#TBT: Chatting with Gerry Organ

Today’s throwback interview features a true legend from Ottawa’s CFL history. Born in 1944 in Cheltenham, England, Gerry Organ moved to Canada in 1956 when his father took a job to work on the Avro Arrow aircraft. Following university, Organ caught on with the Ottawa Rough Riders and went on to a Hall of Fame career, winning two Grey Cups and earning the distinction of being the only kicker to win the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian Award (1973). In the 176 games he played for Ottawa, Organ set numerous franchise and CFL records as he became the team’s all-time leader in points scored with 1462. Organ was one of the first pure special teams players in the CFL, though he did see action as a back up receiver and tight end. Shortly after his retirement, the Rough Riders honoured Organ by retiring his iconic #71 jersey, which to this day can be seen hanging on the East Side of TD Place, and in 1991 he was inducted into the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame.

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Being born in England and coming to Canada at the age of 12, when did you first hear about and start playing the Canadian version of football?

I didn’t know anything about the CFL my first couple of years in Canada. Eventually I learned about the Argos and the Leafs, but I was still just an English kid who played a bit of soccer, with no real history of having a passion for sports. One day when I was playing touch football down at the local park with some friends, I figured out I could kick a football as well as I could kick a soccer ball and that kind of resonated. In Grade 12 I tried out for the high school football team but when the coach saw me kick soccer style, he told me that I had to hit it straight on, with my toe. I refused and he told me that if I didn’t use my toe to kick, I won’t be participating on the team. What wound up happening is that I dressed for games but never played. Even when I was at the University of Guelph, I didn’t get to kick my freshman year because they already had a guy who was a straight on kicker, so I spent the season at tight end. Luckily, the next season I got my chance spent the last three years of university kicking my way.

Many people call the ’60s and ’70s the golden era of the CFL in Ottawa. What made that time so special and what does the city need to do to recap that magic?

In the 1960s it was so easy to recognize guys like Russ Jackson, Whit Tucker, Ronnie Stewart, and so on. The Rough Riders had five or six larger than life individuals who made up the core of that team for a decade and delivered a couple of Grey Cups wins in it.

The heartbeat of the Rough Riders in 1970s was formed early in that decade with the Capital Punishment defence. They were just a great defence. We weren’t an offensive team, aside from me, the kicker and basically we won games by kicking field goals and playing tough defence. Later on we added offensive guys like Condredge Holloway, Tom Clements and Tony Gabriel and started to have that ’60s identity again, going to 3 Grey Cups in 10 years. In fact, from 1971 until 1983 (all 12 years I played), we never missed the playoffs.

To bring that magic back to Ottawa it’ll take a a handful of iconic players. Guys that make a substantial impact on the game to have that winning reputation. Really it’s a combination of clearly identifiable stars plus you have to get to the Grey Cup and win it to achieve that status.

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You played alongside numerous CFL legends and Ottawa greats. Who was someone that really inspired or motivated you as a teammate? 

I think I had the most respect for Moe Racine. Moe was a  solid offensive tackle and had been the previous kicker before I got there. He was a gentlemen, professional and while normally most offensive linemen don’t get a lot of attention in the locker room, he did. He was a guy I really respected and as long as Moe was there, I always felt we’d be okay and could get our feet on the ground. Football players come from all walks of life and there’s some crazy guys who play and don’t have their life or family together, people who are just good athletes. Moe wasn’t like that though and as a rookie on the team, I was looking for stability in the locker room and he brought that. Moe played 17 years and just recently went into the Hall of Fame, I can’t believe it didn’t happen sooner.

Another great guy was Wayne Tosh. We both made the team as rookies in 1971 and quickly became good friends. In terms of influence I was always impressed with Rom Nixon, a tall, competent receiver and a guy with real character. Rudy Phillips was a great man too, he played right guard and was a stud. Skip Walker got all his yards from running behind him haha. Phillips was a strong Christian guy with high moral value.

Explain the rainbow kick, where did it come from?

I came up with it just daydreaming really. From my soccer background I knew I could do things with the football that other kickers who kicked traditionally (straight on) couldn’t do. Once I thought of it, I practiced a couple of times and then went to Jack Gotta and said I wanted to show him something we could use for an onside kick. He wasn’t too enthusiastic at first but after we ran it a couple of times, he was pretty blown away.

