Last Monday, I unveiled my latest project for 3DownNation, a list of the top ten feuds in CFL history. Over the past two weeks, I’ve released them each in turn. They range from contract disputes to accusations of racism and cover everything in between.
Check out our previous posts below:
Finally, it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for. After weeks of lead up and hours of research, we have made it to the top of the list. Here is the greatest feud in the history of the CFL.
Number One: Joe Kapp vs Angelo Mosca
Was any other feud really even in consideration?
This one has it all. On field violence? Check. Fifty years of bad blood? Yes, indeed. Old men beating each other with canes? You got it. An appearance on Dr. Phil? Of course it happened. This is basically sports feud bingo.
We are all familiar with the viral incident that makes this a slam dunk top pick, but to understand it we have to go back to the beginning. The animosity that caused the YouTube sensation was very real.
If you are a Lions fan, you’ve probably experienced it. You strike up a conversation with some older folks. You start talking CFL football and eventually you get on the topic of the good old days. Inevitably someone drops one name and the fury comes back like it never left.
I once said his name at a dinner and watched a sweet little grandmother damn near spit on her kitchen floor in disgust.
While “King Kong” Mosca is a treasured icon in Hamilton, he will always be a persona non grata on the West coast because of one game in 1963.
The 51st Grey Cup was to be played at Empire Field in Vancouver for the first time ever and B.C. boasted an electric roster that made the big show for the very first time. On offence, future Pro Bowl quarterback Joe Kapp was making waves on his way to the Western Conference MOP, but it was electric Willie “The Wisp” Fleming who captured everyone’s hearts and minds. To Lions fans of a certain generation, he is the football player held above all others. In 1963, he was dazzling with an incredible 9.7 yards per carry.
The opponent was to be the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, a dominant team in their own right. They boasted the East’s top defensive player in Mosca, who was already beginning to form a reputation for nasty play.
“There is no such thing as a dirty play unless you’re kicking people in the face,” Mosca would later say in regards to his playing philosophy.
The Lions found themselves overmatched in the game but many considered the turning point to be a controversial second quarter hit on Fleming from the aggressive Mosca.
“I was coming across the field. I saw that Zuger and Cappatelli had a piece of Fleming, but he was getting away,” Mosca described post-game. “He was still running, so I hit him helmet to helmet. I was ready for the hit, I guess he wasn’t.”
There are a couple things wrong with that statement. First of all, Mosca did not hit Fleming with his helmet (a fine practice at the time) but rather with his knee. The second was that Fleming was wrapped up, lying face down on the ground, and out of bounds when Mosca launched airborne for the hit. The referees, who did not call a penalty, later said Fleming was partially a victim of his own dominance as they always blew a slow whistle for him given his escapability.
The blow to the back of the head from Mosca’s knee left Fleming wobbly and sent him to the hospital. He would not return to the game and the Lions felt their hopes were dashed by the illegal play.
Kapp attempted to keep his team in the game but Mosca gave him a friendly reminder of his presence as well. In the fourth quarter, Mosca hit Kapp after he got a pass away and ground his head into the ground with a forearm. Kapp was livid and tried to unsuccessfully challenge the defender to a fight. He had considerable support from his own bench.
“I was just about ready to go out after Mosca myself at that point,” recalled Lions coach Dave Skrien.
Mosca is ultimately the only thing the public remembers from that game but ironically he recorded just a single assisted tackle on the stat sheet. He would record the most important statistic of all however, a Grey Cup victory.
After the game, Kapp and fellow Lion legend By Bailey refused to shake Mosca’s hand. They stayed silent in the locker room but several Lions spoke angrily about Mosca on the condition of anonymity, fearing league fines.
“Any guy who is supposed to be a good player doesn’t have to play that way,” said one. “I’ve got no respect for him.”
“I wouldn’t want my kids to use him as the image of a man,” chimed in another.
Mosca tried to downplay his intent.
“I’m really sorry he’s hurt,” he said in the locker room. “I don’t want to maim anybody.”
Fleming seemed to be the least upset of anyone. He dismissed it quickly after leaving hospital, saying “it was just a little bump” and Ticats coach Ralph Sazio said Fleming hit the downtown clubs that very night. He would use the incident to drive business at his Granville Street clothing shop by giving away a signed print of Mosca with every purchase that was inscribed “yore pal, Angie”.
