Given how the league’s American expansion ultimately turned out, perhaps it’s no surprise the 25th anniversary of the first-ever regular season game between a Canadian CFL franchise and an American one went largely unrecognized.
But just over 25 years ago – July 7th, 1993 – the Ottawa Rough Riders’ season opener against the Sacramento Gold Miners marked the first game between CFL clubs on either side of the border. Though teams had previously gone up against NFL franchises in exhibition matches, the game marked the start of a new era in the CFL.
That the team in Canada’s capital hosted the game was fitting, but as noted by Brent Dowdall in his book “Turnover: The Fumbling of the Ottawa Rough Riders”, only came about due to some hard lobbying on the part of then team president Lonie Glieberman to league executives. To this day the Glieberman name is reviled in Ottawa, but ensuring the participation of the Rough Riders in the historic game may be the only thing he ever did right.
The media build-up to the game was tremendous, heavy on nationalistic tones. On one side, there was the Ottawa Rough Riders, a Canadian team bound by the CFL’s ratio rule, with 20 of the 37 players with Canadian citizenship. On the other, the Sacramento Gold Miners, a team exempt from the ratio rule and fielding a squad entirely of Americans. Given the exemption and the fact that many players on the Gold Miners’ roster had NFL experience, Sacramento was viewed as a heavy favourite.
The hype surrounding the Gold Miners did not go unnoticed by Rough Rider players. Still, as Ottawa defensive lineman Glenn Kulka noted in an interview with Canadian Press reporter Bruce Cheadle before the game, “Nobody wants to be the first CFL team to lose to an All-American team.”
On the line was nothing less than bragging rights about the quality of each country’s football players. The Rough Riders and Gold Miners game would be the first volley in a debate that would rage until the last American expansion team folded.
When game day finally arrived, 23,916 members of R-Nation packed into Frank Clair Stadium to witness the contest. Pre-game ceremonies included skydivers parachuting to mid-field with American and Canadian flags, U.S. Marines, Governor General foot guards and each country’s national anthem.
With the kickoff, the first international clash of CFL franchises got underway. The Sacramento Gold Miners became the first American team to play a down in the CFL and the Rough Riders the first Canadians to oppose them.
The Gold Miners’ roster featured just three players with previous CFL experience and the team only had a month of practice under its belt. As they took penalty after penalty (procedure flags, offside, no yards, time clock violations), it became apparent that Sacramento was overwhelmed.
Even when they managed to avoid being flagged, the Rough Riders gave them a harsh welcome to the Canadian game, quickly pulling out to a 14-0 lead.
On offence, quarterback Tom Burgess completed 21 of 41 passes for 373 yards and three touchdowns. Receiver Stephen Jones caught an 11 yard touchdown pass and threw for one of his own; a 46 yard strike coming off a trick play reverse.
On defence, the Rough Riders were relentless, sacking Sacramento pivot David Archer seven times, picking him off twice and generally making life difficult every time he dropped back to pass.
The Gold Miners couldn’t even catch a break on special teams, allowing the Rough Riders to move the sticks on a fake punt and missing all three field goals they attempted.
Given that Ron Smeltzer (Ottawa’s coach) had nearly a decade’s worth of experience coaching in the CFL, including stints as an offensive line coach and offensive coordinator with B.C., Calgary and Edmonton, it was no surprise to see him thoroughly out-coach Kay Stephenson, his rookie Sacramento counterpart completely new to the nuances of the Canadian game.
Despite the Gold Miners putting together a slight rally in the third quarter, they still wound up on the losing side, with the Rough Riders earning a 32-23 victory.
Asked recently about his performance in the game and what sticks with him most vividly after all these years, Jones said, “Nobody gave us a chance but we proved that the CFL was no joke. Winning that game was a great victory, not only for us players, but Canada as a whole. Fans went home proud that night.”
*Special thanks to CFL statistician Steve Daniel for providing the resources that made this piece possible*