In a game against Toronto we were up 21-0 before the Argos had a play from scrimmage because we’d go down and score, do the rainbow kick, recover and score again. That got the attention of Marv Levy in Montreal and he devised a whole defence against it, which dropped it’s success rate from 70% to about 50%, as he’d use blocking to take out half our guys.

As to how exactly the rainbow kick worked, think of a right handed golfer hitting a draw, not a fade, but a draw. He’s gotta hit it out to his right and it’s gonna come in to the left and land on the green. That’s how I kicked the onside kick, like a rainbow, it goes up, to the far side of the field but then it comes back down towards our guys rather than going directly to the hands of the opposition, with a big curve to it. I guess if you wanted a baseball analogy you could think of it as a curveball but going into the air like a rainbow.

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Which Grey Cup ring was most satisfying?

Winning in 1976 was more satisfying than the others because we hadn’t played too well that year and there was lots of heat on team. George Brancato wasn’t happy with certain guys and had already told many, including me, that they may not be back for the next season. Basically we weren’t that good a team. So in one corner you had us, and in the other was Ron Lancaster and Saskatchewan. They’d gone 11-5 that season and were hugely favoured to win the game. Lancaster’s picture was everywhere and the media was totally focused on Saskatchewan. Meanwhile we were underdogs but had all the motivation we needed to win. Tony caught the game winning pass in the last few seconds and everyone went wild. I was pleased with my own game because everything I kicked was into the wind but I still made all my kicks and had a 52 yard fake punt. The team played good and we deserved to win, that’s why 1976 stands out.

All that said, 1981 would have been the most satisfying and I hate talking about it because it could have been the greatest underdog story in CFL history but we came up one play short.

Why #71?

That’s the sweater they handed me in 1971. As a rookie you get no choice and I was more than happy to take whatever they gave me. Since I was originally on the team as a TE and WR I got 71. It’s gone on to become a very significant and prophetic number in my life.

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What was your favourite fake or trick play to run?

I did a lot in practice but you can’t even compare anything else to the fake punt run in the 1976 Grey Cup. It worked beautiful and the key to that play was that nobody else on the field knew, not even the head coach. And it wasn’t called, none of my guys knew I was going to do it, but I just wanted to do it and though you shouldn’t do that in a football game, I had a conviction and I felt given the circumstances it was the best thing I could do in the situation. I could’ve kicked 20 yards into the wind but instead I took off running, gained 52 yards and totally flipped the field position.

You played 12 years (1971-1983) for Ottawa but you didn’t play in the 1978 season, was that due to injury?

No, I wasn’t injured, I took a spiritual sabbatical as I was dealing with a whole lot of different things. We’d won the Grey Cup in 76 and I’d played through 77 but after the season ended I just felt that I wasn’t as mentally eager to continue my football career as I needed to be to perform at a high level. I told George Brancato I was retiring and of course he was shocked. I took the year off and went to Hamilton and  started a Circle Square Ranch for kids and did lots of good things that had nothing to do with football.

Funny enough Jake Dunlap (Ottawa’s GM at the time), tried to bring me back for the playoffs that year. He called me with three weeks left in the season and said they were having trouble with their kicking game and thought they could make a serious run to the Grey Cup. He asked if I’d come back and play if they gave me the kicking job. I thought it was an awkward question but I said if they were really stuck I’d do it but that I’d need two weeks to train in order to feel like I could make a solid contribution. Dunlap said he understood and that he’d get back to me. I guess he talked to Brancato, but Brancato couldn’t bring himself to replace their kicker even though he wasn’t having a great year. Long story short I didn’t come out of retirement in 1978 for the playoffs and in the East Final, the kicker missed 4 field goals as the Rough Riders lost 21-16 to Montreal. As soon as that game ended my phone rang and Dunlap asked me to sign for the next season and I wound up playing five more years after that.

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Throughout your CFL career you played in every stadium, was there one you enjoyed more than others or that posed more problems to you as a kicker?

