Catching up with Ottawa Rough Riders legend Jim Cain

An integral member of only the second team in Ottawa’s 129 years of pro football history to win back to back championships, Jim Cain is one of the 24 players from the ’68/’69 Rough Rider teams that will be honoured this weekend prior to Ottawa’s game against Montreal. Cain, a nine-year veteran who played both offensive and defensive line, never missed a game during his time in the nation’s capital.

Your football career began in high school. What was it about the sport that first attracted your interest?

I was a kid growing up in Toronto, and attending a Catholic school on an academic scholarship. At first, I didn’t play football, just basketball. But given that I was always one of the biggest kids in school (and pretty fast too), coaches kept encouraging me to go out for football. Finally, I did, and before I knew it I was playing 60 minutes a game, on offence, defence and every special team. Things took off from there.

Frank Clair, who coached the Argos before taking the Rough Rider job, knew my high school coach, which is how I wound up getting an invitation to a high school rookie camp in Ottawa. I went up and must’ve done well as I was invited back to the Rough Rider’s training camp. Here I was, a fresh-faced 18 year old among grizzled vets like Bobby Simpson. Ottawa had a guest coach in from LSU named George Terry and he liked what the saw in me and offered me a scholarship. Back then, I’d never heard of Louisiana and wanted to be a bit closer to home, so I decided instead to accept an offer to play football at the University of Detroit.

Was the plan always go to school or had you hoped to stick with the Rough Riders?

Well, I’d just turned 18, so really there was no temptation on my part to stay in Ottawa. I was a good student and always intended to go university, plus I had a summer job awaiting me back in Toronto. If it was up to the team, they might have kept me. Just look at what happened a year later with Moe Racine. After a couple years of playing for minor teams around Ottawa, he tried out for the Rough Riders at 18, made the team, played 17 years with them and never went to university.

Tell me a bit about how you wound up playing in Ottawa.

After four years of playing Division One football with the Titans and finishing school, Ottawa claimed that they owned my rights because they’d spent money on me back when I was in training camp with them. I really didn’t mind and it worked out well as half my family (the Smith side) was in Ottawa. I had uncles who were NHL players (Brian, Gary and Des Smith) and one, Rodger, who played for the Rough Riders in the early 1920s.

What was it like playing under Frank Clair?

For me personally, Frank was instrumental in taking my football career from high school to university and then to the pros. After all, he kept me on the Rough Riders for nine straight seasons. In retrospect, I really appreciate that, as not many guys get to spend their whole career with one team, especially nowadays with all the free agency.

As a coach, Frank was an offensive genius. Sometimes he’d get flustered on game days, but during the week, there was nobody better. He was into film way before anyone else and always had us doing deep film study. He was a master at breaking down defences. He was a consistently nice man to play for.

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?

I believe the main reason people say that is because of the team’s success. In 1960 Ottawa won the Grey Cup and from the time I arrived in 1961 until I retired following the ’69 season, we finished the regular season in second place six times and three times in first. The three years we finished first we went to the Grey Cup, winning twice. You also can’t overlook the continuity we had as a group. Plus, we always had excellent quarterback play, with both Ronnie Lancaster (before he was traded) and Russ Jackson.

As for the vibe around the team in the city, as Whit Tucker said in a recent interview, back then, we were the only game in town. There was no Ottawa Senators and no big league soccer team, so Russ Jackson and Bobby Simpson were as big of stars as Daniel Alfredsson was during his career.

I don’t think you’ll ever get all the way back to that, but the Redblacks have done well trying to re-create what we had in the ‘60s through their marketing and traditions. Roger Greenberg (OSEG’s Chairman) said their inspiration in bringing a team back was to have what they had as kids when they grew up in the ‘60s.

You were the rare breed of player capable of playing on both sides of the ball, did you have a preference?

Oh for sure. Defence is a lot more fun to play and if you miss a tackle, you had guys like Kenny Lehmann, Wayne Giardino, Soupy (Jerry Campbell), to make it for you. As an offensive lineman, especially when you’re pass blocking, you’re on an island and if you screw up, there’s no hiding.

