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

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

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

This interview is a two-part series. Click here to read part one.

When you returned to Ottawa again in 1973, the team won another Grey Cup in large part thanks to the play of a defence nicknamed “Capital Punishment.” As an offensive player, what was it like to go up against those guys every day in practice?

They were a tough, hard-nosed group who relished getting under an opponent’s or their teammate’s skin. As teammates, they would do everything they could to tick you off. For example, in the pregame warmup we used to do thump drills in walkthroughs, where everyone is kind of taking it easy. But whenever I went up against Wayne Smith, a very large and powerful defensive lineman from Halifax, he’d give me a solid forearm shiver or drive his fist into my stomach.

Moe Racine, our captain and my best friend on the team, also used to go out of his way to make me angry during games. He’d walk around the sidelines during games and every time he saw me he’d smack me on the back of my helmet, hard, and I’d wheel around with blood in my eyes. He’d then point to the field and tell me to unleash it out there.

Those guys pushed us hard, but as a smaller offensive player — I was only 210 pounds when I played — how was I really supposed to block defensive lineman who could weigh up to 280 pounds? I liked to describe myself as a wasp — I’d sting them, throw them off guard and then run.

That was a great team to be on, even if the some guys went out of their way to be a pain, because it toughened us up and prepared us every week for whoever we played against. I knew if I could hold my own in practice, I’d be okay on game day.

How did you feel about the player strike in 1974? In your opinion, was it successful?

Yes, I think it was. Not only did we continue practicing every day, but we had the opportunity to bring in some recently-retired alumni who came into camp and worked with us, so we were ready to hit the ground running when things off the field finished up and the season got rolling.

As players, we ended up getting most of what we wanted, and as a result the league formalized and upgraded the pension plan. As someone in his sixth year, who had been paying into the plan since day one, I got all my money, not just a little bit from a year or two. In the end, for me, the strike was a good thing, as it upped my pension, I forged some strong relationships with the alumni that came into camp and I developed a bit more business sense.

What were guys like Ron Stewart, Moe Racine, Whit Tucker, Gerry Organ, Wayne Tosh and Jim Foley like as teammates?

The reality was, given that the team had so many veterans, some of them were a bit haughty towards younger players. In ’68 and ’69, as a new guy, some older players were more interested in protecting their friends and other veterans than they were concerned about being warm and welcoming to a rookie. That said, once you were accepted by them, which meant playing up to and performing at the level of their expectations, they would be more friendly.

In my second stint with Ottawa, coming in as a veteran meant I earned that acceptance more quickly. Players like Gerry Organ, Wayne Tosh, Jim Foley and Donn Smith were quality teammates on and off the field and to this day are individuals with whom I remain good friends.

Looking back across the team sport spectrum, it becomes more and more evident that you need good chemistry to win games. That means you need to be willing to sacrifice for your teammates, something that will never happen if you aren’t close as a group. Something I took away from my early years in Ottawa is that, as a rookie, I was made to feel uncomfortable because “that’s just the way it was.”

When I started coaching at Carleton University, I made sure to challenge that kind of mentality. I believe real teams are a collective of individuals that work together and recognize and appreciate the roles everyone plays. Just look at the Toronto Raptors. They might not be the best collection of individual talent, but their team game is strong and they play for each other, which gives them a chance every night.

Early in 1975 you were cut by the Rough Riders and joined the Argos. Tell me about that situation.

Being released from Ottawa was a crushing blow and the way it went down bothered me a lot. The team came to me at the start of the pre-season and assured me that even though they had signed Tony Gabriel in the off-season, they planned on using a two-tight end system and would be keeping both of us on the roster. They said their plan was to always have one of us in tight, and the other out in the slot. “Don’t worry” was their exact words, which are probably the worst words you can hear as a player.

During the last preseason game, I’d caught half a dozen passes by halftime but was still taken out of the game. While I sat on the bench, the team used a linebacker in my spot. For the first time in my career I threw my helmet in disgust because I knew what was coming.

That evening, Tom Casey, a local writer, called me to let me know the Rough Riders had decided to release me. I was not happy because after all my time in Ottawa, the Rough Riders basically said thanks for your time and goodbye.

I landed with the Argos and became a weekend warrior; every day I was on a plane. I went to work in the morning in Ottawa, caught a noon flight to Toronto for practice at 2:00 PM, and then was back on an evening flight home. Every. Single. Day.

