Part One: CFL legend Glenn Kulka honest to the bone

Glenn Kulka Ottawa Rough Riders defensive end. Photo Scott Grant.

As one of a handful of Canadians to play three sports at the professional level, Glenn Kulka is known for wearing his heart on his sleeve, boasting a larger-than-life personality and a ferocious playing style.

In addition to a storied 11-year CFL career that spanned five teams and saw him play 163 games, amass 215 tackles, 48 sacks and eight fumble recoveries, Kulka also had stints as a pro-hockey player, spent time wrestling in the WWF and dabbled in MMA, becoming the oldest pro fighter in North America.

The Edmonton native gave it his all in whatever activity he pursued and has no regrets on a life lived to the limits. I recently had the privilege of catching up with him to reminisce on his past and discuss the toll his athletic career has taken on his future.

As a child, your first sport was hockey. In fact, you were quite the player, even winding up as an assistant captain during your time in the WHL. Given that, why the switch to football?

Due to a broken hand. I broke it in a street fight right before the season and then as I was a tough guy, it never healed properly. I had it re-set five times in one season. Even as I had my cast on, guys still wanted to fight me and because I really couldn’t, I often kept my stick in my hand and that led to a few suspensions. Around that time I succumbed to drugs and alcohol for the first time and began a struggle with that, which lasted a number of years.

Eventually I was traded from the Medicine Hat Tigers to the Nanaimo Islanders, who were the worst (and last place) team, so I said, ‘screw it.’ I still couldn’t shoot a puck properly because of my hand and a friend mentioned that I’d still be able to play football even with a cast, so I went out and played a year of junior football.

Is it true that after your time at Bakersfield College, you signed your first pro football contact with the Eskimos as an offensive lineman, despite never playing the position?

I’m not sure why that keeps coming up, because this isn’t the first time someone’s asked me about that. But I think it’s due to the fact that back in the day, if you were a good sized Canadian, everyone assumed you’d be an offensive lineman. As you said, though, I never played a down as one but still, when the Eskimos took me as a protected territorial pick, that’s what they pencilled me in as initially.

In your first year with the Argos, you guys came agonizingly close to winning to the Grey Cup. Looking back at that game, what sticks with you?

Nothing specific other than the 49-yard field goal with 45 seconds left on the clock that gave the Eskimos a two-point lead, 38-36. Other than that, nothing. Just kidding! Of course I remember every play of that game. It’s seared into my memory because it was so important. That Grey Cup game was early in my career and I distinctly remember thinking that I’d get back there, no problem. Well I played another nine years and never got a sniff, which is a very bitter pill to swallow.

The way I explain it to people is think of climbing a sheer cliff; imagine all the effort and concentration it takes to get to the top and imagine getting to the summit only to have someone push you off right as you get to the peak.

I thought we’d stopped them, after all it was a 49-yard kick and Jerry Kauric, their kicker, was a rookie. That was a long-a** kick. You’ve gotta remember that this was back 30 years ago, kickers weren’t nailing long distance kicks like they do today. But Kauric hammered it. It arched up high and just fell in over the crossbar. It was gutting to see.

Bruce Elliot, Mike Campbell and Glenn Kulka – Toronto Argonauts 1989. Photo credit: John Bradley.

In 1990 you came to Ottawa as the largest part of a big free agent crop brought in by general manager Jo-Anne Polak. Tell me about the “Rough Raiders” nickname and the stuffed cat that was supposed to make an appearance at your introductory press conference.

The cat was supposed to be a dig at the Ticats but John Mandarich tore it up before the presser even started, so that quickly went out the window.

As for the Rough Raiders thing, that was to show that we were tough and mean and because that was the first time anybody in the CFL signed a big group of free agents. Back then, if you didn’t sign in your option year, teams just traded you. That was the way teams colluded to avoid letting players hit free agency and to drive the price of players down. But Polak and the Rough Riders landed a coup, signing receivers Stephen Jones, David Williams, running back Anthony Cherry, offensive lineman Bryan llerbrun, defensive lineman John Mandarich and myself.

My contract at the time was significant, $230,000 for three years, which was more money than I ever thought I’d make in the CFL. Ideally, I had hoped to get a shot in the NFL but I couldn’t get a sniff. My agent at the time was Gil Scott and I figured he would get me at least a tryout down south because of the bench press record I’d set (more on that later).

But I soon found out that Scott also represented Don Matthews, who was the head coach of the Argos at that time. Given I was playing for the Argos and Matthews wanted me around, I’m not sure Scott tried that hard to get me NFL looks. I was so pissed when I realized Scott was representing both of us that I immediately signed with Ottawa.

During your time with the Rough Riders, the ownership situation was a mess, featuring a rotating cast of owners including the Gliebermans. As a player, did that off-field stuff carry over and affect the locker room?

