Looking back with Ottawa Rough Riders’ great Tom Pullen: part one

Few athletes have managed to pack in so much success in so little time as Tom Pullen did in his CFL career.

Pullen played in an era during which the tight end position was just starting to be incorporated into the passing attack. Over eight years he appeared in 107 games, making 157 catches for 2098 yards and seven touchdowns.

Most impressively, Pullen averaged a Grey Cup victory every two seasons, winning four Grey Cups over the course of his time in the league. He spent five years with the Ottawa Rough Riders, two with the Montreal Alouettes, and one in Toronto with the Argonauts.

I recently had a chance to speak with Pullen, who will turn 76 in January. This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

During your time at Glebe Collegiate in Ottawa, you played and excelled at a variety of sports; football, basketball, track, high jump, hurdles and ice hockey. What do you remember about those days?

I have fond memories of our talented Glebe basketball teams making it to the Ontario Golden Ball tournament, playing hockey for the Ottawa Jr. B Montagnards, and trips to OFFSA (Toronto) to compete as a high jumper and hurdler in the Track and Field provincials. I remember the District Little League championship, a heartbreaking Cradle League finals loss, being scored on in hockey by Ron Ellis and Bobby Orr and winning the first Little Four Minor football championship.

I also remember fondly many of the people I played with, including: Tom Gorman, whose grandfather owned the Ottawa Senators; Bob Byrnes, arguably the best hockey player in his age group to this day; Bruce Armstrong, one of the best shooting high school basketball guards; Cliff Lebrun, who went on to star in basketball at Carleton with Tom Gorman; Skip Riddell, an outstanding guard on our Golden Ball team; and Gary Smith, who pitched for our Little League all-star team. Many of those I mentioned have remained life-long friends.

Thanks to my parents, I was encouraged to get involved in many community initiatives including multiple sports. Nowadays, I believe some athletes are much too focused on playing a single sport despite studies through the years showing the importance of multi-sporting and having diverse interests.

I didn’t make a conscious effort to play multiple sports thinking it would pay off down the road, but I was quite fortunate that at the time I was growing up, amateur sports were really taking off in Ottawa. It was the time of the first little league teams, the first minor league football teams and so on. I was just at the right age at the right time. But more than anything, I owe my success to the parents and coaches who volunteered so much of their time (and money) to make sure we as kids could participate in, and were exposed to, as many sports as we desired.

Is it true you were one of the first players in Canadian Little League history to pitch a no-hitter?

My teammates will argue that if you bring it up, and they’ll be quick to remind you that I walked six batters, but yes, it was a no-hitter and they never scored!

In 1964 you became the first Canadian to receive a full football scholarship from the University of Michigan. Tell me about your time with the Wolverines and what it’s like playing in front of a packed “Big House.”

In those days, most Canadian athletes going to Michigan were hockey players and, although I did end up playing both sports, my main reason for going there was indeed football. I wound up being the hockey team’s backup goalie and earned some needed relief from playing spring football on a dusty, hard dirt indoor field.

As for playing in the Big House, you’ve got to remember, I was Tom Pullen from Ottawa — the guy who played for the Ottawa Sooners, going up against All-Americans, All-City, All-World guys. I got a lot of questioning looks when I mentioned where I was from, but it’s fair to say I didn’t have the same pedigree as some of my teammates.

In my freshman year, I was the sixth of six receivers and in my sophomore year, the sixth of nine, but thanks to a series of events — some guys quit, other got hurt — I got on the field and played well enough to be noticed. My first real action came against North Carolina, on the road, in the heat. I got in because the guy ahead of me was hurt and I guess the coaches liked what they saw because I played the rest of the season.

Before my first home game in Ann Arbor, the talk all week was about not expecting a big crowd. I thought to myself, “Gee, that’s too bad that there won’t be many people at my first start.” I finally asked someone how many people they figured would show up. They replied that if it was over 90,000 they’d be very surprised. For someone used to watching games at Lansdowne Park, 90,000 in a 101,000 seat stadium (at that time) was unbelievable.

Things have kind of come full circle in a sense because my grandson is now enrolled in Engineering as a freshman at Michigan and, despite COVID-19, is happy as a clam.

Following your college career, did you give any thought to pursuing an NFL career? Or, once you were selected by the Rough Riders in the 1968 territorial draft, did that settle things?

This is going to sound hard to believe but I was actually drafted by three organizations. I even have the draft notices to prove it. First off, the Ottawa Rough Riders selected me as a territorial pick. Red O’Quinn was the general manager of Ottawa in those days, and he was actually the one who arranged a scholarship for me at the University of Michigan. Without him, none of this happens, which is why he was always a special friend.

Next, I was told by the Dallas Cowboys that they planned to select me with their first or second pick, but in the end I was taken by the San Diego Chargers. So, I did have options, but the third draft made me nervous and sorted things out for me real quick, because my third draft notice came from the U.S. Army.

While in my senior year, I had been doing some supply teaching (working) and earning money. A W-2 had been created, which prompted a report being sent to the U.S. government. That led to a draft notice saying I needed to report to Fort Bragg immediately and that unless I failed a medical, I was about to be shipped out on duty — most likely to Vietnam. When I got that notice, I got out of Michigan so fast, you couldn’t see my dust. At heart I’m a big chicken and I wasn’t going to take any chances. Thankfully, I had the Rough Riders waiting.

How excited were you to begin your career in your hometown?

I was thrilled. I grew up a football fan. One of my neighbours was someone high up in the Rough Rider organization, so he frequently got me tickets to games and through him I was also able to meet players like Bobby Simpson, Kay Vaughn and Ted Smale. At Muchmore Public school, our soccer coach/teacher was a Rough Rider and so the CFL was always top of mind for me. As a home brew, playing for the team I grew up watching was exciting. It didn’t hurt that the team was stacked, either!

