Two-time Grey Cup winner. Four-time Most Outstanding Canadian. 1978 Most Outstanding Player. Nine-time All-Star. Member of the Canadian Football and Ontario Sports Hall of Fame.
Tony Gabriel’s iconic #77 jersey hangs on the South Side of TD Place stadium because in the seven years he spent in the nation’s capital, he revolutionized the tight-end position, set records and won a championship in legendary fashion.
I recently had the privilege of catching up with Gabriel to discuss his career, his achievements and the state of the CFL.
Is it true that in high school, you didn’t make the football team the first time you tried out?
Yes! My first year of high school I was 5’9” and too afraid to try out for the football team. I wound up playing midget ball on a team that my sister’s boyfriend coached. We were awful, losing every game.
During that same summer I worked at my godfather’s garden market and grew six inches taller. In Gr. 10, I decided to try out for the Jr. football team. After one week of tryouts, the list of players who made the team was posted outside the gym on a wall. The day it was posted I ran over but couldn’t find the name Gabriel anywhere. It was an inauspicious beginning to my football career.
When you chose to attend Syracuse for university, was there any thought to playing basketball, or was your decision motivated purely by football?
In Gr. 11 and 12, I tried out for the high school football team and finally made it both years. But we never won a game, we were literally winless for two years. At the same time, I was also playing basketball, in the starting five and we won OFSAA when I was Gr. 11.
At the time, Gr. 13 was still around and I went back to complete my high school career. That year, in a senior basketball game, I singlehandedly outscored our arch-rival (Nelson High), scoring 48 points against them.
I also was student council president and planned on playing football and basketball again. But the school principal told me I wouldn’t play for both the high school football team and the Burlington Braves, which was coached by Bernie Custis, my mentor. I chose to play for the Braves, which definitely turned out to be the right decision.
When our season ended, Custis took me down to his alma mater, Syracuse, to meet his former coach Ben Schwartzwalder. That led to a four year football scholarship that also got me a chemical engineering degree.
At Syracuse I could only play freshman ball, as back then you couldn’t play Varsity in your first year. Our last game of the season was my best game but I twisted my ankle. It was a pretty bad sprain. I had planned on trying out for the Orangemen, Syracuse’s basketball team after football season, but my ankle wasn’t healing and I couldn’t push off and run.
Since I didn’t want to risk my football scholarship, I decided to abandon my basketball plans. Maybe things happen for a reason though. My ankle injury kept me focused on my classes and on football.
Following your university career you had a brief opportunity to play in the NFL, nearly signing as a free agent with Giants. What happened?
In my senior year at SU, Jim Trimble, head of player personnel for the Giants and formerly a GM for the Ticats, watched me play my last game at Archbold Stadium. I caught four touchdowns, tying a university record as we beat Miami 56-12. That’s why he drove up to Syracuse to sign me.
He drove up in the middle of a snowstorm and offered lots of bonus money for things like making the team, starting, etc. It would’ve been more money than anything I could’ve got in the CFL.
I wanted to see the Giants’ facilities and he invited me down to NYC in March 1971. He put me up at the Park Plaza, showed me the haunts of Giant players, steakhouses they went to and so on. When we were at the stadium, he showed me film of that winter’s East/West All-American game. I’d played in it and the film was a cut of some of the catches I’d made. He said that while they liked my hands, what stood out to them was the play on which I’d gotten hammered high and low by a pair of defenders. They liked that I could take a hit like that and get back up. Although the Giants were clearly interested, they never actually gave me a try out and I wasn’t offered a contract. Given their lack of commitment, I decided to head to Hamilton and play in the CFL, as they owned my territorial rights.
Your second year in the league, the Ticats played in (and won) the Grey Cup at home. Given that you’re a Burlington native, how special was that?
It meant everything to me. Not only was I able to graduate on time (with a C+ average), but I was playing for my childhood team in my hometown. It’s something I never imagined possible. Also, upon signing with Hamilton I was given Hal Patterson’s number, #77. As he was such an iconic and incredible player, I was truly honoured to be wearing it.