Absolutely. As an athlete, you’re asked to be a professional and carry yourself accordingly. We’re expected to maintain a high standard to represent the franchise and organization properly and here’s Lonie, a young kid from Detroit with no experience, who doesn’t know anyone in town or anything about football, dating cheerleaders. Players definitely looked down on that kind of behaviour from an owner.

And then there was the whole Dexter Manley fiasco. When you’ve got owners insisting a guy can play and forcing the coach to put him in games ahead guys like John Kropke, sh** is gonna hit the fan. Manley wouldn’t finish practice, not one single day. Meanwhile, Kropke was a vet who busted his a** in practice. It got so bad that Jim Daley, our defensive line coach, dug in his heels and eventually quit, so we finished the season without one.

With that kind of stuff happening it wears heavy on you as a player — the entire situation was a mess. We had cliques of guys because there was always a rotating cast of players coming through the doors. You wouldn’t even make an effort to get to know a guy unless he had been around for a season. Each position group became very introverted, and in a team sport like football, that’s not a recipe for success. As a defensive line we just made sure we kicked a** every day, because that’s all we could control. We’d beat the hell out of the offensive line in practice because we couldn’t stand how bad those guys sucked.

It became a vicious cycle. When we had good players, the coaches sucked and ownership interfered with the roster. When we had good coaches we had no players because nobody in their right mind wanted to stick around. It was the most frustrating, straining and stressful situation to be in as a player knowing that no matter how well you played, you weren’t going to win. We knew we weren’t going to be successful.

Getting back to the Gliebermans again, you can’t overstate how awful they were as owners. They assumed the Rough Riders’ debts and were hailed as saviours but at the end of the day, all they did was destroy a historic franchise. And then the league turned around and gave them Shreveport and they blew that, too. When the CFL gave them a third chance with the Renegades you really had to shake your head and wonder what the f*** the league was doing.

As a defensive guy, what was it like watching the feud between Damon Allen and Ken Hobart unfold?

I don’t even know if the feud was a personal thing between the two of them as much as it was fans spurring things on. What you’ve got to remember is that Allen had an incredible 23-year career, and the only place he wasn’t great and unsuccessful was in Ottawa. He threw just as many interceptions as he did touchdown passes.

As a defence, that wore on us because we were one of the best units in the league, ranked near the top in every defensive category. We kicked a** and took names even with having an offence that turned the ball over so much.

Guys like Greg Stumon, Lybrant Robinson, Bruce Holmes and myself played their hearts out but when your offence can’t do anything — forget first downs, they couldn’t hang onto the ball — being on the field all game would take its toll and we’d lose games in the fourth quarter as we were exhausted.

In the four years you spent with Ottawa, the team switched their logo and jersey numerous times. Was there a certain look you preferred?

I believe in 1994 they switched away from the traditional “R” logo and went with a guy who looked like a buccaneer on the side of the helmet. I always thought the gold helmet, red jersey and gold pants were one of the sharpest uniforms I’d seen. I also liked the flaming “R” but thought they could’ve made that even more dramatic.

Glenn Kulka, Ottawa Rough Riders 1994. Photo courtesy: F. Scott Grant

I’ve still got a Rough Rider jersey but most of my memorabilia is gone. I used to get calls all the time for stuff for auctions so I don’t have much left at all.

Talk me through your infamous brawl with Andrew Stewart. Is it true that the fight broke out while the team was voting on a sportsmanship award?

Yes, that’s exactly right. We were voting on the Tom Pate Memorial Award, which is given out every season for sportsmanship and community involvement. Stewart was sitting in the front row with Dexter Manley. At the time, I was a team captain and up front helping take the vote. You’ve gotta understand that there was 50 guys crammed into a room, it was hot and the voting process takes time to get through, so patience was short.

Another thing you have to know is that Stewart was an absolute a**hole and I don’t say that about too many guys. He had a bad case of NFL-itis, meaning he thought he was better than everyone else and that he was wasting his time in the CFL. The dude was a monster at six-foot-five, 300 pounds but even though he was a mammoth I liked to say that he was built like Tarzan but played like Jane.

Anyways, Stewart had been borrowing money from a number of other players on the team but not paying them back. Long story short, as team leaders, Lybrant Robinson, John Kropke and myself had talked for some time about getting rid of him or beating him up, be it in practice or elsewhere, to teach him a lesson. Things had gone too far and as leaders we decided we had to do something about him and we all agreed that whoever had the first chance to deal with him would take it.

So during that meeting to vote for the Tom Pate Award, he kept interrupting, being sarcastic, asking stupid questions like how much money the award winner got, etc. Basically he wasn’t respecting the award which is literally named after a young guy who passed away. So we got into a shouting match and I finally said: ‘And you just won a free trip back to the f***ing NFL.’ And pointed to the door.

