Author’s Note: I wrote this article in the fall of 2007. Sadly, since that time the great Tony Proudfoot lost his battle with ALS. Some of the other players and referees that I interviewed may have also changed occupations. This article originally appeared in a American magazine called Gridiron Greats, but not a lot of Canadians had the opportunity to read it. Hope you indulge me with my first – and probably last – football entry on this blog.
An inch-long scar on Dave Cutler’s left hand serves as a constant reminder of the staples that the Montreal Alouettes employed on their shoes in the 1977 Grey Cup game.
“I got stepped on by (Alouettes’ offensive lineman) Dan Yochum (after a kickoff) . . . It just opened me up and I couldn’t believe that just stepping on me with a rubber shoe was going to do that,” recounted Cutler, the former Edmonton Eskimos kicker who now works in sales at a Victoria, B.C. radio station.
Yes, 30 years later, people in Canada are still talking about “The Staples Game.” The CFL equivalent to the Super Bowl, the Grey Cup is a fall tradition in The Great White North. It’s Canada’s biggest TV event, regularly attracting around four million viewers. With the harsh Canadian winter looming, the game is often played in snow or ice – or a sinister combination of both.
True to tradition, the weather wasn’t cooperating for the 1977 showdown. Being contested in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium for the first time, the hometown Alouettes were set to battle the Edmonton Eskimos when a blizzard blanketed the city in snow.
In his last CFL season, Marv Levy had coached the Alouettes to a league-best 11-5 record. Captained by all-star lineman Glen Weir and boasting Hall of Fame end Junior Ah You, their defense was notoriously stingy. Their offense, spearheaded by former Emory and Henry College quarterback Sonny Wade and prolific receiver Peter Dalla Riva, had gelled nicely, helping the Alouettes squeak by the Ottawa Rough Riders 21-18 in the Eastern Conference Final.
Edmonton, on the other hand, had pounded the B.C. Lions 38-1 in the Western Final. Behind two capable quarterbacks – Bruce Lemmerman (out of Cal State-Northridge) and Tom Wilkinson (University of Wyoming) – their offense was the best in the league. Nicknamed “Alberta Crude,” their menacing defense – headed by legendary linebacker Danny Kepley – was merciless on opposing quarterbacks.
Having squared off in two of the previous three Grey Cups, the teams were well acquainted. In the most recent showdown, the Eskimos edged the Alouettes 9-8 in 1975.
A new venue at the time, Olympic Stadium had been attracting crowds of 60,000-plus to regular season games. But heading into this match-up not only did the city have a snowstorm to contend with, but a transit strike had shut down the buses and subway system, forcing people to find alternate transportation.
“The taxis couldn’t get anywhere because there was a foot of snow that came,” recalled Don Sweet, the former Alouettes kicker, who’s now a school principal in B.C.
Ron Estay, a former all-star defensive lineman with the Eskimos who now coaches with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, has similar recollections.
“I remember my wife having to walk almost half a mile or something like that to get to the stadium. It was with the kids and it was ice. It was all snow . . . It was a mess,” he said.
Organizers feared that fans would stay home, but hearty CFL supporters braved the snow and flocked to the “Big O” by the thousands. Driving, walking, hitchhiking, or commuting by a special train that dropped them off 10 minutes from the stadium, 68,318 fans – still a Grey Cup attendance record – turned out for the game.
In a puzzling decision, a tarp was not placed on the playing surface the day before the game. As a result, the grounds crew was still scrambling to prepare the field as fans entered the stadium.
“They called it The Staples Bowl, but it’s really The Ice Bowl. They never covered the field. It snowed the night before and then they tried to put chemicals on it and then I guess it melted and then it froze. It was like a sheet of glass out there,” recounted Estay.
Cutler recalls similar conditions.
“They scraped the field and then put runway salt on it,” he said, “and the runway salt melted . . . and then the field froze again.”
In true Canadian fashion, the battleground was more like an ice rink than a football field. But playing in a frigid locale like Edmonton, Cutler was prepared for such conditions. He regularly wore a broom ball shoe on his non-kicking foot for better traction. Figuring he had outwitted Sweet, his kicking counterpart, he also added traction to the cleat on his kicking foot for this contest.
“We came out for the pre-game warm-up – and I know Don Sweet has a lot more problems standing up on a field like that than I do – so I wore my ordinary shoe out and I’m falling and doing all sorts of stuff, hoping he’s watching. . . . I went through this whole act,” said Cutler. “And that was it, he didn’t care. He kicked six (field goals) in the game. I mean he was a phenomenal kicker and just a great guy. Here I was doing this number before the game and he was probably laughing at me.”
Little did Cutler know that Alouettes defensive back Tony Proudfoot had borrowed a staple gun from an electrician and was making adjustments to his own cleats.
“I put a little X staple (the flat part of the staple was exposed) one way and then 90 degrees the other way. And I did it maybe 10 or 15 (staples) in a shoe. And I went out with my shoes done and I believe it was Chuck Zapiec and Gerry Dattilio, the three of us went out in the end zone and ran around for five minutes. And we all looked at each other and said this is much better than we’d been using before,” recalled Proudfoot. “So sort of word of mouth, we got people to try it before the game in the warm-up and I guess by game time, there must have been a dozen guys that were using it.”
