Edmonton Football Team all-time roster reminds us what’s great about the franchise

Let’s be clear from the start, my team’s all-time roster is better than your team’s all-time roster.

While many readers might know me as a proud Vancouverite and analyst on the B.C. Lions, privately I was born and raised with green and gold running through my veins. My father was born in Edmonton on the day that the vaunted Eskimos won the 1956 Grey Cup and the fate of my fandom was never in any doubt. The team has been an important part of my childhood, a link between generations and a deep source of pride. As time has gone on, the place I call home has changed and so has the team name but my love for the iconic double EE has remained steadfast.

TSN’s all-time roster for the Edmonton Football Team is an incredible walk down memory lane for both a club and league in a time of unprecedented turmoil. For the most part the TSN committee got this team right, as they have with the previous rosters, but given the illustrious history of the Edmonton franchise it is worth taking a deeper dive into who did and didn’t make the list.

This is a particularly special task for me given my connection to the team. While I became a fan in the Ricky Ray era of the mid-2000s, I have fond memories of coming home from elementary school, jumping on the old desktop computer and reading the profiles of Edmonton greats on their website and that of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. Ever since, I’ve accumulated a small CFL memorabilia collection, with many treasured pieces featuring the players on this team. Any chance to talk about the history of the CFL is a real treat and predicting who would make TSN’s roster and critiquing the choices was a lot of fun.

Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

Without further ado, let’s dig into each of the positions and see how TSN did.

Coaches and staff

The choice made at head coach was the right one, and is really the only true option. Hugh Campbell spent just six seasons as the man on Edmonton’s sidelines and went to a Grey Cup in every single one, coaching a record five straight victories from 1978 to 1982. As incredible as that is, what really puts Campbell over the top is the 20 years he spent following his return from the NFL as both general manager and team president. When people talk about what it means to wear the green and gold, Campbell is the gold standard of professionalism and excellence that everyone else is held to.

Even though Campbell is indisputable in this spot, it seems remiss to go without mentioning the legendary Pop Ivy. His stint as head coach was shorter, just four years from 1954 to 1957, but he won a Grey Cup in each of his first three seasons, an era that defined the franchise until Edmonton became the City of Champions. While Campbell won an incredible 75.5 percent of his games, Ivy has the franchise record at 78.1 percent. Ron Lancaster and Ray Jauch are the top two in games coached, but in a perfect world it is Ivy who should have found his way onto this team in a foundational capacity.

Speaking of foundational pieces, it was nice to see equipment manager Dwayne Mandrusiak honoured for his 50 years of service to the club. If Campbell set the standard of excellence publicly, Mandrusiak has been its definition behind the scenes. As any CFL veteran will tell you, a quality equipment guy can be the difference between winning and losing. For half a century, Mandrusiak has made Edmonton a place that players wanted to play and turned the tide in favour of his team on more than one occasion. The unfortunate side effect of Mandrusiak’s inclusion, and the strength of Edmonton’s player pool, is that there are a handful of immensely successful players who simply couldn’t find a spot on the team. That is disappointing, but I’m alright with it if it means well-deserved recognition for an iconic unsung hero.

Quarterbacks

The CFL is a league of great quarterbacks but no franchise has had the excellence at the position like Edmonton. Think of the pivots who have worn the uniform and didn’t make this roster. Tom Wilkinson spent 10 seasons in Alberta’s capital and has a bust in the Hall of Fame, despite being unseated by Warren Moon after years in a two-QB system. Tracy Ham was a dynamic dual-threat weapon to start his career. Mike Reilly redefined toughness as he pulled the franchise back to prominence. That doesn’t even begin to touch on great seasons in green and gold from guys like Matt Dunigan, Damon Allen, Jason Maas and others.

