Former Eskimos understand what New England Patriots are trying to achieve

The Canadian Press
Former Eskimos understand what New England Patriots are trying to achieve
Former Eskimos understand what New England Patriots are trying to achieve

The New England Patriots will look to rise above the hate and earn a record sixth Super Bowl title on Sunday.

If anyone can understand what the Patriots are going through, it has to be members of the Edmonton Eskimos' dynasty.

Success has earned New England legions of supporters across North America. But many fans have grown tired of their winning ways. There's even a Facebook page entitled We Hate The New England Patriots with more than 12,700 followers.

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Former Eskimo Eric Upton said that only serves to fuel the Patriots as they look to prove their skeptics wrong. The 66-year-old Ottawa native was an offensive lineman with the Eskimos when they won five consecutive Grey Cups (1978-82).

"The hate you felt in the other stadiums was palpable for sure," said Upton. "But for us, we fed off that because it pulled us together against a common enemy.

"I understand that because this year the Patriots weren't really picked to win because (quarterback Tom) Brady was getting older, the team was getting older and lost some people in skill positions and so the press started saying maybe there should've been changes made. I liken it to our fifth year when we were last or second-last in the West at Labour Day and then lost on Labour Day to Calgary and so the press and fans talked that maybe we were long in the tooth and changes should've been made.

"I remember our team having to decide to come together or not. We obviously did and it gave us that common goal, which was to prove all of those people wrong. When you have that common goal, everything else goes away and I think New England has that to some extent also ... they have a chip on their shoulder, just like we did."

The Patriots face the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL championship game on Sunday in Atlanta. It's New England's 10th Super Bowl appearance — and ninth with Brady and head coach Bill Belichick since 2001.

Edmonton began its amazing Grey Cup streak in 1977, losing 41-6 to host Montreal on an icy Olympic Stadium field. In that game, the late Tony Proudfoot, then an Alouettes defensive back, came up with the idea of putting staples on the bottom of his shoes to help with traction.

"We felt that one was stolen from us because of the conditions," said kicker Dave Cutler, who spent his entire 16-year CFL career with Edmonton (1969-84). "I've got about a 1 1/4-inch scar on my hand where I got stepped on, I remember it opening up and wondering, 'Where did that come from?'

"And there was (Montreal tight end) Peter Dalla Riva, who's probably the last of the eight-second, 40-yard dash guys. He ran by Eddie Jones, who was a very fast defensive back, like he was standing still. The staples were huge and yeah, we were ticked."

Edmonton dispatched Montreal 20-13 in the '78 final for the first of its five straight Grey Cups. Wins over Montreal again in 1979 (17–9), the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1980 (48–10), Ottawa Rough Riders in 1981 (26–23) and Toronto Argonauts in 1982 (32–16) followed.

In the '81 final, Edmonton trailed 20-1 at halftime. Starting quarterback Warren Moon, after two first-half interceptions, was replaced by veteran Tom Wilkinson, who was able to move the offence before halftime and breathe some much-needed life into it.

Moon started the second half and Edmonton, which won a then-league-record 14 games that season, rallied for the dramatic win on Cutler's 27-yard field goal with three seconds remaining. That prevented Ottawa (5-11) from registering the biggest upset in Grey Cup history but it was a scenario the Eskimos routinely rehearsed.

"For 10 or 12 years, every practice we worked on (having) six seconds remaining in the Grey Cup and having to make the kick to win," said Cutler. "Now, it says in the official record the kick was made with three seconds left but there were six seconds remaining when we went out on the field, I kid you not."

What's more, Cutler, a 73-year-old native of Biggar, Sask, now living in Victoria, said at halftime Edmonton head coach Hugh Campbell wanted Wilkinson — Cutler's longtime roommate — to start the second half. However the veteran quarterback, in his final CFL game, deferred to Moon.