That took a toll on me and is probably why I didn’t play great that season. Aside from the turf in Toronto, which was hell on my knees, one of the reasons I finally decided to retire was hearing my son respond to a question about where I was all the time. He said I had been killed in a plane crash, which is why he never saw me.

I was gone when he woke up and when I returned home he would be in bed. That definitely let me know it was time to retire and I think it was a good decision. I had played for eight years, won four Grey Cups and left the game with a lot of good memories and friendships.

An interesting note is that at the time, the Argos were coached by Russ Jackson. How did it feel to go from catching passes from him to being coached by #12?

Russ Jackson was a phenomenal player and one of the finest athletes to ever play football. Not just one of the best in the CFL, but one of the best ever in any league. His passes were actually difficult to catch because he threw the ball so hard. In addition to being such a great athlete, he was super bright as evidenced by the fact that he was a Rhodes Scholar.

But the thing we’ve seen in various sports, whether it’s hockey with someone like Wayne Gretzky or in the CFL with Jackson, is that just because you’re a generational talent as a player, doesn’t mean you’ll have success as a coach. I was quite pleased to be joining my former teammate in Toronto, but given that he was new to coaching, the team went through a number of growing pains as he gained on-the-job experience. Given that he’d never coached before, I think a lot of things were difficult and often quite new to him.

You started your career with not just three consecutive trips to the Grey Cup, but three wins. When you have that much success early on, do you fully appreciate it or does it just seem easy and routine?

When I finally missed out on playing in the Grey Cup in 1971, I was invited to a Grey Cup party. I went, but I have to admit it was very strange. I asked the host, “What do you do at one of these parties? I’m used to being out there,” as I pointed at the TV. I really didn’t like going to a party to watch an event I felt I could be, and should be, playing in.

I wouldn’t say I ever took it for granted or that going to the Grey Cup ever seemed easy or routine, but the years I didn’t get to play in one, I always felt like our team should have been there.

Does one ring mean more than the others?

Good question. I would say that the one I get the most comments on, because it’s the flashiest, is the 1969 ring we were given recently. Literally every single time I put it on, I’ll get dozens of comments from strangers, because it’s easily the most impressive-looking.

All of the rings I won with Ottawa are special because it’s my hometown, but for me, the cat’s meow was the 1970 Alouettes’ team. We were such a tight-knit group of guys. Charlie Collins was one of my best friends until his recent passing and I’m still close with Tony Passander and Peter Dalla Riva.

We went on a Cinderella run. Nobody expected us to make, let alone win the Grey Cup. And the fact that I scored the winning touchdown was icing on the cake. So those things do make it a bit more meaningful than the others.

Why #77?

Tom Pullen Ottawa Rough Riders. Photo Ted Grant

As a kid, Hal Patterson was my idol and he wore #75. When I went to Montreal, being able to use that number was a privilege but in Ottawa I used #77. That’s because when I joined the Rough Riders, 75 wasn’t available. Since 7 is my favourite number, I just went with 77.

Somewhat ironically, my nemesis (Tony Gabriel) and the reason I left Ottawa used it too and he was pretty good. So now #77 is retired and up on the wall at Lansdowne with his name on it. I like to remind my grandchildren when we go to games that #77 was really my number, I just let Tony Gabriel borrow it.

Did you have any specific pregame rituals or habits?

Yes. I would always make a point of coming out onto the field and immediately sprinting 20-30 yards one way, and then back towards the other end zone. Full speed (even if it didn’t look it) the entire time. The other thing, which my so-called friends loved to point out, was that apparently, I always rocked back and forth when the anthem was playing. These “friends” often said I looked like a nervous goat who had forgotten to go to the bathroom before kickoff.

Since we were always in front of the South Side stands, I could always hear their catcalls and was able to associate the voices to specific people. So yeah, I guess there were two things I always did out of habit — one intentionally and the other unintentionally.

If you could grab a beer (or three) with any former teammate, who would it be and why?

Moe Racine, for sure. Although our beverage of choice would be a diet coke for Moe and soda water with lemon for me. As mentioned, Moe took me under his wing when I first got to Ottawa and was a contradiction to several other veterans on the team who were not as welcoming.

He did his best to make me feel welcome and even invited me to play in a baseball game that used to take place every year between Rough Rider players and the media members of CFRA called the Happy Wanderers. It was an annual event and Moe invited me out, our wives met, hit it off and that solidified a great friendship. He was a special teammate and friend until his passing a few years ago.

