The Canadian Press
On the day of the 1989 Western Final, a cartoon appeared in the Edmonton Sun newspaper depicting a lamb wearing a dented Saskatchewan Roughriders helmet.
The not-so-subtle message was clear. The Riders were going to be sacrificial lambs when they faced Edmonton, who had set a CFL record with a 16-2 season.
“When we came into the dressing room, we had that cartoon in all the lockers,” remembers Glen Suitor, the TSN analyst who was a safety on that Saskatchewan team. “It was deliberately put in front of us.”
The Riders had finished third in the West with a 9-9 record and upset the Calgary Stampeders 33-26 in the Western Semi-Final, but were huge underdogs heading into Commonwealth Stadium with a trip to the 77th Grey Cup on the line.
Edmonton defensive tackle John Mandarich said out loud what many fans, members of the media and some of his teammates were thinking.
“People are expecting us to blow them out of the water but, the bottom line is, I’m expecting us to blow them out of the water,’’ Mandarich told the Edmonton Journal.
“It’s not being arrogant and it’s not being cocky, but it’s being determined, because there’s no reason why we shouldn’t blow them out of the water.’’
Roger Aldag, a CFL All-Star offensive guard that year with Saskatchewan, knew words were not going to decide the game.
“We heard different comments from a couple of the (Edmonton) players,” he said. “We just kind of laughed them off.”
When the final whistle blew, stunned Edmonton players and their fans watched the Riders celebrate. In one of the biggest upsets in CFL playoff history, Saskatchewan shocked Edmonton 31-21. The Riders went on to win their second Grey Cup in franchise history with an exciting 43-40 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Slotback Jeff Fairholm said the Riders didn’t let the noise from “a couple cocky guys” disrupt their preparation.
“It may have allowed us to focus more in practice,” said Fairholm, who had three catches for 74 yards and a touchdown in the win. “Do a little bit more work, watch a little bit more film.
“We’re professional athletes so we’re going to be playing as hard as we possibly can. That might have given us a little bit more inspiration to work just a little bit harder in preparation for the game.”
This year the Toronto Argonauts tied Edmonton’s 1989 record by finishing 16-2. The defending Grey Cup champions face the Montreal Alouettes (11-7) in Saturday’s Eastern Final. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (14-4) host the BC Lions (12-6) in the Western Final.
Edmonton’s 1989 team was led by quarterback Tracy Ham, the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player that year. Linebacker Danny Bass was the league’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player while centre Rod Connop was the Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman. Coached by Joe Faragalli, Edmonton placed 10 players on the CFL All-Star team, including running back Reggie Taylor, slotback Craig Ellis, defensive end Stewart Hill and defensive back Don Wilson.
CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie was an offensive lineman on the team.
Edmonton scored 644 points that year while allowing just 302. They went into the Western Final riding a six-game win streak, including a 49-17 blowout of Saskatchewan in the final regular season game.
Suitor said Saskatchewan had a “quiet confidence” during the week’s practice. The Riders had beaten Edmonton 48-35 during the season. Quarterbacks Kent Austin and Tom Burgess were both playing well. Injured players like linebacker Dave Albright, wide receiver Ray Elgaard and Fairholm had all returned from injury.
“We felt pretty good about being on a roll with two outstanding quarterbacks and a team that was pretty united,” said Suitor. “We were a really tight locker room.”
The game began pretty much on script with Edmonton scoring on its opening drive and leading 10-3 after the first quarter.
Momentum switched in the second quarter. With Edmonton threatening to score, linebacker Eddie Lowe delivered a crushing hit on Ham, forcing a fumble. Albright picked up the ball and rambled 62 yards for a touchdown.
“That was the turning point when I thought, ‘Hey, we’re going to win this,’” said Aldag.
Albright, who died in January of a heart attack, had missed six games late in the season due to a fractured forearm, broken hand, and ligament damage in his knees. He finished the game with seven tackles.
“I never saw a guy get through more injuries,” said Aldag. “He was one of those old-time middle linebackers, tougher than nails. I don’t think we ever would have won the Grey Cup without Dave Albright.”
Fairholm credited head coach John Gregory, assistant coach Pal Sartoni and the rest of the staff for developing a scheme that exploited Edmonton’s weaknesses.
“We had a terrific game plan,” said Fairholm. “We knew what they were going to do to us. We were doing a lot of things in our offence that we hadn’t done in the past.”
Elgaard had four catches for 44 yards and two touchdowns. Running back Tim McCray had 18 carries for 51 yards.
On defence, coaches Dick Adams and Ted Heath dialed up a package that saw Suitor, Albright, Lowe and Steve Crane continually blitz Ham.
“There were all these different packages that we had not run,” said Suitor, who had five tackles, a sack and an interception. “It was kind of like a boxer switching to southpaw for the big fight.
“I remember (Ham) was on the run all game and they couldn’t figure it out. We could see it on their bench. We could see it in their eyes, this confusion going on. They were yelling at each other.”
When Austin suffered a knee injury in the third quarter Burgess stepped in and completed 9-12 passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns.
“That basically won the game for us, having two quarterbacks on the team,” said Fairholm. “They were unselfish. It just speaks to the culture we had in the dressing room.”
Asked what advice he would give the Alouettes, Fairholm said, “believe in yourselves, believe in your team.”
“Believe you can go and beat a 16-2 team. History has shown it can happen with a team with a lesser record than Montreal has.”
In the week after Edmonton lost, the Sun ran another cartoon.
This one showed a wolf’s head poking out of a sheep’s costume, beside a battered Edmonton helmet.