Long Read: Chasing CFL folklore in the form of a beer can

The Canadian Press

or nearly three decades it has been a mystery, a bit of Canadian folklore that everyone who saw it remembers vividly. And yet nobody who saw it seems to know the full story.

Who threw the beer can at the Rocket?

The Rocket in question was Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, star player for the Toronto Argonauts in the 1991 Grey Cup in Winnipeg. The beer can in question was thrown from the stands, barely missing the Rocket as he raced into the end zone to score the game-clinching touchdown. It’s a moment that has been replayed endlessly – one of the most memorable plays in Canadian football history.

And yet for nearly 28 years, the story behind the throw has remained a mystery to all but a few individuals.

When I set out a couple of years ago to write a book about the 1991 Argonauts, I had no shortage of great angles to pursue. There were the team’s high-profile owners: hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, Hollywood superstar John Candy and future felon Bruce McNall. There was the outlandish contract the trio bestowed upon Ismail, which immediately set the Argos up as a villain across the then-financially strapped Canadian Football League.

There was the circus atmosphere that engulfed the cocky, fun-lovin’, pre-game-dancin’-and-jivin’ Argos in every city they visited. There was Candy flying some Argo players home from road trips on his Gulfstream private jet. There was the coldest Grey Cup ever played, and the first ever played in Winnipeg. There was Matt Dunigan’s refusal to let a broken collarbone prevent him from quarterbacking the Boatmen to victory in the championship game.

Most of that stuff had been written about before, though. No one, as far as I could tell, had ever cracked the mystery of the hurled beer can.

* * *

With 11 minutes left in the 79th Grey Cup at Winnipeg Stadium on Nov. 24, 1991, the Calgary Stampeders had just narrowed the Toronto Argonauts’ lead to a single point thanks to a touchdown by future Hall of Famer Allen Pitts.

Mark McLoughlin trotted on to the field to kick off for Calgary. Awaiting the kick was the man who had been the focal point of the entire season, not just for the Argos but for the CFL in general.

When McNall, owner of hockey’s Los Angeles Kings, partnered with his star player Gretzky and Kings season-ticket-holder Candy to buy the Argonauts in February of 1991, it was the best news the CFL had received in ages. The league was at a low ebb, with the Montreal Alouettes having folded four years earlier, attendance dwindling in Toronto and Vancouver, and three franchises (the Ottawa Rough Riders, Calgary Stampeders and Hamilton Tiger-Cats) all looking like good bets to go out of business before long.

Enter the McNall group, with the instant cachet of Gretzky, the greatest hockey player in history; Candy, one of Hollywood’s top box-office draws; and McNall, the coin collector with an apparent magic touch who had risen to become owner of the Kings and chairman of the NHL board of governors. Gretzky grew up just an hour outside Toronto, in Brantford; Candy was not only sometimes called “Johnny Toronto” but had dreamt of playing for the Argos and actually snuck into games at old Exhibition Stadium as a teenager. The king of hockey, the king of comedy and the king, we found out later, of defrauding banks to prop up a paper empire.

Two months after the purchase, the new owners made the biggest splash imaginable. On the very day he was expected to be one of the first choices in the NFL draft, Raghib “Rocket” Ismail stunned the sports world by signing a massive contract to play as a “marquee player” for the Argos. The speedster from the University of Notre Dame signed a personal services contract that would pay him between $18 million and $26 million over four years – at least $4.5 million per year, with marketing incentives that could boost his annual stipend to $6.5 million. This at a time when Gretzky himself was earning “only” $3 million per season to play for the Kings, and the CFL’s salary cap limited teams to spending no more than $3 million – for all players combined.

