Three-time Grey Cup winner. Grey Cup MVP. Six-time CFL All-Star. Four-time Most Outstanding Canadian. Three-time CFL MOP. Member of the Order of Canada. Canadian Sports Hall of Famer. The last great Canadian quarterback. The face of Ottawa football.
Russ Jackson’s iconic #12 hangs on the East Side of TD Place because in the 12 seasons he played for the Rough Riders, Jackson was the league’s most dangerous dual threat; passing for 24,592 yards and 185 TDs while rushing for 5045 yards and 54 TDs.
I recently had the privilege of catching up with Jackson to discuss his career, his achievements and the future of CFL football in Ottawa.
Coming out of university and entering the draft, did you have any idea where you’d wind up?
Ivor Wynne (McMaster’s Athletic Director) had been touting me pretty aggressively to Herb Capozzi, who was the GM of the BC Lions at the time. As I understand it, when he had to make his first choice, it came down to Bill Britton, an outstanding running back from Western and myself. Capozzi flipped a coin and wound up selecting Britton. A few picks later I went to Ottawa and the rest is history. It’s funny to think that I could’ve easily ended up in BC. If I’d gone out there who knows if I’d have even gotten the chance to play at QB.
When you signed with Ottawa, you worked out a really interesting contract clause, tell me about that.
Coming into training camp that July I was trying out at QB but also playing some DB. Despite my playing football, I still wanted to attend teacher’s college in Toronto and that meant that I wouldn’t be at practice all the time. When it came time to sign my contract, it included a bonus, my salary and a weekly plane ticket to fly back and forth between Ottawa and Toronto.
How were you able to juggle teaching and being a professional football player?
It was going pretty well until both our American QBs, Tom Dimitroff and Hal Ledyard, got hurt. I took over and Frank Clair naturally wanted me in Ottawa a bit more so I must admit that I missed a bit of schooling in October and November that year.
When you took the reins at QB it didn’t take long for you to have success, why do you think that was?
I ran a lot of option stuff in university and we had a 60 package in Ottawa that was sort of similar. It was something I was quite comfortable with but also something the pros didn’t see often at that time. It brought our team a lot of success and it worked out quite well for me that Frank’s philosophy in the late ‘50s and early 1960s was run oriented and that we were a running team. Luckily for me, I was very well prepared to lead that kind of offence.
Early in your career, the Rough Riders had both yourself and Ron Lancaster at QB. How were you guys able to co-exist and not let that controversy distract the team?
Though some don’t believe it, we got along just fine. When Ronnie came in 1960, I was the starting QB and he was playing DB. That year I cracked a rib and missed the only game of my career. Ronnie was moved to QB, played that game in Montreal, which we won, and that’s when the two QB system started.
Of course we both wanted to play so when he was traded it was the best thing for both us and actually worked out quite well for each of our careers. But until that happened, we worked well together and there was no ill will towards each other. We were actually friends and one thing that was kind of funny was that sometimes we didn’t know who was going to start until we went back on the field for the anthem after the pre-game warm-up. We’d be standing there, just before kick off asking each other “Are you starting today?” Frank would tell us at the last possible moment.
What was it like playing under Frank Clair?
I loved playing for Frank. I fit in with his offence and as a coach I thought he always had us well prepared for the team we were playing. Leading up to a game he made sure we knew the defence we’d be facing and clearly explained everything in our meetings.
During the game though, I tried to stay away from him as much as I could because he used to get a little excited. I laugh now but I’m real glad we didn’t have timeouts where you had to go over to the bench in those days. We called our own plays back then and it was nice to think about what you wanted to do and be able to go with what was working. I’m glad we didn’t have the coaches sending plays in.
Many people call the ’60s the golden era of the CFL in Ottawa. What made that time so special and what does the city need to do to recapture that magic?
The ‘60s were probably the golden years of the CFL in general, as at the time it was the biggest game in the country and there was a bond between the team and town in places like Ottawa and other small markets. I think much of that was due to the fact that players played for one team for their entire careers and fans got to know who they were as people. It was almost an intimate relationship between fans and players and that was a great part of it and what made it so special. It’s quite a difference from where we are today, as now players move from team to team much more often. They change teams so quickly that fans don’t get to know them like they did when I played and that’s part of the detriment to what the CFL has going now.
But as for Ottawa specifically, they were the golden years because we had a lot of success, winning can’t be overlooked.
What was it like to play alongside guys like Ronnie Stewart, Kaye Vaughan, Jack Gotta, Bobby Simpson, George Brancato, Whit Tucker and Moe Racine?
As most of us played our entire careers with the Rough Riders, we developed into a family of brothers who looked after and respected each other. We didn’t just play together, but we played for each other. Something that I liked was that Ottawa had a lot of Canadian starters playing important positions that were typically reserved for American imports. Ronnie Stewart was at RB, Whit Tucker was at WR and myself at QB; we were anomalies in the CFL at the time.
As a mobile QB who wasn’t afraid to tuck the ball and run, what was one of the biggest hits you ever took?
