June 15, 2009

Retro: Argo great Bill Symons

Rick Matsumoto
Special to CFL.ca

It’s a question Bill Symons has been asking for 40 years?

“Where do you find 40 pairs of broomball shoes on a Saturday morning which are the exact size and fit for the feet of some 40 large football players?”

The Hall of Fame running back, who starred with the Toronto Argonauts from 1967-73, is pretty sure he knows the answer.

To this day, Symons doesn’t believe that the Ottawa Rough Riders miraculously came up with the shoes just hours before the kickoff for the second game of the 1969 two-game total points CFL Eastern Conference final when they discovered that the surface of Lansdowne Park was as slick as a hockey rink.

After finishing in first place in the East, the Riders had been upset 22-14 by the Argos in Toronto in the first half of the back-to-back finals in Toronto.

Now, they were desperate.

Symons says he’s sure the Riders ordered the shoes, which are used for the winter sport played on ice, earlier in the week after hatching a plot to have the field sprayed with water overnight knowing that in late November in Ottawa the chances were pretty good the field would be frozen for the next afternoon’s game.

The Argos would arrive for the game with their usual steel-cleated footwear which would be useless as treadles slick tires on a Formula One car during a rain-swept race.

Shod with their newly-acquired broomball shoes the Riders had no difficulty getting traction on the icy surface. The Argos, on the other hand, slipped and slid. They switched to running shoes but to no avail. In the end the Riders managed a 32-3 victory which gave them a 46-25 overall victory and a trip to the Grey Cup game.

Symons managed just seven yards on six carries that afternoon.

“Until the day I die I’m going to believe that they (The Riders) watered the field during the night,” Symons, now 66, said with a sly chuckle in a recent interview. “Tell me, how do you go out and find 40 pairs of broomball shoes on a Saturday morning in Ottawa; forty pairs that perfectly fit 40 players?”

That loss was the second consecutive year that the Argos’ Grey Cup dreams were shattered by the Rough Riders.

In 1968, his second year with the Argos, Symons turned in a magnificent season. He rushed for 1,107 yards on 164 carries to become the first Argo to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season. He also caught 44 passes and scored 11 touchdowns as the team finished second in the East, two points behind the Riders.

In the Eastern semi-final, the third-place Hamilton Tiger-Cats gave Argos a scare as they leaped into a 14-0 lead. However, a 100-yard touchdown run by Symons jolted the Argos to life and they went on to a 33-21 victory.

The Argos upset Ottawa in the first game of the two-game total points final 13-11, but the Riders came back the following week to swamp the Boatmen 36-14 for a 47-27 series win. Ottawa would go on to win the Grey Cup in Toronto.

During the week-long festivities leading up to the Grey Cup game, Symons became the first Argo to win the Schenley Award as the league’s most outstanding player.

Symons’ performance that season caught the attention of the NFL’s Denver Broncos. He had secretly signed an agreement with the Broncos after the season but at the last minute decided to remain in the CFL.
It wasn’t until 1971 that the Argos finally got to participate in the Grey Cup game. By then Symons had been relegated to a blocking back role as the Argos went on a wild recruiting scramble and opened the vault to bring in the like of Joe Theismann, Greg Barton, Jim Stillwagon, Tim Anderson and a running back named Leon McQuay.

Head coach Leo Cahill was infatuated with McQuay and not only made the move with Symons, but also converted the team’s other star running back Dave Raimey to a defensive back.

“Dave and I had both rushed for 900 yards the previous year, so Leo gave up two guys who had gained 1,800 yards for one who got 900 yards,” said Symons. “He lost 900 yards.”

With Symons blasting holes for McQuay the Argos dominated the East with a 10-4 record and gained the Grey Cup game for the first time since 1952.

Ironically, the Argos would lose the game 14-11 to Calgary when McQuay fumbled on the Stampeders five-yard line with less that three minutes remaining.

Many felt the sure-handed Symons, not McQuay, should have been carrying the ball on that fateful play. But Symons didn’t second guess Cahill’s decision to give the ball to McQuay.

“I never questioned it,” he said. “Leon had been the go to guy all season.”

Symons only criticism of the play is that McQuay carried the ball in the wrong hand.

“It was a lack of discipline on McQuay’s part,” said Symons. “Right from the time you first start playing football you’re taught to transfer the ball to the outside hand when you run wide. When McQuay slipped and fell he would have landed on the elbow of the other arm and the ball wouldn’t have been jarred loose.”

Symons was originally a sixth-round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers out of the University of Colorado in 1965. While he was up against star running backs Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor he had made the final roster until he suffered a knee injury in the final pre-season game against the New York Giants.

He underwent surgery and was going through rehabilitation work on an electric bicycle when it malfunctioned and, “blew apart my knee.”

His NFL career was over. The following year, however, he was signed by the B.C. Lions. At the end of that year he was traded to the Argonauts as the throw-in player that saw all-star lineman Dick Fouts go to Toronto in exchange for the rights to Canadian receiver Jim Young, who was then with the Minnesota Vikings, but was anxious to return to Canada.

Symons said he doesn’t deal with the ‘what ifs’. What if he hadn’t hurt his knee against the Giants? What if he had gone to the Broncos? What if he and not McQuay had carried the ball against the Stampeders?

“I’ve had a great opportunity up here,” said Symons, who along with his wife, Tracy, live on a 200-acre farm north of Toronto where they raise seven horse and some 16 head of cattle. “A lot of people don’t appreciate what they have. Heck, I’ve had the opportunity to do what everyone else would love to do.”