"Wilkie said, 'No, this is Warren's team now and he's got to bring it home,'" Cutler said. "I'll bet there's not 10 people on the planet who know what.

"That was Wilkie. That was leadership and he was the man holding the compass."

Despite the 19-point deficit, Upton said Edmonton remained confident.

"I went in at halftime and honestly believed we weren't going to lose, many of us did," Upton said. "Wilkie went in there and settled everything down.

"And when Warren came out, all of a sudden he too believed we were going to win. And I think so did the Rough Riders. At first they were so elated to be that far ahead and in this surprising position. Then all of a sudden it was like, 'Oh Jesus, here they (Eskimos) come again.' You could feel it, it was fantastic to be on the other side watching it happen."

Cutler and Upton both agreed a key to Edmonton's success was having many established veterans who provided a strong leadership base and sense of one amongst the players.

"There was a general respect for everybody on the team," Upton said. "We had some really good, strong leaders who really helped us stay together.

"You see that with any dynasty team. Everybody was valued, whether you were a practice-roster guy or started every game and an all-star. Everybody could put their personal egos aside to win."

Consistency is a key factor for football success and Upton was one of 22 Eskimos to play on all five championship teams. But GM Norm Kimball wasn't afraid to tweak his roster, just like Belichick in New England.

Kimball acquired running back Neil Lumsden from Hamilton for quarterback Bruce Lemmerman before the '80 season.

Lumsden, inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2014, helped Edmonton win three more Grey Cups. Lemmerman spent just one season in Hamilton before retiring and earning two more championship rings as an Eskimos assistant coach.

Lumsden — 66, and now Brock University's athletic director — said newcomers learned early how to do things in Edmonton.

"Something Hugh said to me was, 'You're an Eskimo and that's why you're here,'" Lumsden said. "You could see it in training camp when players were brought in ... You either got it or you got out of there.

"That's why I look at the Patriots and they've gone through changes yet they continue to do what they do. People are down on the Patriots and say they suck. Well, they suck because they win and we liked it when people thought we sucked. It was a badge of honour."

Campbell left Edmonton for the USFL's L.A. Express following the '82 Grey Cup. Legendary Jackie Parker replaced Campbell but the Eskimos finished 8-8 the following year before losing 49-22 to Winnipeg in the West semifinal.

"That was a sick feeling," Lumsden said.

Shortly afterward, Moon joined the NFL's Houston Oilers and reunited with Campbell, who'd been hired as head coach. Moon remains the only player in both the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Cutler, a senior account manager with Jim Pattison Broadcast Group, said of the five championship rings, he wears the fifth most often. 

"It's not because the fifth was so special," he said. "It's for the guys who were in the first one but not the fifth.

"That ring represents everybody who was part of that run."

But for all the winning Edmonton did, Upton said only the championships were truly enjoyable.

"During the season when you win, those are expected," he said. "You don't have the euphoria of jumping around and celebrating like you do in a championship game.

"At the end of the day it's not about winning the conference championship. Now, you're happy about it but that's because it's the next step. I honestly don't think it's good for any league to have a dynasty for this length of time but from a guy who played on a team that was a dynasty, it was so much fun."

Upton, an administrator at the University of Alberta, said the Eskimos definitely had fun.

"Oh God, yes but I'm not telling any stories," he said with a chuckle. "That's the one thing I'm so glad about — that I played in an era where there wasn't the new media."

Lumsden fondly remembers he and fellow running back Angelo Santucci ducking out of post-practice sprints.

"During training camp at Concordia College, we were running gasers and there was a bunch of practice bags piled up," he said. "Ang and I hid behind some of them for a couple of the gasers, then popped up.

"The next day in the newspaper there was a picture of us on the ground behind these bags. It was fun, it was never seen as anything other than boys being boys.

"Winning is fun. Yes it's tough to do, but that's why you go through the process. You must have guys who want it, enjoy the wanting, passion and commitment that comes with it. It can't be seen as a job."

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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