Aside from Ottawa, Edmonton was the best because of their natural grass field. I always preferred grass to artificial turf and enjoyed playing in Edmonton as I was kicking against my eternal nemesis Dave Cutler. That drove me to have my best games against him and the Eskimos. Another place I played well in was Hamilton, mostly out of fear. At their old stadium the fans were on top of you and one thing you never did there was take off your helmet because you never knew what might be thrown at you.

As for a place I struggled, I was never particularly effective in BC. I guess jet-lag was a factor but at the same time I think that’s nonsense. I’m not sure why I struggled there really. It was indoor and had artificial turf and didn’t feel like a football field. Plus it was the BC Lions and who were they? BC at the time wasn’t exactly heralded but for whatever reason I never good games against them.

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Kickers have a reputation for being superstitious, did you have any specific pre-game rituals or habits?

No, my nemesis Cutler used to tie his shoes a certain way, always run on the field at the 35 for every FG attempt and stuff like that but that wasn’t my preference. For my prepartion I never involved myself in anything like that. Before a game I always drew within myself and got really focused. Kicking is a simple task when you get down to it, but you need to push out everything else you have going on in life and of course ignore the 12 guys rushing at you trying to take your head off. I’ve got a picture of me just before a game and you can see the highly focused, contemplative, internal preparation on my face. That doesn’t happen just by walking on the field at a certain area.

You took part in the only player strike in CFL history, in 1974, take me through that experience and do you think it was a successful strike?

It was pretty awful actually and didn’t feel like right thing to do. I was one of a couple of player reps and met with the media. They didn’t like our position and we didn’t like it ourselves either but we needed to try and stand with the Players Association, which was still in its early days. Going on strike was very difficult and it disrupted the heartbeat of sports in Canada in those days. It was a lot of responsibility and could’ve easily been avoided with proper mediation but there was lots of testosterone in negotiations. I take no pride in that particular part of the memory. That said it may have contributed to better negotiations down the road and today there is better compensation for players. It’s still not good enough, especially for rookies, when you consider the quality of performance on display every week, but it’s better than it was.

What are your thoughts on the new changes to converts, does it actually make a difference?

You can compare it to the Canadian Senate, some want to abolish it and others want to amend it to be more functional, those were the choices facing the convert. As a kicker myself, I was bored with it, who cares if you can hit 124 straight, it’s a joke. The CFL had to do something, either to scrap it or change the value, or do what they did, moving it back and making it a more provocative and controversial play. A 32 yard FG or 2 point attempt from the 3 yard line makes things interesting. Believe me, a 32 yard kick isn’t a gimme. The new rules will also change the stats sheet, as kickers will have less points because if they miss that’s less points and if teams go for two more often that’s also less points. They should probably be complaining to the union, as these new rules take points out of their pocket and their salary is based on points. In terms of entertainment though, it absolutely holds value and I think it’s a great decision by the CFL.

In your opinion, who’s the best kicker in the game today?

You’d have to look at Paul McCallum still going strong with Saskatchewan. He’s been a solid performer throughout his career with the one unfortunate exception that everyone remembers. Kicking has become so specialized today that the expectations are perfection, even 70% is considered awful. That’s where pressure comes from because now there is no room for mediocrity. The fact that McCallum has hung around for as long as he has and continues to find work is a testament to his abilities.

You accomplished so much in your career and hold numerous records. Looking back, what are you most proud of?

What I’m most proud of isn’t anything I achieved on the field, but rather it’s my community work here in Ottawa. I helped found the Ottawa Athletic Club, was chairman of the Ottawa Arthritis Society and contributed significantly to the start up of a new church in Orleans. I was always very much involved in the community life of Ottawa and I think that kind of thing is equally important to all of things the Rough Riders and I accomplished on the field.

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What would you have done if you didn’t play football?

Well I was planning on heading to the University of Alberta for a two year Master’s degree in Human Kinetics when things suddenly changed. I probably would’ve been a teacher, professor or coach, since that’s the direction I was headed in, but none of those things interested me anymore after my football career.

Tell me something most CFL fans would be surprised to know about you.

I love to do outdoor work, at times I’m happiest when I’m all dressed up and covered with dirt and holding a chainsaw in my hands.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, North or South Side?

My heart is in the South Side but nowadays I sit in the North.

Thanks so much for your time Gerry and all that you’ve done for Ottawa, both on and off the field. 

@RedBlackGade

*All images via Scott Grant Photography

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