End of an era: McMahon Stadium speaker coming down in Calgary

Photo courtesy: Max Campbell/Calgary Stampeders

There’s a saying about AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys: “It has a hole in the top so God can watch his favourite team play!”

Since 1988, the home of the Calgary Stampeders had the exact opposite: a giant speaker suspended over the centre of the field, creating a small shadow that would move from one side of the turf to the other of the course of a game.

As per the McMahon Stadium Society, the speaker will be removed and replaced with something else. For the upcoming year, the MSS is looking to “design and position a sound system that will continue to deliver resounding audio that participants and spectators have come to expect.”

Of course, just upgrading the sound system isn’t very exciting in and of itself. But for 35 years, the speaker at McMahon Stadium has represented the holy grail of arm and leg strength that isn’t available anywhere else.

When you think of the great quarterbacks that came through Calgary since that speaker went up the list is littered with Hall-of-Famers, including Doug Flutie, Jeff Garcia, Dave Dickenson, Henry Burris, Danny McManus, and one day Bo Levi Mitchell.

Yet only Burris and short-term Stamps’ passer Michael Bishop have ever reportedly hit the speaker at McMahon, which is located approximately 100 feet above the playing surface.

“It’s deceptively high,” said Stampeders’ long time play-by-play Mark Stephen in a conversation with 3DownNation.

“When you look at it on TV or from the stands, it doesn’t look all that hard (to hit). But when you realize you have to throw it that high … you have to remember that it’s never been struck by a kick during a game.”

Stephen also recounts that in his time watching practice he doesn’t remember a punter or kicker getting the aim right to bounce one off of the speaker, although he has seen several attempts.

Retired punter Rob Maver claims to have “grazed it” and said that his predecessor, Burke Dales, was rumoured to have done it once.

“It’s an inviting target up there, but it’s not easy to do!” said Stephen, who admitted to being impressed when he heard Bishop had hit it.

“It’s just a testimony to pure power arm strength because you also have to lean back and get the right arc in it. I don’t think you could stand right underneath it and throw it up to hit it. I don’t think you could get the right angle, you have to be back a little bit of distance to get the arc on the ball. I was dazzled when I heard that, actually, because it’s not anything that just anyone can do.”

When asked if any current pivots across the league could hit the speaker, Stephen suggested there were a few he’d like to take a shot.

“I haven’t seen Vernon Adams really air it out yet, or Jeremiah Masoli. I’d like to see those guys give it a try anyway,” he said.

Given the status of Bo Levi Mitchell’s recovering shoulder, Stephen would rather see power packed throws going downfield in camp than up at a sky-high target anyway.

That’s something that Michael Bishop doesn’t mind at all, though.

“There’s been a lot of quarterbacks that have come through the CFL. Quarterbacks, lineman, or receivers that thought they were quarterbacks have all attempted to hit the speaker, so to be one of two, just me and (Burris), that sets us apart,” said Bishop.

“There are always quarterbacks that think they have strong arms that want to challenge you, but to be one of two is an amazing fun fact. It should be a trivia question throughout the CFL.”

Bishop didn’t hit it the first time when he came into Calgary for a road game while playing with the Toronto Argonauts but was eventually successful.

“We had a game against Calgary and our walkthrough had just ended,” said Bishop. “We had a couple guys try, and they were nowhere close.”

“I had a few guys challenge me — they didn’t think I could do it. I think I did it on the third attempt. I just railed back and just let it go on the first throw just to see how close I could get to it. After my first throw I knew I had enough strength to get it there.”

Knowing that the punters weren’t hitting it either makes it even more special.

“It puts a little more juice on it for sure. We had Prefontaine at that time and he could kick it to the moon. He could get it close but he couldn’t quite get it there.”

After 35 years, something new will be leading the “Sweet Caroline” and “Happy Trails” serenades from fans and that wouldn’t matter one bit if not for the demise of the challenge for a young player looking to enter CFL lore by bouncing one off of the famed McMahon Stadium speaker.

Ryan Ballantine is a lifelong Stamps fan and host of the Horsemen Radio Podcast. He has been covering the team since 2008.