So, what to make of the hit itself? It was undeniably dirty but it certainly wasn’t the most egregious offence in an era of football that sometimes more closely resembled a back alley brawl than today’s gridiron. How did it become so iconic and divisive? Enter the newspapers.
The first to respond was the only Sunday edition in the province, the Victoria Times Colonist, trumpeting the headline “Dirtiest player sidelines star” — Ralph Sazio was not impressed.
“I don’t think the man who was responsible for writing that should be allowed to report sports or anything else,” he fired back at the Vancouver Island paper.
Its author was a budding young journalist named Jim Taylor, who would go on to a Hall of Fame career in sports media.
Most other newspapers across the country, and in B.C., came out the following Monday, choosing to downplay the hit and focus on the fact that the Lions were simply overpowered.
The Vancouver Sun had a different approach. Its publisher Don Cromie had dubbed the hit “the dirtiest play I’ve ever seen” as he left the stadium and even though Cromie wasn’t a particularly knowledgeable sports fan, managing editor Erwin Swangard decided that would be his angle. He ordered all his reporters to rewrite pieces so that they would focus on the hit and other violent play. He spent the day cherry picking the perfect still shot of Mosca airborne to convey Fleming’s helplessness. The writers were deeply against the strategy and each removed their by-line from the Grey Cup edition in protest. The stories ran anyway.
The accusations of rough play were met by incredulity from Sazio and other Ticats.
“That’s ridiculous,” he responded to the paper. “Every time the West loses, you people start screaming and moaning about injuries and rough play.”
The articles inflamed fans and they found justification in Vancouver’s favourite past time: rioting. In the weekend following the game, there were multiple bouts of violence by drunken fans. The 1963 riots were the biggest until 1994 and over 300 people were arrested.
The Sun stood on its soap box proudly. It called the hooligans an echo of what happened on the field. At various points it suggested that Mosca’s unchecked violence was the type of societal sickness that resulted in violent labour movements, religious radicals, and domestic terrorists. The statements were grandiose and absurd, but it was the Sun’s coverage that ensured Mosca’s hit would be forever mythologized in Vancouver.
In many ways, the newspapers also built the legend of Mosca himself, which he would happily profit from.
“Until then nobody knew me,” he explained. “After the Fleming thing I was Mosca the Meanie.”
The next season was a rematch and B.C. triumphed for their first Grey Cup victory with surprisingly few extra fireworks. By 1967, Mosca was praising the Lions for how they kept their issues contained to the field.
“The Vancouver guys wouldn’t shake my hand after the game and they wouldn’t talk to me afterwards. That’s OK with me – who needs them,” he told reporters. “But they didn’t try to carry on the feud off the field.”
The comments came after Ottawa’s Jerry Selinger confronted Mosca in front of the locker room over a previous issue in the lead up to another Grey Cup game. Mosca knocked him out with one punch.
We all know this feud did eventually spill off the field though and there was an earlier hint as to why. In a 2004 interview, Kapp discussed a treasured memento he kept prominently displayed.
“I keep a little reminder here, a picture of Angelo Mosca and Willie Fleming and me pointing a finger at Mosca calling him every name I could think of in two languages,” said the bi-lingual retired QB. “And if I could have known French, it would have been three.”
Forty years later and Kapp was still staring at a picture of Mosca’s offence every day, even if he would later claim that he thought they buried the dispute in 1964. It’s a wonder how that got past the CFL Alumni Luncheon planners when they decided to bring the two geezers together and put an honorary end to the feud at the 2011 Grey Cup for a fun public relations move.
We’ve all seen the fight but the two sides tell the story very differently, so I’ll let them explain it. Mosca says the course was set as soon as Kapp walked in the room.
“When I saw him, the kind of mood that he was in, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought I’d be friendly, I said ‘how are you doing?’ He says ‘go f*** yourself.’,” Mosca recounted. “I said ‘do you have an axe to grind Joe?’ He said ‘go f*** yourself’ again.’”
Kapp alleges it was Mosca who started the war of words.
