Exclusive to Last Word on Sports – an excerpt from the new book on CFL history, Heroes of the CFL: 1955-75, by Matthew Bin and Kevin Myles.
Sixty-five years ago, the Edmonton Eskimos met the heavily-favoured Montreal Alouettes in the 1954 Grey Cup game at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium. The matchup is now considered the first football game of the modern era, and one of the most dramatic Canadian football championships ever played.
The style of football was very similar to the product we watch today, the league had established a professional identity, and the game was shown live to a brand-new television audience in Canada and coast to coast in America, too, on NBC. For the very first time, millions of fans in Sherbrooke, Seattle, and San Jose witnessed the events as they happened, and shared the experience as one.
And what an experience it was. No one expected Edmonton to put up much of a fight against Montreal, and they were behind in the fourth quarter as Montreal marched the ball up the field, deep into Edmonton territory.
But then Alouette running-back Chuck Hunsinger dropped the ball at the feet of Edmonton’s star player Jackie Parker. Parker scrambled up the field for an improbable touchdown. And to add just a little more magic to the moment, the Eskimos’ Eagle Keys hobbled onto the field with a broken leg and snapped the ball for Bob Dean, who kicked the game-winning convert.
Unbelievably, Edmonton had won the Grey Cup. And for the first time, the audience—almost an entire continent—watched every minute of the game.
The Dawn of Canadian Television
27,321 people crammed into Toronto’s Varsity Stadium to see the game in person. As many as 800,000 television sets in Canada tuned into the game, and it was broadcast to 40 million more in America.
Television had debuted in Canada in 1952, with a Glenn Gould recital on the CBC, no less. The first Grey Cup was broadcast only two months later in the Toronto region. There were 140,000 televisions in Canada, but the demand to watch the game was so great that local establishments like the El Mocambo and the Paddock showcased it on “giant” TV screens. Hamilton’s Westinghouse factory installed 20 sets for 8000 of their employees and friends to watch, and early techies with TV’s invited their friends and neighbors over for a Grey Cup party, in an early version of what was to become a national tradition. Despite the feed cutting in and out throughout the game and much of the pivotal third quarter being blacked out entirely, the broadcast of the 1952 Grey Cup was a success.
There was no turning back, anyway, because TV was already a big hit, and everybody had to have one. In two years, a million televisions were sold in Canada, which had a population then of 15 million. For most of this new audience, the Grey Cup was already must-see TV.
For almost a decade, in fact, the game had been a major Canadian institution. In 1948, a platoon of hard-partying Calgary Stampeders fans converted downtown Toronto into their personal rec room. They staged pancake breakfasts on the steps of city hall, rode a horse into the Royal York Hotel, and generally ingratiated themselves into the hearts of a nation. After the Calgary invasion, Grey Cup day morphed into a week-long festival for the host city, and a national celebration.
The national broadcast of the 1954 Grey Cup electrified the whole country, even in areas—most of the prairies and the east coast—where television was not yet available. Fans from Manitoba flocked by the thousands to Fargo, North Dakota to catch the game in hotel ballrooms that had been decked out with reclining chairs and TVs for the occasion. An RCAF jet flew kinescope reels to Edmonton right after the game so folks there could watch it in theatres as soon as possible. Passenger planes were still propeller driven then, and audiences couldn’t wait an extra minute to see the game.
The Dawn of the Modern CFL
The product on the field was ready for prime time, too. The rules have always been different, but the relative quality of Canadian to American professional football was at its apex. Soon, American football, boosted by much higher television revenues, would eclipse the Canadian game. But in the 1950s, Canada was often a first-choice destination for American players, simply because the money was better.
It is only a ten-minute stroll from Varsity to what is now the University of Toronto’s Marshall McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology. In 1954, McLuhan was crafting concepts like “the global village” and “the medium is the message”. These new, world-changing ideas were about to play out in real time.
Offensive records were set that day for passing and receiving that stood for decades. But the defining moment of the contest was when Jackie Parker of the Eskimos scooped up Chuck Hunsinger’s fumble in the game’s final minutes. In the 15 seconds it took him to sprint downfield, Parker became, to the millions watching the blurry black and white feed on flickering screens, an instant legend in two countries. It was an incredible moment, one that seared itself into the consciousness, and was an early example of how wonderfully sports could entertain us.
That’s the legend. That’s the myth.
That didn’t happen.
Exploding the Myths
One minor myth, that Eagle Keys hobbled onto the field with his broken leg to snap the ball for the game-winning convert, is easily debunked. Keys himself denied it, a decade later.
But what about the big play right before it, the defining play, where Parker ran a fumble back for a touchdown?
That didn’t happen either. At least, not the way it’s always described.
Despite the excited descriptions of the play, Parker wasn’t just untouched as he scampered home. He ran virtually unperturbed—on live TV—for ninety yards and a touchdown, in the fourth quarter of the most incredible sporting events in Canadian history.
There were no replays then. There was no Chris Berman yelling, “Watch him go go go down the sidelines!” on ESPN later that night. You were either there, or you were watching it on TV, or you weren’t. The announcer even misidentified Parker as Johnny Bright during the run, though it’s hard to mistake the hulking Bright with the diminutive Parker. But that didn’t matter. It wasn’t the audio that transfixed the audience—they had been listening to the radio for thirty years. It was the visual.