My first season, 1971, I made the team as the starting tight end and had a good start catching half a dozen passes against Edmonton. But soon it seemed like I was lost in the numbers and I began to mainly play on special teams.
In 1972, we got a new coach, Jerry Williams. We also got a new QB, Chuck Ealey. Ealey had won something like 35 games in a row in college with Toledo and when he took over the starting job, maybe around the third or fourth game of the season, we won 10 games in a row.
The East Final was a two game series vs the Rough Riders. After losing in Ottawa 19-7, we won 23-4 at home to move on to the Grey Cup. That was a spectacular week. There was a pep rally and all my friends and family went to the game. Most importantly, we won.
Speaking of that championship, while many in Ottawa associate you with “The Catch”, your first clutch Grey Cup performance was in that 1972 game. You made three consecutive catches on the game’s final drive to move the Ticats into field range, setting up the winning field goal with no time left on the clock. What do you remember about that drive?
That was a really back and forth kind of game. Saskatchewan was a formidable team, led by Ronnie Lancaster and George Reed. To be frank, they were a powerhouse. Still, we hung with them and were tied 10-10 when we got the ball back on our own 15 yard line with about a minute left in the game.
I think I must’ve lulled the defensive backs and linebackers to sleep, because I wasn’t even a target for the 59 minutes prior to that drive because Chuck Ealey hadn’t looked my way. That changed when he called a 59 Flood. At that juncture, Saskatchewan was playing it safe (so to speak). Their linebacker dropped off and as I ran in the sweet spot between the linebackers and safeties Ealey hit me for a 15 yard gain.
The second pass was a similar pattern but Saskatchewan went with man coverage. In that situation I’d been taught to break off my route, which I did. Ealey hit me for another 15 yard gain.
The third pass was a button hook and I only ran the route because the linebacker didn’t blitz. The catch was good for a first down but on the play I’d got hit in, well, I’ll call them the crown jewels. I’d gotten hit with a helmet right in the groin as I’d turned to go upfield.
Thankfully, on the next play the linebacker blitzed, which meant I stayed in and blocked instead of running a route. I’m not sure I could’ve ran to be honest. Ealey hit Garney Henley in stride to set up the a field goal. Ian Sunter, our rookie kicker from Dundee, Scotland, split the uprights with no time left on the clock for the win.
Then the stadium erupted. It was such an incredible moment for the hometown fans to witness. Winning, in that fashion, on home field, was an incredible feeling. Even more so because I contributed. It came as a total surprise that my number was called on that last drive but 45 years later everything about those plays is clear as day. I was lucky to have such a special moment at the start of my career.
What was your initial reaction to being traded to the Rough Riders? Were you bitter?
Definitely not but let me explain. What happen was that I was used as a test case for the Players Association. I stood up in regards to the league having changed the number of games from 14 to 16. The gist of the issue was that we were going to play more regular season games and be paid the same. So let’s say I was making $1000 a game. In my mind, I should’ve been paid an extra $2000.
After six weeks of deliberation, the judge ruled against me. Basically, I’d lost the case due to one three letter word. ALL. My contract stated that I’d agreed to play ALL conference scheduled games. Shortly afterwards it became standard to include the actual number of games you’d be paid for in a contract.
I was quite upset and asked to be traded. I don’t know where I got the gumption to ask for a trade, especially because I had no idea where I’d end up. Normally when Ticats’ GM Ralph Sazio had an issue with a player he’d banish him out West, to a place like Regina, but somehow, for whatever reason, I wound up in Ottawa.
Staying in the East was perfect for me. I had a young family at the time and was able to continue to my day job. When I was with the Ticats, I worked in Toronto for Rebco Chemicals, a company that dealt with chemical sales in the hospital field.
At 3pm every day I’d leave work and go to practice back in Hamilton. Even being traded to Ottawa, I was able to keep my Toronto clients and thus my job. Every off-season I’d come home and work full-time until the season started up again. I never imagined leaving the Hamilton area but going to Ottawa was a blessing.
Initially, you had a bit of a rough transition to Ottawa. Why was that?