It’s funny actually. Even the day after a win you’d get sweaty palms driving the Queen Elizabeth Driveway to Lansdowne Park wondering how you looked on film. I used to ask my good friend Moe (Racine) how he thought he played and he’d always say he didn’t know. Once the film started you realized it normally wasn’t too bad.

Getting back to your question, playing defence was better as it didn’t carry that same pressure. You had all those guys behind you and it was their job to make plays too.

Who was the toughest player you ever lined up against?

Good question. I could name someone on either side of the ball since I played both ways but I’ll go with someone I went up against when I was on offence. Although he wasn’t tough in the sense of being mean or that you’re wind up physically beat up during the game, John Barrow (with Hamilton) was an all-time great. The problem with playing him was that if he got by you, you knew for sure you’d be picking him up off the quarterback. That made for long afternoons.

During your career, you were teammates with some of the biggest names in Ottawa’s CFL history. What made guys like Ronnie Stewart, Kaye Vaughan, Whit Tucker, Moe Racine and Russ Jackson so special?

I think the main thing is that every one of those guys you mentioned were great competitors. On our two championship teams (68/69), we had eight Hall of Fame players. So not only were they talented but they worked hard. We had NFL guys come in, full of talent but they lacked competitiveness. Pound for pound Kaye Vaughan could hit with the best of them. Ron Steward, despite being a small guy was as tough as they came and full of fighting spirit. Even Russ Jackson, our quarterback, was a physical specimen and not afraid to get hit. If you look at the numbers, he averaged more yards per carry (6.84) than any running back in the top ten for rushing in CFL history. That’s pretty impressive.

Over nine seasons you never missed a game. Would you chalk that up to luck, preparation or something else?

It’s a combination of things. There’s obviously a lot of luck involved, as you never know if you’re going to get hit in the pile and have your leg twist or something like that. I somehow made it through my entire career; high school, university and the pros, without missing a game. But just because I always played doesn’t mean I didn’t get injured. I can remember playing a playoff game against Montreal with a twisted ankle, they just shot me up with Novocaine. There were other times I played through separated shoulders, banged up this and that but fortunately, I was always healthy enough to suit up and play.

I’ve read that when you played, you only had 15% vision in one eye. How were you able to overcome that and still play at a high level?

To be honest, I never even considered it an issue or thought about it. It was only years later (and by accident) that I realized it was a thing. I was at the eye doctor with my daughter and mentioned something about wearing contact lenses. The doctor replied that I wouldn’t be a good candidate for them given my lack of vision in my left eye and I replied that that was funny since I’d be using them since my college days. When I told him that I’d had a long football career too, he said that if he’d been my doctor as a teen, he would have advised my parents not to let me play. Basically, his concern was that if something had happened to my good eye (the right one), I would’ve been walking around with a dog.

But like I said, when I was playing, I never considered it an impediment or worried about getting poked in the eye. As a kid, you stand up to play defence but if you do that a higher level, someone will put a helmet on your chest and knock you on your butt. As you get to know playing defence, you can feel the way you’re being blocked, so vision doesn’t really matter so much. Just look at Ed McQuarters who played for Saskatchewan. He was an all-time great and even after losing an eye, continued to play.

Why did you decide to retire following the 1969 season? Did the appeal of going out on a high, winning back to back Grey Cups, sway you?

Of course that factored into my decision but really it was a combination of things. First off, we were changing coaches from Frank Clair to Jack Gotta. That wasn’t a huge issue though as I knew Gotta liked me. Second, we were getting a new defensive line coach, our fourth in five years. That wears on you as a player because when it comes to positional coaches, you tend to spend a lot of time together and build strong relationships. To have that rapport suddenly taken away isn’t easy. Third, during my playing career I was also working at Stats Canada. That year I’d won a competition and my salary was going to be restructured and nearly double. Lastly and in all honestly the main thing, is that with Russ Jackson retiring, no matter who else stuck around, I knew we’d likely drop from first to last. It’s hard enough to play football when you win but given that it was looking like a long year ahead, I figured the game wouldn’t be fun anymore. So when I considered all of those factors, I decided that was it for me.

Is there one loss that still bothers you?