There were a few of them but one that stands out is a hit from Bobby Kuntz, a Ticat linebacker. He put a good lick on me and sent me bonkers for a bit. I don’t know if I got completely knocked out but I had a bit of a concussion. It was almost like he caught me with his knee in the head. I was out the rest of the first half but came back for the second. With the way they’re treating concussions now, I’d have never gone back into the game, but in those we days did.
How would you describe your development as a dual threat QB?
Early in my career I ran a lot of option because that’s what I knew from university and was most comfortable with. After a few seasons, around 1963, we started to throw the ball a great deal more and that pretty much changed our entire offensive philosophy. We had some incredible receivers and that made the transition seamless and my job pretty easy.
Given that you’d told the team before the start of the ’69 season that it would be your last, how special was it and what did it mean to be able to go out on top?
Well that’s the career defining moment right? We’d won the Grey cup in ’68 and I started thinking that it was time to get on with my profession; I’d always considered that education was my profession and football my hobby. I just felt that after 12 years, I was healthy, my kids were getting older, I wasn’t home a lot because of my vice principal and football responsibilities so together with my wife, I decided it was going to be my last year.
I’d always promised Frank that I’d let him know when I was going to leave. Many people thought I was just saying I was done to get a bigger contract but really, it was honest. To me, it’s depressing that you see so many athletes in various sports sticking around too long and ending their careers on a negative note. I had that great chance to say I was leaving and win a championship and you can’t do anything better than that. To be able to win the Grey Cup in back to back years and go out on top was a fairy tale story.
On that note, when you look at a guy like Henry Burris, having an MOP season at the age of 40, do you ever regret walking away at such a young age?
Not at all, I don’t have any regrets or thoughts of that nature. Sure I could’ve played longer and maybe won more Grey Cups, but who knows, I might’ve gotten hurt on the first snap of the next year. I left at 33 but Henry’s going strong at 40 and that’s great for him. I just keep my fingers crossed that he avoids serious injury.
During your time in Ottawa, you led the Rough Riders to 4 Grey Cups and 3 wins, and won the Grey Cup MVP in 69. You also own the record for most Grey Cup TDs in a game and in Grey Cup history. How were you able to take your game to another level on the biggest stage?
I think it’s about not letting the pressure get to you. As a young kid on a young team in the 1960 Grey Cup, we won in spite of our inexperience. After you’ve been there a few times you kind of learn what to expect. By ’69 I knew what the week would be like. You come to understand that there’s a lot more going on during the week that you need to participate in and that the Grey Cup isn’t just a regular game with regular preparation. So you’ve got to handle all of that plus all of the extra stuff like spending more time in the locker room before the game and at half-time because of all the hoopla going on. Once you’ve got the experience you just have to understand that it’s all part of it and do your job.
It was given to me, but here’s a good trivia question for you, what other number did Russ Jackson wear when he played for the Rough Riders? When I first started I wore #82 because at the time, there weren’t any teens or single digit numbers being used. Backs and running backs wore numbers in the 80s and 90s but it started to become a problem for the TV and radio people as when fields got muddy, they couldn’t tell who was who out there, making tackles and so on. The 8s were hard to differentiate from the 9s, so as I understand it, that’s when they got rid of those numbers and switched to the teens and single digits. All they did in Ottawa was give us new numbers, we’d didn’t get a choice. I had 82 and was given 12. Gary Schneider wore 92 and got 22. So to sum up, I didn’t ask for 12, but it was given to me when they changed the number system in 1959.
The CFL is famous for it’s wild weather, how did you deal with the elements as QB? Cold or wet?
I’m an outdoor guy and I never let it bug me. It was part of the game and I didn’t get upset about it, it’s the same for both teams after all. For me, it just wasn’t something worth worrying about. If the weather was bad you adjusted your offence to something more suitable but that’s just part of the game. In my days we didn’t have the luxury of getting a new ball for every snap, we played with the same one and it got pretty heavy and wet, but we made do.
I personally think that football is an outdoor sport and I’d rather watch an outdoor game than an indoor one. I think weather should be part of the game. When the wind is howling and a factor, you need to adjust what you’re doing and be more tactical. Whereas if you’re indoors, why bother even changing ends?
You only missed one game to injury in your career, would you chalk that up to luck, preparation or something else?
Haha, I don’t know, I always used to say that I had two speeds, slow and scared fast, that was how it went. Luck is without a doubt part of it though. I took some big hits in the pocket but when I left in ’69 I considered myself fortunate in that I had no major injuries. Not many guys who have played 12 years can say that.
Is there one loss that still stings?
The ’66 Grey Cup loss was disappointing but to be honest we were outplayed by Saskatchewan on that particular day. We stayed in it and kept it close with a couple of long passes to Tucker but they were better than us.
That’s why I’d say losing the Eastern Final to Hamilton in ’67 was much more disappointing. In 1967 the Grey Cup was in Ottawa and it was the one shot we had to play for the Cup in our town. We’d been to the Grey Cup in ’66 (but lost) and went again in ’68 and ’69 (winning back to back) but we missed out on the one we really wanted to play in. That to me, even looking back now, was an incredibly disappointing end to the ’67 season.