As I said that, I put down my coffee cup and starting walking towards him. He got out of his chair and before he took a step I cold-cocked and blasted him with a right hand. He was knocked down but, to his credit, wasn’t knocked out. I pulled his hoodie over his head and kind of just held him there, thinking that it was over and I’d done my part, after all he was still a teammate. But as he collected himself he freaked out and, as I mentioned, he was a huge man. He picked me up and mowed us through the meeting room, over players, chairs and tables.

Given that he couldn’t see anything he kept driving me backwards until we smashed through a glass wall partition into another meeting room. Lonie happened to be in there and immediately took off running as he always did whenever there was confrontation. Stewart kept flailing at me blindly and as we scrapped I hit my arm on the broken glass. I wound up needing stitches and missed a game because of it.

During the 1993 off-season you finally got your shot at pro hockey. What was that like?

That came about because I really regretted never getting a shot at pro hockey. After the season ended I started skating on the canal twice a day, every day and fired off an email to every team in the East Coast League saying: ‘Hey, this is me, I’m 280 pounds, played in the WHL and want a shot.’ Within 15 minutes I had about 10 responses and chose to go to the Hampton Roads Admirals. They were coached by John Brophy, who used to coach the Maple Leafs before heading to the ECHL.

He invited me down and so I went. I hadn’t played in a decade or even skated regularly in six years so it was a painful learning curve. I had to get used to skating and shooting the puck again. Brophy put me in front of the net and told me to fight everybody. In those days hockey tough guys were weighing in at 220 pounds so I had an extra 60-70 pounds on them all. Being so much bigger was a huge advantage.

Unfortunately, I only lasted 13 games because at the time, the Rough Riders were helping me out with the mortgage on my house and threatened to pull it if I didn’t quit. That, combined with the fact that it was an option year for me meant I had to cut my stint short and so I didn’t finish the season. Still, I got two goals and however many penalties minutes and can say I played pro hockey, so I’ve got no regrets at all.

As the stats reflect, you were a fierce defensive lineman. But one man does not a unit make. What was the best group of defensive linemen you were a part of?

The 1988 Toronto defence for sure. We were stacked with guys like Dan Sellers, Rodney Harding, Jearld Baylis, Harold Hallman and so on. We went 14-4 that season and just killed people. There was never any talk of losing, it was just a matter of how badly we’d beat the snot out of the other guys. That was easily the most dominant defence I’ve ever been a part of.

Why No. 68?

By default really. My first number with the Eskimos was 67 but that changed to 68 when they loaned me to Montreal for eight games. Norm Kimball was the general manager of the Alouettes at the time and he asked Edmonton who they had sitting around.

Montreal sucked and I wasn’t playing so the Eskimos sent me there. But then the Alouettes folded and Edmonton couldn’t admit that they had just loaned me, because that would’ve been collusion, so instead I wound up in the dispersal draft and Toronto picked me second overall.

Getting back to the number 68, once I read into a bit of CFL history, I really liked what I learned about Angelo Mosca and kind of looked up to him, so I would say I kept the number because of him.

Did you have any pre-game superstitions?

I used to get to the ballpark early in the morning on game days, right after breakfast, and stay there all day. There was always three or four of us and we’d hang out and order food in and just chat and wait for the game.

Personally, every game was a big event for me. I always made sure I stayed in the night before and as much as I had my trials and tribulations with alcohol, I was disciplined and regimented when it came time to take the field and play. I wanted to be successful and tried to orient myself that way.

So in terms of superstitions, not really. I’d always eat certain foods but that was more for the nutrition side of things.

You were always known as an outgoing guy with a big personality. On the field, were you a talker?

No, not so much. I used to love to not say a word and have the offensive guys I was going up against go crazy when I beat them again and again, play after play. That to me spoke louder than actually chirping.

Glenn Kulka Ottawa Rough Riders 1992. Photo John Bradley

Did you have a favourite quarterback to sack?

Nah, they were all great to hit. There’s nothing like the feeling of getting your arms around a quarterback and feel them go lifeless. It’s like a lion grabbing a gazelle, they know they’re done, it’s just a matter how of bad it’ll be. I really didn’t care who it was but if I had to pick, it was always nice to nail someone like Doug Flutie and his scrambling little a**.

Terrence Jones Shreveport Pirates 1994. Photo John Bradley

Looking back on your CFL career, what sticks with you?

I hate to say a negative but just what could’ve been. I spent too much time here in Ottawa in programs that were never going to be successful. I do regret coming to Ottawa for the money and not choosing to play in a place that would’ve been better for football. Also, the Grey Cup loss stings, because it’s the ripple in the pond affect. If we win that, where does my career go from there? You can spend all day guessing your way through that kind of stuff.

**Check out Part Two on Sunday**

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).