Memories of 1989: The greatest Grey Cup game ever played

Chris Zelkovich
55 Yard Line

Assuming the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Saskatchewan Roughriders thaw out in time for Sunday's 101st Grey Cup, they will have a monumental task ahead of them to come even close to matching what they produced the last time they met in a championship game.

The 1989 Grey Cup was arguably the greatest ever played, though there are certainly cases to be made for the 1954 game that was won on Edmonton defensive back Jackie Parker's 90-yard fumble return or the 1987 game that saw Damon Allen rally the Eskimos to a stunning 38-36 win over Toronto.

But in my books, nothing could match the 1989 game for sheer excitement, great plays, drama, atmosphere -- and even a touch of the bizarre. The fact that 15 Grey Cup records were broken or tied only added to the story.

Maybe being there had something to do with, but the memories of that game are still as vivid as last week's CFL finals.

One of the reasons for that was the atmosphere. The 77th Grey Cup was the first played in the SkyDome, which at that time was considered by Canadians as the eighth wonder of the world. The 65,255 fans -- the second largest Grey Cup audience in history -- was primed for a good game. They were so primed, in fact, many of us wondered if we were really in Toronto, a city accustomed to going wild by rendering polite applause and letting out a mild "Yay?!"

As primed as they were for a good game, the players went one step further. They put on a show for the ages.

Hamilton, which had finished first in the East with a 12-6 record, jumped out to a 13-1 first quarter lead. This wasn't a big surprise considering that the Riders, who had finished 9-9 before upsetting Calgary and the 16-2 Eskimos in the playoffs, were underdogs.

What happened in the second quarter was more than a surprise. The two teams just started scoring, seemingly at will, as quarterbacks Kent Austin of Sasktachewan and Mike Kerrigan of Hamilton put on an unprecedented passing exhibition. Every time one of them would execute a great drive, the other would respond with an equally great series.

Five consecutive drives ended in touchdowns, including a thrilling 75-yard pass play from Austin to Jeff Fairholm. Following another Hamilton touchdown, the Riders narrowed the gap to 27-22 when Austin hit Don Narcisse in the final minute.

The third quarter didn't quite match that insanity, with an exchange of field goals and a conceded safety by the Ticats. But then Saskatchewan took a 34-30 lead on a Tim McCray touchdown to set the stage for the fourth.

There was another exchange of field goals before Saskatchewan's Dave Ridgway booted another one late in the game for a 40-33 lead. But that was nowhere near the end.

The Ticats drove down the field and, with 44 seconds to play, tied the game when Tony Champion made one of the greatest Grey Cup touchdown catches ever, twisting in the air to snare the ball before landing hard on his side. The fact he was playing with broken ribs only added to the legend.

That wasn't it, of course. With time running out, Austin was perfect in moving the Riders to the Hamilton 28. That allowed Ridgway to hit a 35-yard field goal to give Saskatchewan their second Grey Cup ever and the first in 23 years.

But there's another memory that only adds to the magic created that day -- that's the bizarre part.

I had managed to score an invitation to a private box that night, one owned by a major land developer. Part way through the game, a prominent local politician arrived to do what prominent local politicians tend to do when big developers are around. But this guy also had his teenage son in tow and I happened to notice that the kid was carrying a mysterious plastic bag.

Something about him caused me to take my eye off the game to see what he was up to. Much to my surprise -- and horror -- he walked to the edge of box and removed a ream of leaflets from the bag. On them was a skull and crossbones. Above that were the words "Death to the CFL." Below it, "Bring on the NFL."

There was no doubt what he planned to do with them. With 65,000 screaming fans exulting in the best the CFL had to offer, this brat was about dump hundreds of anti-CFL flyers on them.

I jumped out of my seat to stop him, but before I could take a step his father intervened. "I told you no," he snapped, hauling the kid and his leaflets out of the box. Hours later, while walking to my car, I found some of them lying on the sidewalk outside the stadium -- footprints obliterating their message.

It's a comforting memory in many ways because, a quarter of a century later, the CFL is stronger than ever. The NFL? Still not here.

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