Toronto Argonaut owners John Candy and Wayne Gretzky sit alongside Rocket Ismail as the club welcomes media to the opening of 1991 Training Camp at the University of Guelph

Ismail was signed to do for the Argos and the CFL what Gretzky had done for hockey in L.A.: sell tickets and stir up interest. Shy and uncomfortable around cameras – the antithesis of the polished Gretzky – the Rocket had nonetheless succeeded, to a point. His first game at Toronto’s SkyDome was a mega-event: Dan Aykroyd and the Blues Brothers rocked the house, Candy sang, actor Mariel Hemingway danced, and TV comedian Super Dave Osborne mugged for the cameras. Attendance was up in Toronto – including a near-sellout of 50,000-plus at the Eastern Final a week before the Grey Cup – and the Argos played to mostly full houses elsewhere.

Although Ismail couldn’t possibly generate enough new revenue to justify his salary, he could show why he was such a highly touted player coming out of college. As the season progressed, he increasingly became the focal point of the Argo offence. His punt return touchdown in the Eastern Final had plunged a dagger into the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ hopes of playing at home in the Grey Cup.

Now he was trotting on to the field before 51,985 frozen Grey Cup spectators, the vast majority of them staunchly anti-Argo – and one of them packing a loaded beer can.

* * *

Rocket Ismail scooped up McLoughlin’s bouncing kick at the Toronto 22 and cut to his right behind a wall of low-paid blockers, instantly exhibiting the breathtaking speed that had earned him his nickname.

The late Don Wittman, calling the game for CBC-TV, showed his customary anticipation and excitement as he described what unfolded. “The Rocket looks for a hole! If he gets to the outside this time, he’s gone!”

As Ismail hit the Calgary 10-yard line, no tacklers within 20 yards, he spread his arms in triumph and looked over his left shoulder towards the Argo bench on the far sideline. To his right, something landed on the field, nearly hitting the Rocket’s feet. In those days of fuzzy, low-definition television, it almost looked like a snowball – and was in fact identified as such by Wittman when he described a replay he watched on a tiny monitor in the broadcast booth.

But on closer inspection, that was no snowball. It was a beer can, spinning its contents out into instantly frozen foam on the rock-hard artificial turf of Winnipeg Stadium.

A beer can thrown by someone in the stands. But by whom? And why? What type of beer? How had the thrower kept the secret for so long? I had a serious longing to find out.

I wasn’t the only one. CFL.ca’s own Matthew Cauz, who was 16 years old when the 1991 Grey Cup was played, has obsessed about “the throw” for decades. “I want to know the fan who did it, and everything that led up to it,” Cauz told me, calling for a full-blown “ESPN 30 for 30”-style documentary investigation.

* * *

And so my own investigation began. For periodic inspiration, I had a talisman: a custom-made 15-centimetre-tall action figure I’d purchased, depicting the Rocket with outstretched arms, a foamy silver beer can splayed on a piece of turf at his feet.

Would the thrower even still be alive? (It was 28 years ago, after all.) If the perpetrator was alive and somehow heard about my quest, would he or she (in my mind’s eye, it was always a he) be willing to talk? Or, since it was so long ago, and anything I uncovered was likely to be unverifiable, might many people claim to be the thrower?

Surely someone in Winnipeg would know something. As reporter Gary Lawless said in a piece for TSN in 2015, “no one really knows who threw it. But everyone knows someone who knows someone who knows the guy.”

By watching video of the touchdown and examining an old seating map, I had deduced that the throw almost certainly came from Section S, the northernmost section on the east side of the now-demolished Winnipeg Stadium, later known as Canad Inns Stadium. (In a Zapruderesque twist, a close look at the tape reveals a second can flying on to the field seconds later from the back corner of the end zone – I’m afraid someone else will have to take on any search for a “second shooter.”)

Harnessing the power of traditional media and social media, I announced my quest. I started by contacting Doug Speirs, award-winning humour columnist and feature writer for the Winnipeg Free Press – and, as it turns out, a big B.C. Lions fan who was at the 1991 Grey Cup. Speirs wrote about my desire to unravel the mystery in a story the Free Press published April 12.

The Waggle presented by SportClips has an exclusive interview with Paul Woods as he takes host Donnovan Bennett though one of the most iconic yet bizarre moments in Canadian sports history.  You can listen below at the 37:00 mark. 