When I arrived in town, #77 was already being used. The incumbent tight end, Tom Pullen wore it. He’d been in Ottawa for a few years but it was obvious that only one of us was making the team. As I was the guy traded for, it wasn’t long before he was cut.
At the time, the Rough Riders used to have everyone’s number on a horseshoe above the dressing room stalls. So once I found out Pullen was let go, I immediately went over and grabbed the #77 horseshoe. Guys derided me right away, saying that I didn’t even wait for the guy to leave the building. I’ll admit it wasn’t a subtle move on my part but it was great to get my old number back.
After joining Ottawa, you went on to post five 1000 yard seasons in the next seven years. What made you such a good fit in that offence?
Thomas Dimitroff was our offensive coordinator and he, along with our coach (George Brancato) had a simple philosophy. Score one more point than the other guys. That meant they were open to being creative and just going with whatever worked. That meant I was given a lot of freedom to cut off my patterns when I saw fit.
At the time, we had two great All-American QBs, Tommy Clements and Condredge Holloway. As a pass catcher, you couldn’t ask for a better situation. Both were able to scramble and threw well on the run. That was great for me because as a big 6’4” target, I could break off my pattern, find the soft spot in the zone and expect a pass my way. That became my signature, coming back to the QB when we was in trouble, providing a safe outlet. I was also successful because when I ran deeper routes, I wasn’t just a decoy. We had a good offensive line that gave time for the routes to develop, so I did well on post and flag routes.
Dimitroff used to say “Just yell if you’re open”, and that worked too. I’m grateful I was in a place that allowed me to evolve and contribute.
In your era tight ends were mainly used for blocking and were never a team’s leading receiver. So it’s not a stretch to say you revolutionized the position in the CFL. What allowed you to have so much success?
That was very much the case when I came into the league. The prototypical type end was a guy like Mel Profit, who played in Toronto. He was big, maybe 235-240 pounds. At the time, tight ends ran small routes; hooks, flats, outs. What happened to me is that I was able to be more of a flex receiver.
By operating out of the slot and from further out on the line of scrimmage, it created mismatches and helped in getting open. As I always said, if I had any speed I would’ve been dangerous.
The Rough Rider teams of the ‘70s had a reputation for playing hard on the field and partying hard off it. Is that reputation well deserved?
To a degree. I’d say it began after our Grey Cup win in 1976. A lot of guys started living in Ottawa instead of spending the off-season back home in the States or elsewhere. For example, among many others, Clements and Holloway had condos in town. I sold my house in Burlington after signing a three year contract in 1978. With everyone around, there was a lot of camaraderie.
Jim Coode was our social chairman. There were lots of activities and parties and guys wouldn’t hesitate in going over to someone’s house. Basically we had a good mix of individuals who came together to fully enjoy playing and living in Ottawa.
What was it like to play alongside guys like Angelo Mosca, Garney Henley, Jim Coode, Tom Clements, Jeff Avery, Gerry Organ, Bill Hatanaka and so many other legendary names?
Those names you mentioned had a lot to do with making playing football a real joy for me. Mosca was one of the first players I met at the Ticats’ clubhouse. Though we’d never met, I obviously knew who he was and when I introduced myself I called him “Mr. Mosca”. He looked right at me, deadpan and said, “My name’s Angelo.” He was a hell of a player and our captain, so I had a lot of respect for him. Henley was our other captain and a great two way player, playing at safety, receiver and fielding punts.
As for the Ottawa guys you mention, all were excellent teammates and solid players. Each had a prominent role in our 1976 Grey Cup win. Coode helped me back to the huddle the play before the catch, Avery was the first guy in the end zone to congratulate me when I made “The Catch”, Organ was a fantastic kicker and also had a 52 yard fake punt run and Hatanaka had a record 79 yard punt return for a touchdown.
The big takeaway from that group of guys is that when you needed them in big moments, you could count on them coming through.
I know you’ve been asked a million times about “The Catch”, but I want to know about the play preceding it. In it, you make a catch but take a late hit to the neck/head area. If that happens in today’s game, do you think “The Catch” even happens, or would you be on the sidelines in concussion protocol?
