He’d caught this pass before. The touchdown grab he made in the final seconds of the 1976 Grey Cup game won his Ottawa Rough Riders the title, and cemented his reputation as one of the legends of Canadian football. Four decades later, it’s still one of the most famous plays in league history.
So, sure, he could do it again for a TV commercial.
“I was quite amazed when I was asked to do this,” Tony Gabriel says.
Yet, as he lay on the ground at Ottawa’s ByWard Market the other day with a foot that suddenly wasn’t working properly, it dawned on the Burlington native why guys don’t still play football at 68.
Today, Gabriel is at least finding some humour in the tale of how his right leg ended up in a cast for the next three months thanks to a ruptured Achilles tendon.
A national brand (he declines to say which one) is having a company convention in Ottawa this year and asked him to be in a promotional video that would get to the sporting heart and soul of the city, he says. The basic storyline was that some average Joe would bump into No. 77 at the market and they’d replicate the play that defined Rough Rider history.
Gabriel was thrilled to do it.
“I’m always tickled when someone will come up to me and say, ‘I was at the game,'” he says.
Anyway, the first take was great. He broke from the line, caught the pass, took a few steps and finished with the trademark two-hands-backward-over-the-head spike that anyone who watched the game easily remembers. It was like he’d been shoved into a time machine and jettisoned back to the Trudeau Era. The first Trudeau Era.
Take Two was perfect as well. The actor misfired on the third pass — easy now, no Ticat jokes here — but the fourth attempt was once again bang on.
As all this is happening, life was carrying on around him. The mall isn’t far from the Parliament Buildings. As a result, it’s a busy place. Plenty of folks were milling around and traffic was passing though as filming was going on. Many of the passersby were stopping and watching. And obviously getting it.
“They’re shaking my hand and interrupting,” he says, laughing. “I don’t know how they recognize me without a moustache.”
The answer is simple. This is The Catch we’re talking about. Not even Greg Ellingson’s improbable grab in double coverage against the Ticats that sent the Redblacks to the Grey Cup a couple years ago can steal that name. In Ottawa lore, there is only room for one catch to be called The Catch.
Weirdly though, he’d never before been asked to replicate it. He’d spoken of it at a million speeches. He’d run down the field holding the 1976 Grey Cup ball at the Redblacks’ inaugural game and pretended to spike it. But he’d never tried to do it again.
Yet, here he was, 36 years after his last game, running 10 or 12 yards — the actual play was 24 yards but concessions can be made for Hollywood — catching the ball and then imitating his famous spike. Again and again and again.
“Can we do it one more time?” the director asked after the fourth or fifth try. Might’ve been the sixth, he’s not really sure.
Gabriel admits he was feeling pretty tired by this point but he wanted to be a good guy and not hold up the cast or crew. So he said sure and lined up once more. Then he heard “Hut.”
“I try to take off and there I am in a heap,” he says.
There wasn’t really any pain. Just sort of a strange feeling in his ankle area when he couldn’t move his foot or toes. A little embarrassment, too, with all the people watching.
Most of all, there was confusion. In 11 years of professional football, Gabriel missed just two games. Those absences were the result of a vicious helmet-to-the-midsection collision in a game against the Edmonton Eskimos. It broke his eighth rib and punctured his lung causing him to cough up blood.
“I held on (to that pass),” he quickly adds.
But after that and all the other punishment he absorbed, it was this that finally did him in?
Thankfully, he doesn’t need surgery. The Achilles will recover on its own after his three-month stay on the injured list. In the meantime, this won’t stop him from talking about The Catch. To the contrary. The story now has a whole new chapter.
But you can bet this will be the last time he attempts a return to his football-playing youth.
“It was,” he says, “just one take too much.”