An interesting note is that when I arrived in Ottawa to sign with the team, I had to pass a medical. When I was at Michigan, I’d torn my knee as a junior, which is why I had a redshirt year. Thankfully, our team medical staff included the top orthopedic surgeon in the country and Gerry (Gerald) O’Connor managed to perform what was considered, at that time, cutting-edge surgery.

He was able to repair both my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), my medial collateral ligament (MCL) and my lateral meniscus. When the Rough Riders doctors saw my scar, they told me to get off the table because I would never be able to play football given that I’d torn my knee so badly. I told them it was fine and insisted they test it out.

They grabbed my left knee and moved it around and said it was okay, but I let them know the surgery was actually on my other knee, and when they tested that one, they said the ligaments were actually tighter! I owe my career to Dr. O’Connor for being ahead of his time.

What made those 1968/1969 championship teams so good?

Before I answer that question, I think I need to paint the picture of my arrival on the scene. The Rough Riders at that time were a squad full of veterans and here was a Canadian kid who played a Michigan showing up. Given the team’s experience, I didn’t start, but I got on the field regularly, especially on special teams, where I made my mark.

Ottawa Rough Riders-Saskatchewan Roughriders, 1974. Photo: Ted Grant. Scott Grant Photography.

It wasn’t until my second year in Ottawa, about halfway through the season, that I got my first start. I was delighted, since normally I backed up Jay Roberts, our other tight end. On game day, Billy Joe Booth, a tough offensive lineman who I’ll describe as five-by-five — meaning five feet tall by five feet wide — comes up to me before the game, points at Roberts and says in his Louisiana drawl, “Pullen, that guy over there should be playing today, not you. But since you are going play, you better f***ing do well, because if you don’t, I’ll beat the crap out of you.”

Talk about a welcome to the starting lineup eh? All that said, after the game he came up to me and said I was alright, so I guess I played okay.

The short answer about what made those teams good is that maybe our quarterback Russ Jackson had a little to do with it. Having a Canadian play quarterback was a plus, having one who was so good was an even bigger plus. A more thorough response is that it was a highly-talented veteran group led by a coach (Frank Clair) who could put a game plan together that was unequaled. They didn’t call him the Professor for nothing.

During games, he might not have been the best coach because he could get flustered, but as a strategist he was beyond outstanding. He also had assistant coaches who understood people, were good at reading them and knew how to motivate. Frank let his assistants take the pulse of the team and they always let him know what was going on in veteran circles.

In terms of talent, there were the obvious names — Jackson, Whit Tucker, Ron Stewart, Moe Racine — but also guys like Margene Adkins, Vic Washington, Bo Scott and Tom Beynon, all of whom I really looked up to. What it boiled down to was that the team meshed, led by veterans who reluctantly accepted the young guys once they proved themselves. The exception was Moe Racine, the team captain. He went out of his way to make me feel welcome from the start, taking me under his wing and mentoring and teaching me some “survival tricks” of the trade.

Nowadays a team winning a championship and not receiving their rings would be major news. Why didn’t the 1969 team get theirs and what did it mean for Loeb family to finally make things right in at a Redblacks game in 2018?

If I told you I was really upset that I didn’t get a ring in 1969, I’d be lying. In fact, we did get something, we were given watches. David Loeb, the owner at the time, was used to watching his team win — after all, he was there for four Grey Cups. When we won in 1968, we were given rings and I honestly think that after we won again in 1969, he simply thought, it’s mostly the same team and I gave them rings last year, let’s do something different this year. I don’t think it was anything more than that and to be honest, back then, the rings weren’t as important a thing as they are today.

However, fast-forward a few decades and when his sons found out we never got rings, the Loebs took it upon themselves to get them for us. They went into the family foundation, got the money, bought us rings and set up the ceremony with OSEG to give them to us during half-time of a Redblacks game. I can’t speak for everybody but I never got the feeling of anger or animosity towards David for not giving us rings, but we sure did appreciate when we got them in 2018. That was a special occasion and a wonderful opportunity to see everyone again.

Tom Pullen-Ottawa Rough Riders-1968-69-Grey Cup- ring ceremony-11aug2018. Photo: Scott Grant

Were you upset when the Rough Riders traded you to the Alouettes in 1970?

I was definitely disappointed but at least I wasn’t that far from home. And, given how that season in Montreal went, I can’t really complain.

Let’s talk about the culmination of that season. You scored the game-winning points in the 1970 Grey Cup on a seven-yard run in the third quarter to put Montreal ahead for good. What do you remember about that play?

That touchdown came on an end-around reverse and we had practiced all week, and I almost did not score, getting hit at the goal line, flipping upside down and landing on my butt. I was very happy when the referee signaled a touchdown. I have a series of pictures from that play, that show each and every frame of the run. I like to bring them out when I have company just in case they haven’t already seen them 50 or 60 times.

After the game, our quarterback Sonny Wade was giving an interview and was asked about the play. He mentioned that we’d been practicing it all week but he wasn’t sure it would work when it was called in the game because in practice when they timed me running it, they had to use a calendar, not a stopwatch, as I was so slow.

I often got made fun of for my so-called lack of speed, but I like to think I had deceptive speed. Even at Michigan I used to get reamed out in film session by my coaches for going half-speed, but by my final year, I finally worked up enough courage to respond, “If I’m not going full speed, why am I still passing people?” I guess I just had a lazy-looking running style.

This interview is a two-part series. Click here for part two.

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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).