Top 10 CFL feuds: Dieter Brock vs the City of Winnipeg

On Monday, I unveiled my latest project for 3DownNation, a list of the top ten feuds in CFL history. Over the next two weeks, I’ll countdown the nastiest fights and most contentious disagreements in the history of the league.

Check out our previous posts below:

The Best of the Rest

Number Ten: Adam Rita vs Jeff Reinebold

We continue today with the ninth biggest CFL feud of all-time.

Number nine: Dieter Brock vs the City of Winnipeg 

It was hard to assess this particular feud. In many ways, it’s been largely forgiven. Brock is on the Bombers’ Wall of Honour and is regarded by fans as one of the greatest QBs in franchise history. For his part, Brock has routinely said “there’s a misconception that [he] didn’t like it there and it is not true at all.”

Yet few beefs have ever been served hotter when they were active and none have had the same lasting impact on a city. Search for “Dieter Brock, Zoo” in any Winnipeg newspaper archive and you will find dozens of articles spanning decades and very few have anything to do with Dieter Brock.

It’s a running joke, an insult turned badge of honour, and a continuing identifier for Winnipeggers who often feel their city has been slighted and overlooked. It seemed wrong to leave it off this list.

In 1983, Brock was engaged in one of the most heated contract disputes in league history. He’d been the Blue Bombers’ pivot for nine seasons and had a nice five-year, $1.1 million dollar contract, but he had the same question that many American CFLers have: can I make it south of the border?

Brock had an opportunity to find out as his former coach, Ray Jauch, was with the Washington Federals of the new USFL. There was money to be had for quarterbacks in that league and Brock had a chance to make a name for himself in his home country. With three years remaining on his contract, the passer wanted out.

He approached rookie general manager Paul Robson for a release and was refused. He countered by retiring, then returning, then holding out, then returning, then walking out of practice on multiple occasions. As his agent Gil Scott explained, “Dieter’s goal in life is to get out of Winnipeg.”

The contract dispute was a circus. Brock played well, but fans were upset. Radioman Alan Davidson alleged he had “gone into the tank.” Attendance continued to dwindle. The club allegedly lost $500,000 in the process.

When asked about why he wanted to leave after one of his practice walkouts, Brock’s mind wasn’t on a circus but another type of animal menagerie. It was then he uttered the now famous quote.

“I’m bored in Winnipeg. How many times can you go to the zoo or the park with your kids before you get bored?” said Brock. “What else is there to do in Winnipeg?”

How many times can you go to the zoo? Words that have echoed through Winnipeg history.

While the staff and players were instructed to stay tight-lipped, teammate Vernon Pahl expressed what many in the locker room felt as the situation deteriorated.

“It’s beginning to affect my livelihood. When my livelihood is threatened, I get disturbed,” the linebacker said angrily after a loss. “I’m at a point where I can no longer pretend it isn’t there. At this point, I’m pissed off because of what it’s doing to the team.”

Winnipeg management took action. Brock was suspended from the team and fined $11,000 for “his irresponsible behaviour to our football team” that “violated both the letter and spirit of his contract.” Brock, fearing public recognition, didn’t leave his home for nine days following the suspension, then moved his family back to Birmingham.

Shortly after, the Bombers traded Brock to Hamilton for Tom Clements. The Ticats renegotiated Brock’s contract and agreed to allow him to leave following the 1984 season. That meant two things: Cal Murphy wouldn’t be asked “what’s going on in Birmingham all the time” and Brock would have to show his face in Winnipeg while quarterbacking a new team.

That reunion took place in 1984 and Winnipeg didn’t forget. While he fought with team management, it was the fans that took issue with their former quarterback. When I asked for fan submissions for this project, “Team X’s fans vs Player Y” was a common trope — and one I tried to avoid for the most part when assembling this list. Yet Dieter Brock so uniquely reinvigorated a city’s interest that he stands apart from the rest.

The resentment consumed the city and fanbase. He was named as one of those to be executed in a local production of the opera “The Mikado” — see Brock, more things to do in Winnipeg! A sign that read “Dieter was here” was put up at the Assiniboine Zoo in the dead of night. Fans flocked to the stadium in animal costumes. A massive group known as the “Brock-Busters” was formed, dressed in Ghostbusters outfits with Brock’s number crossed out rather than the traditional ghost, and the theme song was played after every sack. Boos rained down every time he touched the ball. All in all, the game drew over 7,000 more fans than average and earned the cash-strapped club an extra $100,000 in revenue. You could say that a feud has never been more profitable in the CFL.

While some might have considered that revenge enough, Winnipeg wasn’t finished. The two teams met in the 1984 Grey Cup and Tom Clements led the Bombers to victory over Brock with the very squad Dieter helped build. In the stands were plenty of Bombers faithful, many still decked in various anti-Brock paraphernalia as they celebrated. Brock left for the NFL without having ever won a Grey Cup and his career ended just a year later due to injury.

“I think back now and it’s, ‘Man, I should have just stayed in Winnipeg…’ I mean, we were on the verge of winning and being a Grey Cup winner,” admitted Brock years later.

“But if I had stayed I might not have ever got an opportunity to see what I could have done in the NFL and I would have been thinking, ‘I wonder if I could have played in the NFL.’ I hated it. I really did. I didn’t want to leave that way. I wanted to finish my career in Winnipeg.”

So how do you explain the mended fences between Brock and the city he so deeply insulted in the years since? Cal Murphy said it best at the time.

“There is nothing that is irreparable. You have to have a little give and take and see the other guy’s side of things. I think sometimes things are said out of anger. Sometimes you’re sorry after you say them. I hope as time passes, people will forget some of the things said and we will get Dieter Brock back as quarterback.”

In the end, Winnipeg accepted Brock for the player he was and welcomed him back into the fold.

Just don’t mention the zoo.

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JC Abbott
Abbott is a UBC student, youth coach and lifelong CFL fanatic. He specializes in coverage of the CFL draft and the league's global initiative.