Sweet, who set Grey Cup records for most field goals (6) and most points in a game (23) that day, was one of the players using the staples. Weir, a burly lineman was one Alouette who missed out.
“They ran out (of staples) before they got to me. I feel a little bit like Rodney Dangerfield with that game,” he said. “I just tried sneakers and everything else, but I don’t know that my footing was a whole bunch worse than anybody else’s. Maybe it’s just because I’m so slow that it didn’t really matter.”
The staple-less Eskimos could barely stand up on the slippery turf.
“I tried every pair of shoes that we had and I’m going down at opening kickoff and I go to stop and I end up at the (Montreal’s) goalposts,” said Estay.
Not only was it difficult for players to get their footing, but the ball was extremely slippery. The Eskimos turned the ball over six times in the first half. And though they only trailed 10-3 at half-time, they grew suspicious of the Alouettes’ field dexterity.
“Peter Dalla Riva was not the most gifted runner in the world in terms of speed. He ran right by one of our defensive backs, Eddie Jones, and I remember going to myself, ‘God, that’s unbelievable,’” recalled Cutler.
Estay insists that the Eskimos repeatedly asked the officials to check the Alouettes’ shoes, but the referees declined to do so.
“I had to hold onto the offensive lineman to be able to stand up,” he said. “Our receivers couldn’t do anything. Their defensive backs, they were cutting left and right. We knew they had something on their shoes. We kept telling the referees, ‘Look at their shoes.’ They wouldn’t do it.”
Cutler has heard that Eskimos’ representatives approached the officials at halftime about the Alouettes’ footwear and the officials refused to act.
Section 10, Article 1 of the 1977 CFL Rulebook indicates that, “No player shall wear metal in or on any part of his uniform other than such metal as may be necessary in the regular manufacture of the uniform, such as metal eyelets and nails, such as are used (on) fastening cleats.” It further states that, “A cleat made of metal is illegal but a composition cleat with a metal tip which conforms to all other requirements shall be permitted.”
The punishment for such an offense was that the offending player “shall be removed from the game until (the) illegal equipment is removed. Substitution shall be allowed but the game shall not be delayed.”
So, though staples are not directly addressed, it appears that the Alouettes’ footwear was, indeed, a violation of the rules.
Two officials who worked the game – Bill Dell and Neil Payne – have no recollection of the Eskimos’ protests.
“No one asked me to check their shoes. Nobody mentioned a thing,” said Dell, the game’s referee, who now lives in Oshawa, Ontario.
Payne, who was a field judge and now resides in Winnipeg, Man., also doesn’t recall the Eskimos making an issue of the Alouettes’ footwear.
“No one ever complained to me about staples during the game. That part I remember,” he said. “Now that doesn’t mean they didn’t talk to some other official, but there was never any complaints to me. No one ever asked me to look at anybody’s shoes.”
If he had the discovered staples, Dell says the players would’ve been ordered to remove them or change their shoes.
For his part, Proudfoot is convinced that the Eskimos didn’t know about the staples until after the game. Weir backs up Proudfoot’s theory.
“I don’t remember them ever complaining. No, I think I was the captain of the team then and I don’t remember them complaining. The refs would’ve said something,” he recalled.
The Alouettes dominated the second half, outscoring the Eskimos 31-3, making the final score 41-6. Wade tossed three touchdown passes and the Alouettes racked up 424 yards in total offense. The Eskimos countered with a meager 102 yards and turned the ball over 10 times.
“I know that that wasn’t the capability of our team. There’s no way they would have beat us 41-6 (without the staples in their shoes),” said Estay.
“It was definitely to their advantage. . . . We just didn’t have our game together because our guys were slipping all over the place. There’s the psychological factor of not being able to do what you came there to do,” he said.
Weir concedes that the staples likely gave his team a mental edge.
“Psychologically, definitely, it was good for us,” he said. “If you think you can, you can. You know?”
Proudfoot agrees that the staples may have helped psychologically.
“Whether they (the cleats with staples in them) were any better or not? It’s a matter of conjecture, but I felt they did (make a difference). And obviously the score indicates that we killed them. Whether it was the staples? It was a combination of a lot of factors. Who knows?” he said.
Sweet shares similar sentiments.
“Did it make a difference? I guess it did, maybe psychologically. . . . Would it have made a difference if we had had the staples? I don’t know. If it was 28-21, yeah it could have, but it was 41-6, with seven or eight turnovers (actually 10) on their part. That’s not staples causing that,” he said.
So 30 years later, the legend of “The Staples Game” lives on. Cutler, who bares a scar from the game, now applauds Proudfoot and the Alouettes for their creativity.
“You know what? More power to them. I think that’s a great move,” said Cutler, whose Eskimos went on to win five consecutive Grey Cups from 1978 to 1982. “If we had have thought about it, we’d sure as hell have been doing it.”
For his part, Proudfoot still owns the staple gun from the game.
“I still use it. It’s just one that you could buy at Home Depot or anywhere else. It’s just a hand-held staple gun. I still have it. People ask, ‘Why isn’t it in the Hall of Fame or anything?’ Nobody in the league that I know of has made an issue of the game or not in that sense,” he said.
*All photos used in the article came from the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and Museum archives. I paid for permission to use these photos in 2007.