I’ll take you through it. I went over the middle to catch a pass from Clements and when I came down, I got walloped. As I’m falling to the ground Bill Manchuk (#75), came through my helmet with an elbow. My head bounced off the ground and I really did see stars and cobwebs. As I’m trying to shake them off, I’m looking at the ref hoping for a late hit flag but don’t get one. As I’m standing there with my hands on my knees, our offensive tackle, Jim Coode, yanks me back into the huddle. As we’re huddling up, Gary Kuzyk ran in with the play call, but Clements didn’t like it so he changed the play in the huddle to Rob I Fake 34, TE Flag. Even with the cobwebs, in the back of my scrambled mind, I still recognized the ball was coming to me.
Now had I got down on one knee, I would’ve been taken off the field. In that time, maybe Clements wouldn’t have taken command and audibled. I don’t think it’s different today. If you take a knee, you’re coming out of game for at least a few plays.
Obviously your signature moment in Ottawa came in the 1976 Grey Cup with “The Catch”. At what point in that play did you realize you were open?
As I lined up on the line of scrimmage, I was anticipating the linebacker coming over to cover me but we caught them in an invert. That means that they instead put the defensive end across from me, maybe in an attempt to stop Clements from rolling out of the pocket. As the linebacker was inside, I was free to put my hand down and get into a three point stance. I broke around the defensive end untouched which put me into the secondary and one on one with the safety. I pushed hard with my right foot to make an inside move as if going to the post and as the safety bit, pushed off with my left leg to a corner move. That’s when I knew I was open.
As I looked back, the ball seemed to be hanging in the air and I’m sure my eyes were six feet wide. There’s no way I wanted to miss that ball. All I could see as it approached were dollar signs. At the time, the winning teams cheque was $6000 vs the loser cheque of $3000. The touchdown won us both the game and more money.
After you celebrated by spiking the ball, it was seemingly lost to history. Years later, a CBC report tracked down the kid in the stands who wound up with it. How does it make you feel knowing that your historic ball was used by a neighbourhood kids to play with until it literally fell apart?
I think it’s really funny in many ways. First off, I can’t believe that I got so caught up in my hot dog move of double spiking the ball that I didn’t have the presence of mind to keep it for my collection. That someone in the stands ended up with it is strange. Normally there are nine regulation Grey Cup game balls so unless the kid somehow got on the field, I think he probably had one of those. As for the ball I caught, I bet it’s buried in a box somewhere. All I know is that I don’t have it and I’m not convinced that those kids had it either. It’s unfortunate it was lost.
During your playing career, were you superstitious? And if so, did you have any specific pre-game rituals or habits?
Yeah, there were a number of things that I did, all in an attempt to keep things regular. Depending when kickoff was I’d eat certain things, such as pancakes or a steak. I’d always dress and get taped the same way. In warmups I’d run the same routes and catch passes on specific patterns. There’s a lot that goes into your psyche when you’re getting ready for a game.
What was your favourite route to run?
Given that I won a Grey Cup with a post corner route, I’ll go with that one. Funny enough, the week before, we’d run that exact same play in the East Final against the Ticats. The only difference was we ran it from the left side of the field but the pass went right over my head. Good thing it worked a week later eh?
In your opinion, which CFL city has the best hecklers?
I’ll go with Saskatchewan. That old stadium had the fans sitting pretty close to the sidelines. I recall at times being worried about some of the individuals that were only a few feet away.
I remember one game when I was with Hamilton. We were up 27-3 but Saskatchewan came on strong and the fans were deafening. We wound up losing 30-27 and it’s because their fans were like a 13th player on the field.
They say no lead in the CFL is safe, that’s doubly true in a place where you have such passionate fans. It’s a tough place to try and win.
In 1978 you wrote the book Double Trouble. Tell me a bit about that experience.
The purpose of that book was to allow young athletes to be inspired to never give up. 1978 was an excellent year for me as I won both the MOP and MOC awards. That was huge considering where I’d come from. After all, I failed at my first attempt to make a football team and I’d struggled to work through losing my father at the young age of 11. My mom raised 12 children alone which was tough. I earned everything through hard work and that was the point of my book.
