Tony Gabriel catch forever a part of Grey Cup folklore

Had "The Catch" been "The Drop," Tony Gabriel wouldn't be in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. "There was no way I was going to drop that baby." If he did, Gabriel says his career would have ended right there.
Tony Gabriel of the Ottawa Rough Riders makes the game-winning catch against Saskatchewan in the 1976 Grey Cup. (Canadian Press)

Had "The Catch" been "The Drop," Tony Gabriel wouldn't be in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

The all-star tight end made one of the biggest catches in Grey Cup history, a memorable 24-yard touchdown grab that earned the Ottawa Rough Riders a stunning 23-20 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the 1976 game at Toronto's Exhibition Stadium. Gabriel, a native of Burlington, Ont., was so wide open on the play he vividly remembers watching the ball leave quarterback Tom Clements's hands and taking an eternity to get to him.

"It hung up there for what seemed like a lifetime," Gabriel recollected recently with a chuckle. "I looked back and remember thinking the ball was taking forever to get to me.

"I've said before my eyes were six feet wide when I hauled the ball in. There was no way I was going to drop that baby."

If he had, Gabriel said his career would've ended right then and there.

"I would've kept running out of the end zone, retired and gone back to Burlington hiding my head," he said. "Thank you very much, that would've been it."

Fortunately, the 63-year-old played five more years before a knee injury forced him to retire. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1984.

It marked the second time Gabriel had been a key contributor to a Grey Cup win. In 1972, his sophomore season with Hamilton, Gabriel's only three catches of the contest came on the game's final drive to set up a 34-yard field goal by 19-year-old rookie Ian Sunter that gave the Tiger-Cats a 13-10 home victory over the favoured Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Ivor Wynne memory

"That's vivid in my mind because it was my first Grey Cup and it's a memory about Ivor Wynne Stadium," Gabriel said.

But it's the '76 Grey Cup that's remembered as one of the most thrilling ever. And while Gabriel game through in the clutch, few know what happened to him the play before "The Catch."

"I was coming from the right side and Tom found me with a ball high up over my shoulder," he said. "I catch it and bring it down and get smacked by [Riders defensive back] Lorne Richardson and then I got this late hit and my head bounced off the turf and it's [Saskatchewan linebacker Bill] Manchuk who got me with an elbow across the helmet and I'm seeing stars.

"I'm a little dazed from the hit but still run back into the huddle and then the play comes in from the sidelines and Tommy goes, 'No, no.' So he calls another one and I'm thinking, 'Oh my god, I'm the primary receiver."'

Clements took the snap, faked a handoff to fullback John Palazeti and drifted to his right. After getting into a three-point stance to sell the run, Gabriel got past the line of scrimmage cleanly and found plenty of room to run downfield.

Gabriel approached Riders' safety Ted Provost and made a cut he said Provost bit on, allowing Gabriel to get behind the secondary in end zone. After making the catch, Gabriel raised the ball over his head with his right hand, then used both hands to spike it back over his head.

"I should've held on to the ball," Gabriel said. "But the only thing I saw back then was dollar signs.

"The winner got $6,000 and the loser got $3,000 so that's all I cared about then for my teammates."

Illustrious career

Five years later, though, Gabriel's illustrious career came to a heart-breaking end.

In 1981, the 5-11-0 Riders were 21-point underdogs to a powerhouse Edmonton squad. The Eskimos, led by Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, came into the CFL title game with a dominant 14-1-1 mark.

But it was Ottawa that surged to a surprising 20-1 half-time advantage at Montreal's Olympic Stadium. Edmonton rallied, though to tie the contest 20-20 late in the fourth quarter.

Ottawa was driving to an apparent game-winning field goal attempt, thanks in large part to a hobbling Gabriel, who played despite torn knee ligaments. Wearing a bulky plastic brace for stability, Gabriel made a key 20-yard catch with Edmonton defensive back Gary Hayes draped all over him.

Instead of giving Ottawa a crucial first down, the play was nullified by a controversial double-interference call. After Gabriel lost his impassioned plea with the official, the Riders soon lost possession of the ball and ultimately the game on Dave Cutler's 27-yard field goal with three seconds remaining.

When Gabriel walked off the field, it was for the last time. His knee had finally given out and he never played football again.