Ultimately, TSN got this position right and they put each guy in their proper category. Some might disagree with Moon being reduced to the foundational category as there is no disputing the fact that he is the most talented quarterback, and perhaps player, in franchise history. While I understand those arguments, I think placing him in the foundational category was the best way to get as many icons on the team as possible. Moon was brilliant in Edmonton but his legacy on the sport of football is enormous. Because his transcendent talent was dismissed initially for the colour of his skin, his time in Edmonton was just a short part of his journey to the Pro Football Hall of Fame but he redefined the standard of CFL quarterbacking and shattered barriers. To me, that is foundational in almost every way.

Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

Moon’s time in Edmonton was like dating someone out of your league, spectacular that you get to brag about for the rest of your days, but Ray was the one that you settle down with and marry. Ray will never be fairly compared to Moon, he was a very different type of quarterback, but he shattered almost every single one of Moon’s records and personified the franchise for my entire childhood. With intelligence and precision, he dissected defences with an unflappable calm that both baffled and mesmerized. If I had only minutes to live, I might well spend it watching Ray throw his signature corner route. The day he was traded was the day I lost my sporting innocence but he remained the prototype for a franchise quarterback in both performance and demeanour. That prototype is deserving of the starting spot on Edmonton’s all-time team.

Matt Dunigan said on the broadcast that the legendary Jackie Parker should have been the quarterback instead of just a foundational piece because he set the early standard at the position. On this, I disagree. ‘Ole Spaghetti Legs’ was a trendsetter at quarterback, but pinning him to that position is reductionist. In fact, he found himself replaced at quarterback at various points by future Alberta premier Don Getty, who some will tell you had the superior arm talent. Parker threw the ball, but he also excelled as a runner, a receiver, a punter, and was a stellar defensive back. He is the very definition of foundational and couldn’t possibly be confined anywhere else.

Running backs

This position may well have been the easiest of the bunch. Johnny Bright and Normie Kwong are still the top two players in franchise history in terms of both yardage and touchdowns. 60 years have passed since Kwong’s retirement and the next most productive rusher in franchise history is still more than 2,500 yards behind his mark, with Bright more than 1,000 yards in front of Kwong. Both were incredibly dominant athletes in the face of tremendous racism. Bright went north despite being the fifth overall pick in the NFL draft to escape the anti-black violence that cost him the Heisman Trophy. ‘The China Clipper’ began his career only one year after Chinese Canadians were given the right to vote. Both went on to become pillars in Alberta communities, Kwong as owner of the Calgary Flames and Lieutenant Governor of the province and Bright as a beloved school principal.

Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

For many years, ‘Long Gone’ Jim Thomas was the only good thing about Edmonton football and Jim Germany was a touchdown machine for the five-in-a-row Eskimos dynasty, but there isn’t a real case for them to make this team. Bright and Kwong were the very best that the green and gold could offer, both on and off the field.

Receivers

This was among the hardest positions to assemble and for good reason, it is simply an embarrassment of riches. Brian ‘Howdy Doody’ Kelly is the cream of the crop, but beyond that the team is very much up for debate. Terry Vaughn, Tom Scott and Adarius Bowman were the selections and it is hard to argue that any of them should have been left off the list. Vaughn put together a franchise-best six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in Edmonton. Scott was an integral part of the five-in-a-row dynasty. Bowman’s time in Edmonton had peaks and valleys, but he generated yardage at a rate that dramatically exceeded everyone except Kelly.

What that means is several worthy candidates got excluded from the team. Fred Stamps sits second in career receiving yards and is likely the player that Bowman beat out for the final spot. Jason Tucker is second in receiving touchdowns and had his career tragically cut short by a broken neck. George McGowan isn’t as statistically impressive as the others, but he cut his teeth in a much less productive passing era and is one of just a handful of receivers to have brought home a Most Outstanding Player Award.

I must admit, I am particularly sympathetic to McGowan’s exclusion. His jersey was one of the first sporting items that my dad passed down to me as a kid and it still hangs on my bedroom wall. That said, there is another old time player that I find to be a particularly egregious omission by TSN. Tommy Joe Coffey split his career between Edmonton and Hamilton, with a one-year stop in Toronto, and just a few years ago he was named the 27th best player in CFL history by TSN. Somehow, he was omitted from both the Edmonton and Hamilton all-time rosters.

