter kicked the field goal true. It wouldn't be the last time Roughie quarterback Ron Lancaster would lose to Tony Gabriel.
The 1974 CFL season would see Gabriel reach personal bests with 61 receptions for 795 yards but the team continued its decline. Hamilton slipped to 7-9 as the East played its first 16 game schedule. In the off-season, Gabriel was traded to the Ottawa Rough Riders in a 5-player exchange. However, Gabriel would go to the nation's capital as a Schenley Award winner. His season was considered the best for a Canadian in the CFL. It was the beginning of Gabriel's dominance at tight end. From 1974 to 1978 the consistent Gabriel would lead the East division in receptions.
Ottawa offensive co-ordinator Tom Dimitroff was very positive about the trade saying of Gabriel, "This fellow is going to be far more help to our club than most football people suspect. He's a leader on the field and a major item, apart from his pass-catching talent, is that he comes up with the big play when it counts." Gabriel would be joining 6 former Tiger-Cat teammates including Mark Kosmos and Bruce Smith. In both 1975 and 76, Gabriel topped 1,000 yards receiving and added to his trophy collection, bringing home a second Schenley for Outstanding Canadian Player.
Gabriel was the CFL Reception Leader in 1976 with 72 and was the lone CFL receiver to exceed 1000 yds. Gabriel's team finished first in the East in 1976 but entered the Grey Cup as underdogs. They were facing a Saskatchewan team, which had given up only 238 points. It was the lowest points total in the West since 1971. Fittingly, Clements would finish with only 174 yards passing on the day. But along with the scintillating game-winner, Gabriel would collect 7 receptions for 124 yards. But it was that final historic catch which sealed a Grey Cup MVP award. Gabriel added later, "I didn't keep the ball, I spiked the ball. The biggest touchdown of my life and I don't keep the ball. I want that ball." It was also Ottawa's last Grey Cup victory.
As in 1973, Gabriel's team would again falter following a Grey Cup victory. The 1977 Ottawa Rough Riders would finish 8-8 and ultimately losing in the East final. The Rough Riders were unable to solve the Montreal Alouettes, losing all 5 of their games against the powerful Als including the playoff decider. Montreal would plague Gabriel and the Rough Riders during this period, eliminating them in 78, 79 and in 1980. However, despite his team's disappointing season, Gabriel would add a second consecutive Schenley as most valuable Canadian.
Personally, Tony Gabriel received his highest honour in 1978. Finishing with 67 catches for 1070 yards and 11 touchdowns, Gabriel defeated Edmonton quarterback Tom Wilkinson in the voting for the Schenley Most Valuable Player in the CFL. No Canadian had won it since Ottawa's Russ Jackson had in 1969. And no Canadian has done so since.
Tony Gabriel's final season would be 1981 and it would be a year of firsts. Gabriel suffered through the first injury of his career and Ottawa would drop below the 6 win mark for the first time since 1970 (4-10), finishing 5-11. A fierce hit by Ed Jones of the Eskimos cracked Gabriel's ribs and put him out for a short time. In the meantime, the Rough Riders morphed from bad to better as the season progressed.
However, the 1981 season produced another first. For the first time since 1973, Ottawa was able to defeat their rival Montreal Alouettes in a playoff game. Gabriel's game-winning catch turned out to be his final touchdown reception. The 20-16 win coupled with an unexpected victory in the East final against 11-4-1 Hamilton, propelled Ottawa into the Grey Cup game to face the behemoth Edmonton Eskimos.
Gabriel would play his final Grey Cup game injured having sustained a partial tear of his left knee ligaments, and would be a part of more Grey Cup drama. Late in the game, tied at 23 with 3:28 remaining Gabriel made a crucial 2nd down reception at the Ottawa 53. It would have been a 20-yard gain but perplexingly, a double-interference penalty was called which wiped out the gain. Replays showed Gabriel had not interfered but that Edmonton defender Gary Hayes had. No matter, the play was nullified and on the next play from the 33, Ottawa quarterback J.C. Watts was sacked. The Rough Riders were forced to punt and it is argued that the resulting loss of field position was the deciding factor in what ultimately was a 26-23 Edmonton victory. Watts' sack was Gabriel's last play in the CFL. Although Ottawa got the ball back one more time, Gabriel was unable to continue. His knee had finally given out. Gabriel finished the day with 6 receptions for 76 yards and would retire soon thereafter.
Today Tony Gabriel is fondly remembered as one of the last "throw-back" tight ends in CFL history, lined up alongside either tackle, and fully responsible for blocking linebackers and on certain plays, even defensive linemen. But more significantly he is remembered for being the last Canadian to win the Schenley for most valuable player in the CFL. And of course, he is remembered for "The Catch."
For Ottawa fans Gabriel's retirement is pointed to as the end of an era. >From 1982-1996, Ottawa's last season in the CFL, the Riders had not one winning season. Following the Ottawa franchise's unfortunate folding in 1996, Gabriel was involved in a group interested in reviving football in Ottawa but to no avail.
For some CFL fans, Gabriel's catch is the final image in a series of fabled golden moments for the League. The slow motion replay of Clement's floater is 24 years old now. Certainly, the CFL has since created moments just as special but perhaps it is only with the passing of time that those moments can gain the "gloss of history" and reach the status of Tony Gabriel's memorable reception.
Tony Gabriel was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in August, 1984.
Career 8th Most Pass Receiving TDS - 69, 1971-1981
Career 3rd Most Consecutive Games with a TD Reception - 7, 1978
Career 3rd Most Seasons with Pass Reception in All Games - 7, 1973-1981
Career 2nd Most Consecutive Games with Pass Receptions, Regular Season - 137 1973-1981
Career 9th Most Pass Receiving Yards - 9832 1973-1981
Career 3rd Most Seasons with Pass Receptions - 10, 1971-1981
Career 9th Most Pass Receptions - 59, 1971-1981
Career 2nd Most Pass Receiving Games 100+ yards - 2,
Game 2nd Most Pass Receptions - 15, Hamilton at Ottawa, Nov. 10, 1974
Participated in 3 Grey Cup Games 1972, 1976 and 1981 winning in 1972 with Hamilton 13-10 over Saskatchewan, winning in 1976 with Ottawa over Saskatchewan, 23-20 and losing in 1981 against Edmonton, 26-23.
Received Most Valuable Canadian Player Award in 1976 Grey Cup
Outstanding Player 1977, 78, 81 (won in 78)
Canadian 1973, 74 (won in 74) 1976, 77, 78, 79, 81 (won 76-78 inclusive)
Jeff Russel Trophy
Outstanding Player in the Eastern Division
Since 1994, the Terry Evanshen Trophy has been used to recognize this player.
Lew Hayman Trophy
Outstanding Canadian Player in the Eastern Division
1976,1977, 1978, 1981
Dick Suderman Award
Most Valuable Canadian Player 1976 Grey Cup
Rajeev Mullick is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto. He also coaches high school football at Senator O'Connor High School and is Editor in Chief of Rouge Magazine. Mr. Mullick's full-time occupation is as a counsellor at Eva's Phoenix Shelter and he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org