I wanted to tell people that while it may not be football, there’s something, whether it’s math, music, chemistry, drawing, whatever, that you’re good at. And if you’re good at something and you enjoy it, you should never stop. Because if you pursue it and work hard, you’ll do better than you think you can.
Looking back, maybe it was a bit premature to write a book before my career was over. Maybe it would’ve been better to do it when everything was said and done.
Let’s talk about the 1981 Grey Cup. Does the phrase “Double Pass Interference” still give you nightmares?
First and foremost, I want to mention that it’s nice to be able to look back and say that I was able to have a Grey Cup as my last game. That said, it’s a loss that still stings. We were leading 20-1 against Warren Moon and the vaunted Edmonton defence. The Eskimos had been chosen as 22.5 point favourites and we were massive underdogs due to our 5-11 record.
Our QB that game, J.C. Watts, found me a number of times despite the fact that I had a full left knee brace. I’d torn ligaments and cartilage in the Eastern Final and hadn’t even practiced during the week leading up to the game. The team fashioned a knee brace for me, and after trying it out during a walkthrough the day before the game, I decided to play. I didn’t know though if it would actually hold up.
Anyways, in the last few minutes of the game we were tied 23-23 and marching with the ball. Watts was in trouble, scrambling to the left. I was going downfield but hobbling as my leg was killing. I tried to come back towards to the QB to help J.C. Watts and despite having Eskimo DB Gary Hayes draped all over me, I caught the ball with one arm. As I started to get up, I saw the ref throw his flag. His call was the strangest thing. Double Pass Interference. I couldn’t understand it.
If I’d done something illegal, why wasn’t the flag thrown before the pass? Somehow, I end up getting flag for making a tough catch with one arm. That turned out to be the last play of my career, as my leg couldn’t handle anymore. I hate that they took that away from me. I was sick watching Edmonton kick the game winning field goal.
With all that said, you can’t change history. It stings badly but there’s no use getting upset over and over again.
You played in three Grey Cups and came up with clutch catches in each. How were you able to take your game to another level on the biggest stage?
I can promise you it wasn’t intentional. In 1972 it certainly wasn’t obvious to me before the game that I’d contribute at all. In fact, as we discussed earlier, the QB rarely looked my way until the final few moments. As for 1976, I never could have imagined that Clements would veto the play call from the sideline and go with his own play. And in 1981, with my leg in a full knee brace, to be able to contribute at all was surprising. It makes me smile though to look back and not be a scapegoat. I’m proud of contributing which is why I wear my Grey Cup rings with pride.
You recently ruptured your achilles tendon while filming an commercial in which you re-created “The Catch”. Any idea when your ad gets released? Was it Grey Cup related?
Actually it wasn’t a commercial, it was a promo for a corporate video. The company was doing an internal kickoff for a convention that takes place in Ottawa next year. That re-creation was a small part of an Ottawa collage. The video was intended to cover different aspects of Ottawa’s history. To be honest, I was tickled that people still consider “The Catch” so important.
For 40 years your catch in the dying moments of the 1976 Grey Cup was the only moment of happiness entire generations of fans in Ottawa had to cling to. Now, with the Redblacks winning their own championship and having a new cast of players step up at key moments, do you feel as if the torch has finally been passed?
I do. And as an interesting story, before last year’s game I contacted team owner Jeff Hunt and asked him to pass a message along to those guys. I just wanted to tell them that it was their moment in time to make history happen and end the 40 year drought. I was in Boston with my wife’s family for American Thanksgiving at the time and couldn’t make it to the game in Toronto. I really appreciated that Jeff Hunt gave the team that message the day before the game at practice.
The overtime victory was such an incredible moment. Henry Burris really rose to the occasion and I do feel as if the torch was passed when Jackson made his overtime catch.
You accomplished so much in your career and hold numerous records. Looking back, what are you most proud of?