I tweeted out a link to that story, and it was retweeted by Mike Hogan, who calls play-by-play for Argo radio broadcasts on TSN 1050: “Okay, @CFL fans, it’s time to crack the code. Contact Paul if you know the story behind the infamous Rocket Ismail beer can toss.”

The story immediately drummed up tantalizing clues. Someone named @TheDirtyBird22 tweeted a terse but intriguing response: “His name is Dwayne.”

A reader named Claudette Thibert wrote to Speirs: “I know exactly what happened as I was sitting beside the guy who threw it.” Patrick Dirks told Speirs he had sat in Section S at the 1991 Grey Cup, and the can had almost certainly been thrown by “a stocky guy” who sat near “the famous underwear man.” This was getting crazier.

One by one, I followed up the leads. @TheDirtyBird22 turned out to be Trevor Finch, a lifelong Bomber fan who has had season tickets since 1994, starting in Section S which he (and others, subsequently) described to me as “the infamous student section,” notorious for heavy drinking and good-natured partying.

Denizens of Section S described throwing peanuts at other fans, then switching to marshmallows after security frowned on the peanut tossing. If someone left a game before it was over, dozens of fans in the section would start jangling their keys and chanting, “Beat the traffic!” The famous “beer snake,” hundreds of emptied Solo cups stacked together and winding their way through the stands – a tradition that lives on in the glitzy new IG Field – by several accounts began in Section S at the old stadium.

Finch, who became a Bomber fan as a young kid – he shagged punts from Bob Cameron, and adopted receiver Perry Tuttle as his favourite player, hence the 22 in his Twitter handle – was not in the stadium for the 1991 Grey Cup. But he says he had been told by fellow fans whose season tickets predated his that the thrower sat in the section. “One person says it was this guy Dwayne, someone else says no, it was another guy. But none of these people have come up and said, ‘Yeah, it was me.’

“It’s amazing how everyone remembers that, and it’s also amazing that no one has sat around and trumpeted, ‘Yeah, I was the one.’”

Dirks has had season tickets since 1988 or 1989, when the Bombers offered a deal for students: $50 for the full season, in Section S. “I was a huge Bomber fan, but I couldn’t afford whatever season tickets cost at that time. When I heard 50 bucks, I got right in my car and drove straight to the Bomber office to get tickets.”

After reading Speirs’ piece in the Free Press, he asked some colleagues what they remembered about the 1991 Grey Cup. “I talked to a person in my office who’s a big CFL fan. I said, ‘Did you go to the ’91 Grey Cup?’ He said, ‘Yes, but I didn’t throw the beer.’ Instantly went right there.

“Most football fans that I know remember it very vividly. Everyone remembers the beer can.”

Thibert, who recalls resting her feet on straw at the Grey Cup to ward off frostbite in the bitter cold, became a Section S season-ticket holder in 1990. Guys named Glenn and Dave sat near her for a decade, and although she didn’t know them well, or even know their last names, she knew Dave as the underwear-clad “gotchman,” and she was certain the can had been thrown by his buddy Glenn.

Raghib 'Rocket' Ismail hoists the Grey Cup trophy to thousands of fans who lined the streets to celebrate with the Toronto Argonauts following their 1991 Grey Cup victory

“I don’t think I have to tell you that alcohol played a factor,” she said. “Rocket was running . . . he threw his can of beer. We saw it fall and we went, ‘Oh, what are you doing?’ Some guy said, ‘You’re wasting your beer.’ And that’s pretty much the story. No security came – he just threw it, and everybody was laughing.”

Thibert has seen replays of Ismail’s touchdown, and its inclusion in highlight packages of the craziest plays of all time. “I remember commenting, ‘Oh yeah, I sat beside the guy who threw that.’”

Like Thibert, Dirks remembers “the underwear man,” who sat one row lower and a few seats to his left. And he remembers the beer can being thrown from the area where the underwear man sat, comparing his recollections to a famous Seinfeld episode in which baseball star Keith Hernandez is accused of spitting on characters Kramer and Newman.