“Throughout the proceedings prior to me being on stage he’s mouthing obscene statements to me. I’m into his bleeping game now, cussing and swearing.”
Then the ceremony started, a lighthearted attempt to generate money for charity by using a historical incident.
“They showed the Willie Fleming incident on the screen – it was like it was a setup,” Mosca said, seemingly ignoring the fact that the Fleming incident was the whole reason they were there in the first place.
“He comes up to me with a flower in his hand taken from the table, one of the centrepieces, and he sticks the flower in my nose. Then he shoves it in my nose,” he continued.
“I don’t care if you’re the King or the Queen, you’re not going to shove something in my face and get away with it.”
The quarterback viewed it differently.
“I took the flowers that were on our table and used it as an olive branch. I offered the olive branch and I got clubbed on the side of my head,” said Kapp.
Before the violence started, Mosca can be seen telling Kapp to “shove it up his ass.”
“I reacted with my cane and then he punched me and I went down. Then he kicked me,” Mosca emphasized.
“What I did to him was nothing. I defended myself. He hit me with a goddam hammer. I’m not going to let it pass,” Kapp would later say in defence. “What do you want me to do, turn the other cheek? The reaction I had was my reaction. I don’t want to fight. I’m sorry; that’s how anybody would respond.”
Mosca later dismissed how the punch knocked him over.
“It wasn’t a hard shot. It’s just that my legs aren’t the best anymore.”
The incident was shocking, embarrassing, and caught on camera. Soon enough, it was viral across the internet and has had millions of views on YouTube. The story made the New York Times and Sports Illustrated. It kicked off NFL Monday Night Football in the popular “C’mon Man” segment. Mosca was brought on by Dr. Phil as a headline guest. Peyton Manning would give it a view years later and had a good laugh. Two septuagenarians fighting each other might well be the most widely reported story in CFL history.
The saying goes that all press is good press, but this was certainly a black eye for the CFL, which has often faced snide comments about its professionalism. A brawl between the elderly didn’t help that image and both players were embarrassed and apologized for taking away from the charity event. Both still believed they were justified, however.
“Some nasty writers are saying how could you hit a man sitting down? I was bringing the olive branch to him. He was swearing under his breath and he clubs me,” Kapp said emphatically.
Mosca said the problem was with Kapp entirely.
“It’s kind of sad. I don’t go to bed thinking about Joe Kapp every night. But Joe Kapp must go to bed every night thinking about Mosca hitting Willie Fleming,” he mused. “I have nothing against Joe Kapp and I don’t care about Joe Kapp.”
Comedian and event host Ron James may have said it best.
“I think there is a lesson to be learned here. The trick to life is to lighten the load, not pile it on. But these guys, despite their age, what is bred in their bones is a warrior’s streak.”
The underlying factor here is probably health-related. Neither party is a stranger to head trauma, of which long term affects are well documented, and Mosca’s struggles with dementia are no secret. This very well could have been the canary in the coal mine.
What is remarkable about this story is the melding of old school CFL history and modern-day social media fervour. It takes a special type of feud to stay active for fifty years and explode in a greater fashion than it did at its origin. It takes an even more remarkable event to become an integral part of a fan base’s identity, a story passed down by generations.
Joe Kapp and Angelo Mosca are the CFL at its worst, they show the pettiness, aggression, and hatred that made the many stories on this list so memorable. They became a representation of our often cited bush league reputation.
But they are also the CFL at its very best. Titans of sport and timeless icons who could have excelled in any league. Passionate about the game to their very fault. They are the stories told at your grandfathers knee, the generational bridge that makes our league more than just sport, but an indelible cultural icon in this country’s history.
In the end that’s what these feuds are about, preserving another part of our cultural legacy. The Canadiana of the CFL, its triumphant moments, ridiculous absurdities, colourful characters, and, yes, flamboyant fights, are a piece of who we are that I often fear slips further away from us every year.
One can only hope that fifty years from now, our descendants will asked to be regaled of stories about the pandemic that threatened the league, how Andrew Harris fought steroid allegations to win a Grey Cup, or the villain Simoni Lawrence who went after sliding Riders.
The stories are what we cherish and what we pass down, I just hope I helped preserve a few of them.