CFL

A look into the history of professional football in Ottawa

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TSN.ca Staff
7/18/2014 2:39:42 AM
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Another chapter will be written in Ottawa's CFL story when the Redblacks play their first home game in franchise history Friday night against the Toronto Argonauts.

However, it will be far from the first professional football game the nation's capital has seen.

For almost a century they were known as the Rough Riders (not to be confused with the Roughriders from Saskatchewan). Then, after a six year absence, the city returned to the CFL with the Renegades for a short and controversial four-year stint.

Now after a time where some thought it could never happen, football has returned to Ottawa with a new name, a new group of players and new optimism.

Looking back at their long history, Ottawa definitely has had some proud - and not so proud - moments on and off the gridiron.

The Early Years

Before they were the Rough Riders, they were simply known as the Ottawa Football Club, formed in 1876. It wasn't until 1898 when they changed their name to the Rough Riders. For a five-year stint from 1925-30, they were called the Ottawa Senators before changing the name back.

In the early 1950's Ottawa hosted the NFL's New York Giants for a pair of exhibition games, losing both times.

They won four Grey Cup championships (1925, 1926, 1940 and 1951) before the Canadian Football League officially formed in 1958.

The Glory Years

The Rough Riders won five Grey Cups under the CFL umbrella from 1960-76 (1960, 1968, 1969, 1973 and 1976) with Frank Clair manning the sidelines as head coach and Canadians such as quarterback Russ Jackson, receiver Whit Tucker, running back Ron Stewart and tight end Tony Gabriel leading the charge on the gridiron.

Jackson of Hamilton, Ont. is widely considered to be the greatest Canadian-born quarterback to play in the CFL and is a member of the Order of Canada, the Canadian Football of Fame and Canada's Sports Hall of Fame. He even finished eighth - and as the top Canadian - in TSN's ranking of the top 50 CFLers of all-time.

Ottawa could run during those successful years as well. Rough Riders running back Vic Washington has the record for longest rushing touchdown in Grey Cup history with an 80-yard scamper during their 1968 Grey Cup victory over the Calgary Stampeders.

Their final championship season came in 1976 and is probably the most notable. Burlington's Tony Gabriel caught a deep touchdown pass from quarterback Tom Clements with just 20 seconds remaining in the final quarter to defeat their hated rivals, the Saskatchewan Roughriders 23-20. It became known as simply "The Catch" and was arguably the greatest moment in Rough Riders' history as well as one of the most memorable Grey Cup plays ever.

Ottawa made one more Grey Cup final appearance in 1981 against the Edmonton Eskimos - a game in which they blew a 19-point halftime lead to lose 26-23.

With nine championships, the Rough Riders are fourth all-time in Grey Cup victories behind the Argonauts (16), Eskimos (13) and Blue Bombers (10).

The Decline

From 1983 to the end of their existence in 1996, the Rough Riders never put together another winning season and didn't win a single playoff game.

As the team struggled mightily, fans stopped coming out and the franchise lost money at a rapid rate.

One positive note from this era came in 1988 when Jo-Anne Polak was named co-general manager of the team, which made her the first woman to be appointed to an executive title in CFL history.

On the other side of the spectrum, there was the time when Ottawa management drafted a dead man. Derrell Robertson was a defensive end who played one season with the Las Vegas Posse in 1994 during the CFL's doomed American expansion. Shortly after the season, the 27-year-old died in a car accident. With the Posse folding after just one season, all their players became available through a dispersal draft and Ottawa drafted Robertson fully believing he was alive and well. Not a great moment for a franchise that was on its last legs.

The team folded in 1996, 120 years after the Ottawa Football Club played their first game against the Aylmer Club at Jacques-Cartier Square.

Franchise Records

Most Career Touchdowns: Bob Simpson (Windsor, Ont.) - 70

Most Career Passing Yards: Russ Jackson (Hamilton, Ont.) - 24, 592 yards

Most Career Passing Touchdowns: Russ Jackson - 185

Most Passing Touchdowns in a Season: Damon Allen (American) - 34 in 1990

Most Career Rushing Yards: Dave Thelen (American) - 6, 917

Most Career Receiving Yards: Tony Gabriel (Burlington, Ont.) - 7, 484

Most Career Receptions: Tony Gabriel - 444

Back With The Renegades

In 2002, Ottawa was back in the CFL game, this time with the Renegades. Hope was back in the nation's capital with an entirely new franchise, but it ultimately didn't last very long.

Over four seasons, the Renegades would win only 23 games and never got a sniff of the post-season.

On April 9, 2006 the CFL suspended operations of the franchise after low attendance and unstable ownership from the Glieberman family.

Football was done in Ottawa - again.

A New Hope

In 2008, a group led by Ottawa 67's owner Jeff Hunt was awarded a conditional CFL franchise that would become the Redblacks.

After getting approval for a redevelopment of Lansdowne Park and the hiring of general manager Marcel Desjardins as well as head coach Rick Campbell, Ottawa was finally ready to start putting another team together.

Receiver Fred Rouse, defensive lineman Dimetrio Tyson and defensive back Nick Turnbull became the first signings in franchise history. They would later sign free agent and veteran quarterback Henry Burris to a contract.

The Redblacks have gone 0-2 so far in 2014, losing games on the road to the Blue Bombers and Eskimos.

With a rejuvenated fan base and stable ownership along with a fairly strong team by expansion standards, this version of Ottawa football seems like it's here to stay.

And that's all football fans in the nation's capital want to hear.




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