Frank Reid, Don Smith, Tom Pullen, Moe Racine, Ottawa Rough Riders 1978. Photo Ted Grant.

Following your retirement from football, you held a number of coaching roles around the city — at Glebe Collegiate, with the Carleton Ravens, the Nepean Rams and Ashbury. Was that always the plan, and if so, why was it important for you to remain involved with sports?

I got into coaching when I taught at Glebe Collegiate for seven years and coached basketball and track. To this day I still have fond memories of several of my student-athletes like Doug McGee, Rick Sowieta (a CFL alumni), Jim McKeen, Steve Walsh, Michael Burch and Bob Pulfer, to name a few.

Coaching was my way of giving back to the community and to the people that had been so good to me. I learned from my parents that it was important to give back and I felt I owed it to the city. Being able coach my daughter in baseball and my son in football and hockey will also remain a special memory.

More recently, in 2017, I helped coach the receivers and offensive linemen on a championship-winning Beckwith, Ontario junior football team, which my grandson was a part of.

What do you miss most about playing the game?

I used to tell people my cheques, but that wouldn’t be true. It’s definitely missing being able to satisfy my competitiveness. That’s why even today, at 75, I’m still an old-timer hockey goalie twice a week. I won’t pretend I’m going to be winning the Vezina, but I have a blast being out there with the guys I have played with for over 40 years.

The funny thing with COVID-19 right now is that even if and when we are allowed to resume playing, we can’t even use the dressing rooms. You have to show up to the rink all geared up. It reminds me of back in the day when my mom used to dress me before games. I asked my wife if she’d do that for me now, but I can’t tell you how she responded since you probably wouldn’t be allowed to print her response!

I think if you grow up playing sports, you develop that competitive flame, and it never goes out. I have to constantly remind myself that I’m not quite as young as I used to be, but I still find ways to get my competitive juices flowing. Sometimes it’s with my grand kids, in horseshoes or bean bag throws or golf.

Work has been an outlet, too, as for the past twenty years I’ve been involved in the financial services world with the Innovative Financial Services Group headed up by Carmine Mazzotta, a former student of mine and a Glebe Collegiate graduate.

What are you up to nowadays?

I work part-time as VP of Business Development for the Innovative Financial Group and, to keep my financial insurance license, I take several industry courses every two years to keep my CE credits current. I would never boast about being especially bright but I often claim I have a PhD in common sense and I especially enjoy reaching out and helping my clients, friends and family.

I also stay connected to the business world via the BNI (Business Network International). It’s my twentieth year as a member, and my wife and I are currently advisors to a digital health start up called HWARP.

Mainly, during times like these, I strive to stay involved in the community and connected with my family — especially my four grandsons — and friends.

As an Ottawa native and an alumni of legendary Rough Rider teams, watching two football teams fold must have been tough. What does it mean to see football not only back in Ottawa, but thriving with a successful franchise that routinely makes Grey Cup appearances?

I watched three teams fold, actually, because the Montreal Concordes also folded. But to your question, as an Ottawa native, it’s amazing to see what OSEG has done with football here. They get it.

I don’t want to get into all the various owners Ottawa has had, but I’d say for the first time since the Loeb era, Ottawa has an ownership group that truly understands the city and does an excellent job promoting football and running their franchise. They’ve done an incredible job of embracing the city’s football history and creating a special vibe around the team.

Do you still go to Lansdowne to watch games?

Absolutely! I have four season tickets on the North Side and I’m situated there for a couple reasons. One, I want to actually watch the game — those South Side rowdies are most interested in partying! Two, and perhaps more importantly, my tickets are halfway up and under the roof. That’s a must if I want my wife to come with me in case it rains or snows. I also use my tickets to bring other family, friends and sometimes work clients.

OSEG has done a spectacular job with the game day atmosphere and although the Redblacks’ model isn’t perfect, it’s very good. That’s why you see teams like Toronto trying to emulate it, even if they seem to be (no pun intended) missing the boat.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

Yes. My wife has been with me for sixty years — we met at a church dance. We dated for six years and then got married. 54 years later, we’re still going strong. I must take a moment to acknowledge that and thank her for being my wife, my best friend, my personal medical consultant and nurse.

She’s been with me every step of the way since day one. Every basketball game, every track meet, every hockey game, every game at Michigan and all my CFL games in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto. She’s always been there cheering me on. She’s my rock and I could not have had the career I did without her support.

Thanks for your time Tom, it was great to chat!

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).