"I'm telling you now, two out of three ain't bad," said Gabriel, now a vice-president and investment adviser at CIBC. "I've got nothing to be upset about except it would've been a tremendous feat for our team and credit to [quarterback] J.C. Watts and [kicker] Gerry Organ and all the heroes who played in that game.

"They took that catch away from us, not just me. That was the last time I played for the Ottawa Rough Riders and I feel very disappointed. We had a legitimate chance as a deep underdog to win that game and it would've been one of the biggest upsets."

The Grey Cup has created some memorable moments in CFL history.

They include:

  • 2002 — Anthony Calvillo hit Ottawa native Pat Woodcock on a record 99-yard TD strike to lead Montreal past Edmonton 25-16 at Commonwealth Stadium. It was the Alouettes first Grey Cup win since '77 and head coach Don Matthews's record-tying fifth CFL title.
  • 1996 — Edmonton receiver Eddie Brown made a sensational catch in snowy conditions against Toronto at Ivor Wynne Stadium. The ball went through Brown's hands and bounced up off his foot. Without missing a step, Brown gained control and went 64 yards for the touchdown. But the Argos won "The Snow Bowl" by a 43-37 score.
  • 1994 — Lui Passaglia's 38-yard field goal with no time showing gave the B.C. Lions a 26-23 win over Baltimore at B.C. Place. It was the first-ever CFL title game that featured a Canada-U.S. matchup. Passaglia had missed a 37-yard try with 1:02 remaining.
  • 1991 — Raghib (Rocket) Ismail had a then-record 87-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to lead Toronto past Calgary 36-21, bringing success to the Argos ownership group that consisted of John Candy, Wayne Gretzky and former L.A. Kings owner Bruce McNall. Argos quarterback Matt Dunigan played despite a broken collarbone.
  • 1989 — Dave Ridgway's 35-yard field goal with two seconds left earned Saskatchewan a wild 43-40 win over Hamilton at Rogers Centre. Ticats star Tony Champion, who had two touchdowns despite playing with broken ribs, made a brilliant backwards diving grab that tied the score 40-40.
  • 1987 — Henry (Gizmo) Williams set a Grey Cup record by returning a missed Lance Chomyc field goal 115 yards for a TD to lead Edmonton past Toronto 38-36 at B.C. Place. Jerry Kauric's 49-yard field goal gave the Eskimos their winning margin.
  • 1977 — On a hard, icy field at Olympic Stadium, Alouettes players Tony Proudfoot and Wally Buono came up with the idea of using staples on the bottom of the teams' shoes to increase traction. The move worked as Montreal waltzed past Edmonton 41-6.
  • 1971 — Underdog Calgary edged Toronto 14-11, aided by a controversial fumble by Argos running back Leon McQuay. McQuay slipped on the rain-soaked field at B.C.'s Empire Stadium and the ball came loose after he hit the turf and the Stampeders recovered. Game officials ruled he had fumbled on the play.
  • 1968 — Vic Washington recovered his own fumble en route to a record 79-yard TD run that led Ottawa past Calgary 24-21 at Toronto's Exhibition Stadium. Washington was named the game's outstanding player.
  • 1962 — Winnipeg edged Hamilton 28-27 in the Fog Bowl at Toronto's Exhibition Stadium. Thick fog forced the game to be suspended with 9:29 remaining in the fourth quarter with the Bombers leading 28--27. It resumed the following afternoon and remains the only Grey Cup game ever suspended during play.
  • 1961 — Ken Ploen evaded three Hamilton defenders in overtime on an 18-yard touchdown run to lead Winnipeg to a 21-14 victory. Ploen was named the game's most valuable player.
  • 1954 — Jackie Parker's dramatic 90-yard fumble return TD run led Edmonton past Montreal 26-25 at Varsity Stadium after the Eskimos trailed 25-14 midway through the fourth. Parker's return remains a Grey Cup record.
  • 1950 — Toronto defeated Winnipeg 13-0 at Varsity Stadium. The game is affectionately dubbed The Mud Bowl due to the sloppy, rain-soaked conditions the players faced on the field.
  • 1909 — The University of Toronto Varsity Blues defeated the Toronto Parkdale Canoe Club 26-6 on Dec. 4 in the first Grey Cup game. Halfback Hugh Gall had a TD and record eight singles.