But the real reason he was untouched was that most of the Montreal team weren’t bothering to chase him. The one player who pursued him pulled up long before the goal line.
As Parker ran to the end zone, the Alouettes were busy protesting that the fumble was an incomplete pass and that the referees had completely blown the call. They argued that Hunsinger, who had played well all game, had thrown the ball away to avoid a sack, an astute football play.
Today’s technology allows the casual fan to study the footage like it was the Zapruder tapes. You’d have to bleed Eskimo green and gold to believe it really was a fumble.
(The play in question starts around the 30 second mark.)
The Alouettes didn’t just argue the call that day. Many took their frustrations to the grave. And they were right. Hunsinger had been hit while he threw and immediately after he threw, so the action was an awkward one, but it was clearly a pass. The ball travels some five yards sideways and three or four yards forward, and in the direction of Ray Cicia, the only Alouette in the vicinity. The ball would have hit Cicia in the back if he’d been running a little more slowly.
Even Parker himself admitted that possibility a few decades later. And what did he care? Parker’s football IQ was off the charts, but he didn’t require it at the pivotal moment. The ref didn’t blow the play dead, so he just scooped up the ball and ran. One of his many nicknames was the Mississippi Gambler, and Jackie was from Tennessee. A guy like that wasn’t going to stop and ask the ref for directions.
Parker was enough of an athlete that he was elected to two Halls of Fame for what he did in high school and junior college. He was drafted to play professional baseball for the Cincinnati Reds, but went to Mississippi State to play football, where he became an All-American whose records stood until players like Garrison Hearst and Dac Prescott eventually bettered them.
And once in Canada, he made a habit of coming up big in the game’s biggest moments. Led by Jackie, the Eskimos became a juggernaut, and beat the Alouettes in the next two Cups. In ’56, all Jackie did was score three TD’s, punt a 67-yard single, and intercept a pass inside the Eskimo five-yard line. But Parker wasn’t a legend for generations of Canadians for any of those feats. After millions of people had seen the guy perform a miracle in ’54, whatever he did afterwards almost seemed blasé by comparison.
Parker was famous for that one play, in that one game, and so was Chuck Hunsinger.
Hunsinger had played college ball at the University of Florida, where he once returned a kickoff for a 96-yard touchdown against the Alabama Crimson Tide. He was the third pick in the NFL draft and he played for the Chicago Bears for two years before joining the Alouettes for two more.
Immediately after the game, as the crowd swarmed the field and the players were still leaving it, the announcer informed millions of people across North America that Hunsinger was the goat, and for the most part, they believed it.
As Marshal McLuhan wrote, “All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions.”
Writers have described Hunsinger’s incomplete pass many different ways in newspaper articles and in history books. They’ve called it a fumble, a wild fumble, a lateral, and a crazy lateral. Some writers have claimed that Hunsinger dropped the ball, lost control of it, or simply let it go. Laterals, which were very popular then, are thrown backwards or sideways, not forward. There was no one behind or beside Chuck, so it would have been ‘wild’ and ‘crazy’ indeed for the third NFL draft pick and a guy who once ripped apart the Crimson Tide for 96 yards to try a lateral.
After the game, Hunsinger picked up his wife and drove to his hometown of Harrisburg, Illinois. A few days later he received an 800-foot-long “Cheer up Chuck” telegram, signed by 21,947 Alouettes fans. Montreal’s mayor arranged the telegram, and everyone paid ten cents to sign. So many people did, that a surplus of over a thousand dollars remained. Hunsinger asked that they donate the extra to Montreal’s Sainte-Justine University Hospital for children. The telegram also urged him to come back the next season, and he did, but teammates say he was never the same player, and he was out of football after three games.
That one play, that one missed referee’s call, defined Hunsinger’s career. Whenever the ’54 game is brought up and someone inevitably cites the fumble, we need to remember that it’s not what really happened. Something tragic happened that day to Chuck Hunsinger. But something beautiful happened, too.
Yes, it was an incomplete pass and the refs blew the call, but it allowed an Edmonton Eskimo from Tennessee to show millions of people across North America what becoming a legend looked like for the very first time. It didn’t matter that Parker himself had no way of knowing what was happening to him. The images told the story. And perhaps Hunsinger and the Alouettes found some solace in that. They were all part of a cast that inspired a generation to dream in new ways for the very first time.
Newspaper reports stated that Parker was mobbed by fans after the run, but that didn’t happen, either. In fact, the Mississippi Gambler sheepishly dropped the ball upon entering the end zone and looked back downfield as if to ask, “Really, that counted?”
Yes, it counted. Did it ever.
Matthew Bin and Kevin Myles’s new book on CFL history, Heroes of the CFL: 1955-75, is available on Amazon now.
Matthew Bin is an author and consultant from Oakville, Ontario. He has published multiple books of fiction and non-fiction, and was formerly the Canadian Football editor for LastWordOnSports.com. His work has appeared in Inside Soccer, American Atheist, and Going Natural magazines.
Kevin Myles is a consultant from Toronto. He has written about the 1972 Canada-Russia Summit Series for Now Magazine and the Toronto Star.