I wouldn’t say so. To be honest I try not to dwell on the losses. Of course it would’ve been nice to win the 1966 Grey Cup against Saskatchewan, but that was a lot of circumstance. Bill Smith, our defensive coordinator, died a few weeks before the game and that really affected us. Looking back, I suppose one could think about things they could’ve done differently, but I finished my career with two Grey Cups and that’s what I choose to focus on.

Following your retirement you spent three years coaching with the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees. Tell me a bit about that experience.

When you retire from playing football, the thing you miss the most is the camaraderie of the locker room. Although everyone is paid and it’s a professional environment, the reality is you can act like a big kid in the locker room with your peers. When you career ends, whether due to retirement, injury, or being cut, it’s the thing you long for the most.

Coaching with the Gee-Gees was good for me. It was an opportunity to still be involved and around the game. That first year, I coached with Bob O’Billovich and our team went to the Vanier Cup in Toronto although we got beat by a better team.

After three seasons I decided I’d had enough. Even though it wasn’t a real job (we were only paid an honorarium), it was like a full-time job; watching film, making game plans, helping kids, etc. I’m grateful for the time I spent there as it provided me a smooth transition out of football.

Throughout your life you’ve been quite involved in Ottawa’s philanthropic community. What drives you to give back?

I spent years working with the Boys and Girls club in honour of my cousin Brian, who passed away in 1995. Through the Brian Smith Memorial Golf Tournament, we managed to raise over two million dollars, around $100,000 a year. We also sent 30 kids to university via a scholarship program. It’s been a wonderful thing to be involved in. Lots of hard work but lots of rewards too.

How would you compare today’s atmosphere at TD Place to the atmosphere to your playing days?

I’d say the big thing now is the Redblacks have done an incredible job of capturing the coveted younger demographic. I’ve met with commissioner Randy Ambrosie a couple of times and it’s something that always comes up. In spite of the fact that some might not be closely watching the game, the important thing is that they’re in the stadium and having a good time.

What does it mean to see OSEG honouring the ’68/’69 championship teams now, 50 years later, and how did this whole thing come about?

It’s terrific, especially given that we’re not a big group. There were only 36 players on those two teams and 29 of the 36 were on both rosters. The only real change we had from ’68 to ’69 was Bo Scott going to the NFL and Jim Mankins taking over at fullback, otherwise it was practically the same squad.

As for how everything came about, it’s been in the works for a while now but it was Russ Jackson’s idea. He brought it up to the Redblacks and they took over from there. I become involved with the planning in 2016 due to my role as the Vice President of the CFLAA. Holding an event last year wasn’t possible because of OSEG hosting the Grey Cup but we knew we had to do it sooner rather than later. The reality is guys are getting older. At the start of this process, eight guys had already passed away. Since we began planning, we’ve lost four more (Moe Racine, Soupy Campbell, Marshall Shirk and Jerry Selinger).

Amazingly, out of the 24 guys still alive, 22 will be in Ottawa for this week’s events. Additionally, we’ll have the families of six other players on hand as well. Arthur and Ken Loeb will be there too, representing their father Dave Loeb (former Rough Riders owner). Lastly, Robin Mason Clair will be representing her father Frank. In total, counting friends and family, we’re expecting over 160 people at our dinner Friday night.

There’s just been an incredible response from everyone involved with the event and I couldn’t be happier. The Redblacks have been great and are providing each player with commemorative white jerseys and tickets to the game on Saturday.

I’ve also heard that the ’69 team will receive Grey Cup rings, who led that initiative?

The Loeb brothers (Arthur and Ken). They were invited to last year’s CFL Legend’s Luncheon during Grey Cup week and while chatting with Russ Jackson they learned that for whatever reason, their father never provided the ’69 team with championship rings. They’ve taken it upon themselves to do it for us at this reunion.

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

The South now! For years following my retirement I sat on the North with Moe Racine. We had season tickets for the Rough Riders, Renegades and Redblacks and used to sit about halfway up. A few years back, given his health issues Moe decided he didn’t like the ramps anymore so we moved to the South. It’s crazy over there! People aren’t always completely focused on the game but they’re always having a good time!

Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).