“The trajectory of the beer – this sounds like the magic loogie episode – just from where it landed, we could tell it had been thrown from our area. You quickly look over and what I remember is the usual crowd. Underwear man and his buddy.

“(I) just remember everyone going, what the heck happened, and there was only one person who wasn’t doing that. It had to have been him.

“From the trajectory of the beer, it would have been within a 10-foot-square area, and he was the only one who was sort of looking guilty. He was just sort of sitting there, with his head down.”

But who was this mystery man?

* * *

Then came information that lent credence to what I’d heard so far – there really was an underwear man, with a story to tell. “I know everyone says they know the guy that threw the beer,” Dave Heywood wrote to Speirs. “But this is legit. He is my best friend, I have known him for 50 years.

“I was standing right beside him when he threw his half-frozen OV tall boy from our seats in Section S Row 7 at the old stadium. I have a lot of good info for you (about) our ‘gotchmen’ group who used to go to the games in our underwear for all those years.”

Heywood, whose friends call him Woody or Newt, described being part of a “gotchmen” group who used to attend games wearing underwear. The group was started by his older brother and some friends, all of whom are now in their 60s and no longer kit up in “gotch.” Woody still does, though. “I’m the last – they call me the lone gotchman.”

Heywood, 55, says the group, which at one time consisted of 20 to 30 men, would all show up to Bombers games in their underwear, in Section S. A handful of snapshots on the Internet depict Gotchmen back in the day, wearing briefs or Y-fronts instead of pants.

“You’re 18, 19, 20, you’re drinking – that’s what you do: you put your underwear on and go to the Bomber game,” says Woody.

Heywood’s fandom wasn’t just about underwear, though. Back in 1983, he spray-painted his Toyota Corolla blue, pasted on some hand-made Go Blue and gotchmen decals, put a Bomber helmet on the front as a “hood ornament” – and cut a big hole in the roof. Thus was born the Bomber car, which Heywood managed to worm into the team’s victory parade after the 1984 Grey Cup.

All worthy of a story of its own, perhaps, but my quest was about the beer can. Heywood matter-of-factly describes sitting seven rows above field level, near the north end goal-line.

The can, he says, was thrown by a guy he has been friends with since kindergarten. “For a while he didn’t want to (discuss it) because he didn’t want to get into trouble. He didn’t want to say anything. ‘Don’t tell anybody.’ But the inner circle knew.”

Some over the years have speculated, based on its silvery appearance in the grainy TV footage, that the beer must have been a Coors Light. But Heywood insists it was a can of Old Vienna. That brand was produced at the time by Carling O’Keefe, which coincidentally had owned the Argonauts until 1988. “It was an OV tall boy, half-frozen. That’s why when it splatted it looked like a snowball.”

Throwing it was “not something we planned to do. Spur of the moment.”

Heywood says there were no immediate ramifications. Security guards tried to identify the thrower, but fans were packed into the flat benches of Section S, most wearing heavy parkas. (Except the gotchmen, of course. “We weren’t wearing parkas. I would have been wearing lots of underwear, right? I don’t wear parkas to the games, ever.”)

The thrower, who lives outside Manitoba and heard about my quest from Speirs’ column in the Free Press, would probably be willing to talk about it now, Heywood says – despite misgivings his friend set out in a text: “Jeez, I might end up in the slammer yet.”

* * *

It turns out the alleged thrower – “alleged” because there is no way of ever verifying any of the tales I gathered – is not so sure about speaking to a journalist because of “the reality of the megaphone we’ve given through social media to put a shame on people.”

After a lengthy, thoughtful discussion about the pros and cons of coming forward after 28 years, he agrees to speak to me only on condition of anonymity. We agree that I can describe him as 55 and living a quiet life tending to gardens on the West coast. His name is neither Dwayne nor Glenn, and for the purposes of this story, we will call him Oswald.

“I’m just glad that guy didn’t have a good aim, man. He could have knocked that ball out of my hand. I’m showboating on the 10-yard line. What the heck was I thinking?”