Tommy Joe Coffey is a CFL icon but got omitted from two all-time rosters. Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

It hurts Coffey that his statistics came from two different teams, but he still put up 6,194 receiving yards in green and gold from 1959 to 1966, even though in his first two seasons he was primarily a defensive player and sat out all of 1961. That doesn’t even touch on the 368 points he added as a kicker. Coffey is a CFL legend that TSN had to find a way to honour and they missed out on it twice. It’s damn hard to find someone to take off this team in favour of Coffey, but his success in an era where running the football was paramount and quarterbacking was suspect deserved acknowledgement.

Offensive line

Without statistics, it can be awfully hard to judge the men up front for all-time accolades, but I think the voters got four of these spots absolutely right. Nobody suited up for more games in Edmonton than Rod Connop and his performance was exemplary with seven all-star selections and the 1989 Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman Award. Roger Nelson was Most Outstanding Lineman in 1959 and was a dominant force for 14 years at tackle. Bill Stevenson won a record seven Grey Cups and holds the unique distinction of being an all-star blocker who also played on the ‘Alberta Crude’ defence. Hec Pothier was a pillar of success both on and off the field who bookended the dominant line that allowed Wilkinson and Moon to guide the team to five in a row.

Nobody has played more games in Edmonton than Rod Connop. Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

TSN’s final selection was Frank Morris and there are plenty of reasons why. He won three Grey Cups in his eight years in Edmonton, has a bust in the Hall of Fame and his name on Edmonton’s Wall of Honour. Most importantly, he was Edmonton’s director of player development for 15 years, a time that included the five-win dynasty. Still, this feels like a foundational piece placed in another category. Morris was only a WIFU All-Star once in his career, and then only as an alternate for the Shrine Game. There is no questioning his legacy, success, or toughness, but if we are talking about dominant performance there are several other candidates who deserved consideration.

If you were dead set on naming a Morris to the team, current University of Alberta head coach Chris Morris also won three Grey Cups on his way to the Wall of Honour, but did it over a 14-year span. Charlie Turner was a five time all-star and the 1975 Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman. If you want to consider short term dominance, Mike Wilson only played two years in Edmonton but he was the CFL’s top blocker in both seasons. Frank Morris may top all of them off the field but, in my opinion, you had a choice to make between either he or Mandrusiak in the foundational category and putting them both on the team takes away from other top tier candidates on the field.

Defensive line

Much like the receiver position, Edmonton’s defensive line was incredibly difficult to determine. Dave ‘Doctor Death’ Fennell was a clear cut choice, as was Almondo Sewell given the roster project’s requirement of a current player, but beyond that it becomes more difficult to separate players who had statistics tracked in the modern era from those who didn’t have tackles or sacks recorded.

The ‘Swampdog’ Ron Estay was one of the selections in a tough DL group. Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

The choices of ‘Alberta Crude’ mainstay Ron ‘Swampdog’ Estay and franchise sack leader Stewart Hill are strong and the inclusion of the dominant John LaGrone, who was the league’s top defensive player in 1969, was a must. Noticeably absent though is Frank ‘Blood and Guts’ Anderson, who had five all-star selections in a short but brilliant career from 1952 to 1957, one more than either Estay or Hill accumulated. It’s hard to judge between eras, but Anderson is a Wall of Honour player and Hill is not. I might have left out Hill and his 102 sacks in favour of the old timer.

Some have argued that the list was incomplete without James ‘Quick’ Parker at defensive end, but his time in Edmonton was short. TSN has justifiably tried to avoid double rostering players in order to open up more spots for honourees and Parker will take his rightful place on the B.C. team when it is announced. Others, like Leroy Blugh, Bennie Goods and two-way star Art Walker, have good resumés that just don’t make the cut.

Linebackers

This one was easy. Danny Kepley was the backbone of a dominant defence and won three Most Outstanding Defensive Player Awards. Danny Bass took over for him seamlessly and won one of his own. Finally, Willie Pless assumed the mantle and is arguably the greatest linebacker in CFL history, being named the top defender a mind-blowing five times in Green and Gold.