How would you compare today’s atmosphere at TD Place to the atmosphere from your playing days?
I think it’s fantastic and that the fans are spectacular. Even when Ottawa struggled last year, the fans were totally behind them and sold out every game. Clearly people in Ottawa have decided that they’re going to support this team no matter what and it’s outstanding. It’s fun to sit in the stands and watch the crowd and hear how supportive they are. Living in Burlington, I’m a Ticat season ticket holder and go to a lot of the games, but it’s a different when I go to a game in Ottawa. I don’t get the same feeling watching the Ticats that I do when I’m at TD Place and watching the Redblacks play.
As for comparing it to my playing days, it’s a much different thing to experience the crowd as a player vs as a fan. When I played, I always felt the fans were well behind us and cheering us on all the time. But today, going as a fan, I can appreciate their support so much more.
After retiring, you had a very short coaching stint with the Argos, tell me about that experience.
When I retired and left football as a player, I said I’d never coach, but in 1975 an opportunity presented itself and I signed a five year contract to be the Head Coach of Toronto Argonauts. It came along at the right moment in my life and I’m glad I gave it a try. I enjoyed coaching and though I got let go after two years, I don’t regret taking the opportunity. One thing I can say is that even if I’d been successful, which I wasn’t, I don’t think I would’ve stayed on as a coach for years and years. I realized that it wasn’t quite what I really wanted to do. Even if we’d won a Grey Cup in those five years, I don’t think Russ Jackson would’ve stayed a coach for much longer.
Do you watch a lot of CIS? What will it take for there to be another great Canadian QB? Do any candidates come to mind?
Surprisingly, I get asked this all the time. There have been some good QBs coming out of the CIS but they just aren’t being given the opportunity to have a chance to play in the pros. Coaches tend to bring them in for training camp but never stick with them. I really believe that until the CFL changes the way QBs are counted in the ratio, Canadian QBs aren’t going to have a chance. Look at me for example, I was the 3rd string QB playing DB, but when both guys ahead of me went down, I got my chance. I was the only show in town and as the offence fit my style of play, the rest is history.
If the ratio was changed and Canadian QBs could at least hang around on teams and develop as 3rd stringers, who knows what would happen. But until the ratio is changed, teams won’t keep a Canadian kid on their roster. It’s sad too because there have been some real good kids that came along and had the potential to maybe play in the CFL, who never got a chance.
You accomplished so much in your career and hold numerous records. Looking back, what are you most proud of?
Many things come to mind. Getting the call about the Order of Canada and receiving that was a very special honour as it’s something only a few people have. It probably means a bit more since it’s not an award based only on my football abilities. My first Grey Cup win in 1960 was memorable as we were just a bunch of young kids getting used to winning but I think announcing that I’d leave in ’69, having a great season and capping it off by winning back to back Cups can’t be beat. After all, that’s what everyone remembers, that you left on top.
North or South Side?
After retiring I had a couple of season tickets on the North Side, but in the last few years whenever I’ve been back in Ottawa for a game I’ve sat on the South.
You received the Grey Cup from his father, now do you plan to sit at a game with Justin Trudeau so people can walk past another Prime Minister to shake your hand?
Hahahaha, I don’t think he’ll be looking to sit with me for any reason.
Initially you weren’t too keen on the Redblacks name, have you warmed up to it?
Oh yeah absolutely! The first time I was asked about the name I didn’t even know or realize that Redblacks was actually going to be the name used. It was thrown at me and I said something about it seeming more like a rugby name and got criticized a bit. But it’s just a matter of something to get used to. To me, they’re the Ottawa Football Club and whether it’s the Redblacks, Rough Riders or Renegades, that’s what matters most. If you think about it, people say “Hamilton is playing Ottawa this weekend” just as much as they say “the Ticats are playing the Redblacks”. But yeah, it’s grown on me and it’s a fine name, I have no problems whatsoever with it.
If you could offer one piece of advice to the Redblacks as they head into the playoffs, what would it be?
Don’t change things and don’t let the pressure get to you. You’ve been very successful doing what you’re doing right now and just continue to try and do that to the best of your ability. Offensively, the Redblacks got to where they are right now by throwing the ball and in the playoffs they’ll have to win with their passing game.
You are unquestionably the face of Ottawa football. Entire generations of fans have grown up and even though Ottawa didn’t always have a team, everyone knew the name Russ Jackson. What does that mean to you and what are your thoughts on your legacy?
Well, I’m very proud of it. I think we had some very good football teams and I can’t possibly take all the credit myself. Football is the ultimate team game and we had some fantastic defensive and offensive players. I look back on it at my age now, I’m 79 years old, and am content that I had a great individual career but more importantly as an athlete on a very successful team. I’m very satisfied that my success contributed to the Rough Riders’ success and that the fans in Ottawa appreciate what we did and still remember me every time I return.
Thank you so much for your time and I look forward to seeing you back at Lansdowne, this time in the stands, cheering on the Redblacks in the East Final.