Top 10 CFL feuds: Ed Harrington vs Sonny Wade

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/

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

Number Nine: Dieter Brock vs the City of Winnipeg

Number Eight: Tyrone Jones vs Cal Murphy

Number Seven: Dave Chaytors vs Doug Flutie

We continue today with the sixth worst CFL feud of all-time.

Number Six: Sonny Wade vs Ed Harrington

This feud is a small but shocking chapter in CFL history and one which subverts your initial expectations.

Jesse “Sonny” Wade was an odd duck. He was quiet, humble, didn’t drink and didn’t smoke, stereotyped as a country bumpkin, and boasted a myriad of physical ailments, including being nearly blind and refusing to play with glasses. He seems in every way a likable and sympathetic character.

Wade’s opponent was defensive lineman Ed “Hercules” Harrington, a physical specimen from Speer, Oklahoma who lived up to his hometown’s name. His reputation on the field preceded him and his penchant for football violence was as mythical as his nickname.

You’d be forgiven for thinking the likable Wade is the hero of this story, with Harrington playing the intimidating villain. In that, you’d be mistaken.

On September 28, 1969, rookie Sonny Wade was quarterbacking the Montreal Alouettes at home against the Toronto Argonauts. The boatmen were a nasty team and Wade was taking a pounding. As he would attempt to explain, the incident that would occur in the second half of that game was the result of a head injury, one of several Wade will suffer over the course of this story. The quote that follows was written at the time and attempts to reflect Wade’s thick accent, I’ve kept it as is because it amuses me as a stylistic choice.

“Most people don’t know it, but Ah wasn’t even s’posed to play the second half of that game,” said Wade. “In the first half, Ah’d got a real kick in the head. Ah don’t remember that much about that game.”

That statement was supported by Alouettes coach Kay Dalton, but the Argonauts contended that no doctor diagnosed a concussion. Knowing what we know now about head injuries, it seems likely Wade was concussed. Even with incoherence, memory loss, irritability, and aggression all being symptoms, its hard to justify what happened next.

After his third interception of the second half (he was blind after all), Wade chased down Jim Tomlin and he “broke loose”.

“Wade and a couple more tackled me out of bounds. As I was lying there sucking air, Wade stomps on the back of my neck in frustration,” Tomlin told reporters. “Chaos erupted on both benches and a lot of the fans started fights. Ron Arends got hit in the helmet with a spark plug! They were throwing beer bottles, rocks, spark plugs at the sideline.”

Believe it or not, that was the good part of Wade’s behaviour. When Ed Harrington entered the fray, Wade uttered words that were just as despicable in 1969 as they are today. He pointed angrily and called him a “black ******.” Harrington later said it was the only time he’d been called the word in Canada.

After the fight was broken up and the final whistle blew, it became very clear that this would not be the final altercation. Ed Harrington allegedly tracked down a Toronto telegram reporter and told him he was coming for Wade’s head. Kay Dalton said Toronto was “the dirtiest, crudest team of all” and threatened to come after their quarterbacks in retaliation. Toronto assistant Gary Ackerman called the stomp “the most flagrant foul on a football field I’ve ever seen anywhere in my life.” Montreal assistant Joe Scanella was asked if Wade was prejudiced and responded with the most ridiculous response of all.

“Prejudiced? Yeah, against Italians,” the coach exclaimed. “He only threw to Tom Cassese once.”

Wade, meanwhile, said he couldn’t remember anything. He admitted the stomp must have happened, thousands had seen it, but he couldn’t remember the slur and insisted he wouldn’t have said it. After all, he used to play in the “coloured” part of town back home in Virginia and had black friends. Funny how narratives around race rarely change.

The quarterback seemed genuinely remorseful for the physical violence. The next week, he gave an impromptu apology to Tomlin live on TV during half-time of Montreal’s game. For the alleged slur, Wade never apologized at any point of his career. That was a dumb decision, because it wasn’t Jim “Cricket” Tomlin’s wrath he needed to worry about.

“Heck it’s not up to me to accept any apology. He didn’t hurt me. I didn’t feel a thing,” stated Tomlin. “It was Ed he should have apologized to. What he did to Ed was 10 times worse than what he did to me.”

The beef stewed for a month, but Harrington was out for blood and his teammates were behind him. The two teams were set to play again on November 2 in Toronto and Wade had a target on his back, with Harrington already possessing a reputation for cheap shots against players he didn’t even have grudges against.

“I’m glad he didn’t apologize to me,” Harrington said ominously. “Now my conscience won’t bother me if something happens Sunday.”

The game was a complete disaster. Argonauts fans were baying for blood. Someone brought in an electronic voice amplifier to encourage illegal play. There were multiple fights and Alouette Pierre Desjardins was ejected for kicking Ron Arends in the face, who apparently couldn’t catch a break. Both Leo Cahill and Kay Dalton had to threaten their teams with cuts and fines to keep it under control. Afterwards, Cahill was forced to censor the team’s mail due to threats. But nobody got it worse than Sonny Wade.

In the first half, Harrington tracked Wade down for the sack and ripped his helmet off long after the whistle. Teammate Walt Balasiuk came over and shook his hand as Harrington held up his trophy. In the third quarter, Vernon Vanoy gave Wade a forearm block to the head after an interception and he was forced to sit out for awhile. When he returned, Harrington finished what he started with a vicious blow to the head that nearly fractured Wade’s jaw and loosened four teeth.

“Ah thought Ah’d met my maker,” said Wade. “He got me right in the neck with the forearm. The lights went out.”

Despite their earlier comments, the Argos denied targeting Wade. Harrington said it was “just a regular game.” Cahill insisted Harrington only stood out because “when he hits someone, they stay hit.” Commissioner Jake Gaudaur bemoaned that “things from the last game were not permitted to die their natural death.” It didn’t matter. Harrington got his pound of flesh.

This feud was short and nasty. There was no long lasting bad blood and, though Wade never apologized, Harrington felt he matured. The two buried the hatchet when they shared a meal at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, of all places, during a CFL All-Star game. Wade gave Harrington a ride home in his car. In 1975, Harrington would describe Wade as a friend, though he never forgot the slur and refused to repeat it.

Somehow, perhaps the most heated incident of racist language in the history league was forgotten by all but the most resentful of Argo fans. Wade is remembered as the first player to win three Grey Cup MVPs, a number equaled only by Doug Flutie and Damon Allen. Harrington’s dirty play is rightfully remembered second, after his dedicated community service, gentle understanding of others as a member of the Ontario Ombudsman office, and passionate advocacy for psychiatric hospital patients.

A bizarre ending to an aggressive feud that caused more physical harm than any other on this list.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.