Five time MODP Willie Pless capped a quarter century of dominant Edmonton linebackers. Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

From 1975 until 1998, Edmonton had nothing but Hall of Famers in their linebacking corps and this team reflects that dominance. While I feel bad for players like J.C. Sherritt and Larry Wruck who miss out, there is no disputing the trio chosen. TSN didn’t overthink it and they got it right.

Defensive backs

This was another slam dunk with five easy choices. Rollie Miles excelled on both sides of the ball and has eight all-star selections to show for it, three at defensive back, three at running back and two at linebacker. You mostly hear about Larry Highbaugh these days in reference to his grandson Tre Roberson, but he was a revolutionary player who still sits second all-time in CFL interceptions, was a threat on kick returns and added 14 receiving touchdowns in key situations. He was flashy, entertaining and a big play threat that could have competed in the league today.

Larry Highbaugh was much more than just Tre Roberson’s grandfather. Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

Canadians John Wydareny and Oscar Kruger round out the top three in all-time franchise interceptions and Joe Hollimon was a takeaway machine for the five in a row dynasty. Frankly, I’m not sure there is any players I would even consider taking over these spots and TSN deserves credit for not trying to overly modernize this group.

Special teams

Finally, it’s the special teams selections and one of these spots is written in iron pen. There has never been and never will be another returner as electric as the incredible Henry ‘Gizmo’ Williams. His amazing 26 punt return touchdowns are 15 more than the next best returner and he added three more each on both kickoffs and missed field goals. Despite great kick coverage players like Jed Roberts, this spot was never in any doubt nor should it have been.

At kicker, I have a few issues with the selections. Hank Ilesic is by far the most dominant player to ever punt in Edmonton and is a local kid who was plucked straight from high school. There is absolutely no disputing his leg talent, the like of which had never been seen, but he only played seven seasons in Edmonton with two all-star selections and kicker is a longevity position for me. Ilesic falls a bit short simply by the amount he moved around, in many ways a credit to his talent.

TSN had shown willingness to have two placekickers on other rosters, with no specific punter, but Ilesic’s inclusion meant one of the two leading scorers in Edmonton history had to be left off. Dave Cutler and Sean Fleming both played 16 seasons, although Fleming played 14 more games. Fleming had 2,571 points, Cutler had 2,237. Fleming made 553 field goals, Cutler made 464. Fleming hit 73.3 percent of his kicks, Cutler hit 58.7 percent. Fleming punted, Cutler did not. Fleming was a four-time all-star, Cutler did it three times. Even understanding the differences in the era they played in, it boggles my mind that Cutler makes this team and Fleming does not.

Franchise leader in points Sean Fleming was TSN’s most notable omission. Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

I think both players should have made the team over Ilesic but, even though this will anger many fans — including my dad — Fleming is the more deserving of the two. Cutler makes it because he made key kicks for more notable teams, but Fleming was ultimately the more productive player by virtually every metric.

Wrap up

As we enter a new era of Edmonton football, I can think of no better activity than re-examining the legends that made the franchise great. TSN, all in all, did a good job of highlighting those that made the Eskimos teams of the past so spectacular, but also showed us why a name change should not be as scary as some make it out to be.

The legendary accomplishments, toughness and dominance that exemplified the franchise under the old name will never be erased, but this list shows that Edmonton was really at its best when it was on the cutting edge of progress. When multi-national, tri-ethnic backfields made opponents quake and black quarterbacks no one else wanted dazzled us. The team has Canadians and Americans, white players, black players and Asian players, all of whom found a degree of hope, success and pride in a team identity that we must now adapt to offer that same chance to others in a new generation.

What this roster represents is the spirit of a team that always changed with the times but never differed in its approach to excellence. That must still be true today. No matter the new name, you can count on the green and gold to be bold and we will always be proud of Edmonton.

P.S. Lets go Edmonton Elks, 1922 Grey Cup participants and future name of the franchise!

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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.