I’ll answer this one in two ways. On a personal level, 1978 was a truly special year. I never expected to win the MOP award. I actually had the losing speech in my pocket. When I got on stage, I had tears in my eyes, I couldn’t hold back. It simply something that was far beyond my wildest expectations. It’s among my proudest individual moments.
Now, on a team level, you can never overlook being part of a Grey Cup winning squad. There’s nothing better than being on a championship team and contributing to that team’s success. That’s what makes your Grey Cup ring so special. It’s a memory that no one can take away from you. When you win one early in your career, as I did, you think it’s easy and that it’ll happen every year. But that fact of the matter is that it doesn’t come often. Some players never even get to play in a Grey Cup. That’s why the joy of winning one never fades.
The Redblacks have only been around for a few seasons, but already have some epic catches in franchise history. What catch do you think was more impressive, Greg Ellingson on 2nd & 25 to send Ottawa back to their first Grey Cup since 1981, or Ernest Jackson’s overtime bobble to win it in 2016?
Let’s start with Ellingson’s catch. What Greg did on that play was fabulous. I’d never be able to do something like that, I never had his speed. Given the circumstances (backed up, needing 25 yards to convert, with Burris nearly missing the snap), the fact that Ellingson not only won the jump ball but pulled away from the defenders to score and send Ottawa back to the Grey Cup was special.
As for Jackson, that was as exceptional as anything I’ve ever seen. Calgary had momentum, tying up the game, it was in overtime and Ottawa needed a play. For him to be falling like that, bobbling the ball but still catching it and making it into the end zone was sensational.
Both catches were incredible but if I had to give one the edge, I’ll give Jackson the nod because maybe I’m biased but I think catches that win championships are on their own level.
If you were playing in today’s CFL, what are some things or rules you’d love, and what are some you’d hate?
I’d love to be a receiver nowadays simply because defenders can’t jam or touch you without getting a flag. That makes a massive difference. It’s so much easier to run a route when you aren’t impeded or having to fight off hands or deal with pushing and shoving.
On the flip side, one thing that’s a bit of a pet peeve about today’s game for me is that on every play, it seems like receivers go offside. I don’t get it. You’re in motion, you know the snap count, how can you go offsides? Worst of all, it seems like the refs rarely flag receivers for it. It drives me nuts.
Who are the best receivers in today’s game?
Just because I follow the East much more closely, I’ll start there. On the Ticats, I love Andy Fantuz and Luke Tasker. Brandon Banks has also been incredible with June Jones. In Ottawa you Ellingson catches everything that comes his way but I also love Brad Sinopoli too. In Toronto SJ Green is phenomenal, he continually amazes me. In Montreal you’ve got Nik Lewis. I love watching him ricochet off defenders. He might be larger than your traditional receiver but he’s as steady as they come.
The only one out West that springs to mind is Duron Carter. He’s impressive but he’s also a hotdog. That said, I enjoy his ability to catch the ball with one hand, which he happens to do fairly often.
The past few seasons have seen lots of talk about abolishing the East and West divisions. What are your thoughts on the subject?
I’m more of a traditionalist, I think you’ve got to keep that East vs West rivalry going. The crossover rule exists and it seems to work, so I’m comfortable with that. That being said, it may need to be adjusted or fine tuned or what have you, because you definitely want the best teams in the playoffs. But if it was up to me, I’d make sure to keep the divisions.
Tell me something most CFL fans would be surprised to know about you.
I mentioned it earlier this interview, but just the fact that I was better at basketball than football when I was at Syracuse. My passion for basketball is something that has never left. I’ll never know how a basketball career may have unfolded but I never stopped playing. I was in a men’s senior league in Burlington for 24 years.
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask. Which side sucks, the North or the South?
Hahaha, excellent question! Well, there’s no doubt that the South Side was better. Honestly, they were the best fans you could play for. The pride I felt at the cheers coming from the stands after making a play was spectacular. I loved being cheered on by those Southsiders, they were my favourites.
Thank you so much for your time Tony. I know I speak for all of R-Nation when I say what you have done for the city of Ottawa will never be forgotten.