– Rocket Ismail

He confirms most of what I’d heard from Heywood. “Oswald,” too, was kitted up in gotch at the 1991 Grey Cup. The underwear was a handy way to smuggle in cans of beer – brew could be purchased at the stadium, but only in plastic cups. (Many who attended the 1991 Grey Cup have reported cups of beer turning quickly into slushies or even rock-hard beersicles in the bone-chilling cold.)

“In honour of my tremendous mother, I’d always wear one of her nighties, and an old bra. I was often in a nightie and a bra on the outside, and gotch on my head. And I’d stuff a couple of cans in my bra.”

Oswald confirms the beer in question was an OV. Asked if Old Vienna was his beer of choice back then, he replies, deadpan, “Beer was my beer of choice back then.”

Oswald, who had grown up in Winnipeg but was living in Calgary in 1991 and cheering for the Stampeders, was unhappy about the McNall group flouting the salary cap rules by signing Ismail to his record-breaking contract. But he insisted he never planned to hurl a frozen beer at the Rocket.

“It was not premeditated. I hadn’t thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to throw a beer sometime this game.’

“He was running down the field and was obviously gonna score. Things can flash through your mind in a millisecond, a lot of stuff. I was thinking, ‘They’ve bought the Cup, they’ve changed the CFL, there’s the Rocket, man. I’ve got a three-quarters can of OV in my hand that I can’t drink because it’s mostly frozen. Away we go.’

“I mean, that all happened in probably two seconds. I never thought about it. It was just, there he goes, oh that kind of sucks.

“I remember it landing just as he strode. It landed almost between his legs, kind of went through his legs. Whatever liquid was in there blew up. And then people were going crazy because it was a huge play. It was a great play, a hugely defining moment in the Grey Cup, and it was the Rocket, right? It was a big deal.”

Although about 100 people in his immediate circle have known about the throw for years, his toss went largely undetected at the time, Oswald says. “Not many people actually saw me doing it. They were watching the play; they weren’t watching Bozo in the stands throwing a can.

“(But) the security guards knew that I threw it. They saw me. They all knew us, and the guy said, ‘Hey, take it, easy, man.’ That’s all they did. I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, won’t do that again this game.’”

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Oswald acknowledges that the throw could have had far more serious repercussions – for Ismail, the game and himself – than merely becoming an oft-played crazy moment in football history. Had the can hit the Rocket, he could have been injured and might, conceivably, have been felled before scoring. Had that happened, there might have been an immediate attempt to uncover the identity of the perpetrator and bring him or her to justice.

“It was poetic justice when the beer can came on the field . . . It was (like) nothing can stop him, not even a flying object.”

– Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons

“Oh sure,” he says when asked if he ever had regrets. “Of course. You go, holy . . . that could’ve been problematic.”

Oswald’s relieved that all concerned seem to look back on the incident fondly. He notes that Ismail’s teammate Mike “Pinball” Clemons told TSN several years ago that it was “poetic justice when the beer can came on the field . . . It was (like) nothing can stop him, not even a flying object.”

For his part, the Rocket has laughed about it ever since. “I’m just glad that guy didn’t have a good aim, man,” he told CBC-TV in 2006. “He could have knocked that ball out of my hand. I’m showboating on the 10-yard line. What the heck was I thinking?”

If Oswald were to meet the Rocket now, “I’d probably say, ‘Hey man, no harm meant.’ It made an amazing play be made more memorable in a certain way.

“I’m obviously glad nothing happened, more than it being a fun story.”

Oswald adds he saw Ismail break-dancing on a morning TV show years later. “He was absolutely horrible, and they said, ‘Where’s the guy with the beer can when you need him?’”

Paul Woods is a journalist, Canadian football historian and author of Bouncing Back: From National Joke to Grey Cup Champs, which chronicled the Toronto Argonauts winning the championship in 1983 after 31 years of futility and misery. His next book, about the 1991 Argonauts, will be published in 2021.