Montreal Alouettes

Peter Dalla Riva - Tight End - 1968-81 - Oakville Knights

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Perry Lefko - CFL.ca - Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The story of how Peter Dalla Riva came to be a professional football player and how his career developed thereafter is truly dramatic and inspiring.

Dalla Riva, one of only seven players to have his jersey number retired by the Montreal Alouettes, will be representing the organization in a tribute to Sam Etcheverry and Hal Patterson at the Scotiabank Coach of the Year Celebration tonight in Montreal.

Etcheverry quarterbacked the Als to three consecutive Grey Cup appearances from 1954-56 and was voted the Canadian Rugby Union’s Most Outstanding Player in 1954. Etcheverry played for the Als from 1953-60 and is recognized as one of the greatest players of his generation. He coached the Als to a Grey Cup victory in 1970.

Patterson played for the Als from 1954-60, winning the Canadian Football Council’s Outstanding Player Award in 1956. Following a trade to Hamilton in 1961, he played seven seasons for the Tiger-Cats, putting together a 14-year career and a reputation as one of the greatest players at his position in Canadian football history.

Dalla Riva played for the Als in the year Etcheverry coached the team to a Grey Cup win and had the occasion of watching Patterson play while growing up in Hamilton. Dalla Riva later met Patterson during a football camp and received some valuable pointers that helped him in his early player development.

And therein the story begins, actually a little before that.

Dalla Riva was born in Italy and just before the age of eight moved

 with his family to Canada, settling in Hamilton. The eldest of five children, Dalla Riva left school at about the age of 16 to work in the steel

 mills at Stelco and help supplement the income provided by his father. Dalla Riva enjoyed playing sports such as basketball and fastball and dabbled a bit in hockey.

Some of his teammates in fastball urged him to try playing football in the junior league with either the Hamilton Hurricanes or Burlington Braves. His only experience in football to that point consisted of playing in the park with some friends without any pads. He impressed the Burlington team enough to earn a place on the team, playing tight end. The team had another tight end, Tony Gabriel, who had more experience playing football and who would figure prominently in Canadian professional football in later years.

After a year of junior ball, Dalla Riva turned 21 and moved up to the senior level and joined the Oakville Black Knights. It was during this time he met Patterson, who was going into his final season of his career, at a training camp for minor Canadian football players. Patterson attended the camp purely to get in shape for the Tiger-Cats’ training camp, but his presence and the advice he imparted created a lasting impression on Dalla Riva. He had followed the Tiger-Cats growing up and was in awe practising alongside Patterson, who offered him some pointers on catching the ball.

“He didn’t have to talk to me,” Dalla Riva said. “I was just so happy. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve always remembered that.”

Ralph Goldston, who played for the Als in 1965 as a fullback/defensive back and later became an assistant coach with Montreal, asked some of Dalla Riva’s coaches if they had any players on their roster they could recommend for the professional ranks. Four players were recommended, one of them Dalla Riva. Goldston, who lived in Hamilton in the off-season, came to the Dalla Riva household to make a contract offer to the young player. Dalla Riva was making $5,000 at Stelco but told the Als he was making $5,500. They offered him $6,000 and impressed upon him he could make more money in only six months playing football than a year at Stelco.

“I knew I had to go and give it a shot, give it a chance,” Dalla Riva said.

His father thought it was crazy, but Dalla Riva figured if he didn’t take the chance he’d never know what would have happened and regret it the rest of his life.

They gave his sweater number 74 and he caught the coaches’ eyes in rookie camp, hustling on special teams. He weighed less than 200 pounds, a good 25-30 less than his future playing weight, but earned a roster spot as a linebacker/receiver.

“I wasn’t even running properly,” he recalled. “When I was running, I was running on my heels. I remember Ralph Goldston pulling me over and saying, ‘Run on your toes, that way the ground’s not bouncing on you.’ He was right. I was very, very green.”

Towards the end of the season, an injury to one of the starters created an opening in the line-up and Dalla Riva moved into the tight end spot. He caught a few passes, one for a touchdown, and solidified himself for the rest of the season.

Dalla Riva’s fortunes coincided with two awful seasons by the Als, leading to a change in the football operations in 1970. Etcheverry was brought in to coach by his former teammate, Red O’Quinn, who was hired as the team’s manager. Etcheverry had never coached or aspired to do it.

“When Sam came in it was a big thing,” Dalla Riva said. “He did a great job and everybody had a lot of respect for him as a player and he treated guys like players.”

The Als began with only eight holdovers from the previous 32-player roster and finished the season third in the East Division. Dalla Riva led the team in receptions that season with 43 for 609 yards.

The Als took flight in the playoffs, beating the Argos, winning a two-game, total-points series against Hamilton and capping the post-season run with a 23-10 victory over Calgary in the Grey Cup.

“We had 24 new guys, we all stuck together, we played hard and Sam did a great job,” Dalla Riva said.

A week after the Grey Cup Dalla Riva married.

Four days into training camp the following year, he tore up a knee and was in a cast for eight weeks. He returned midway into the season and reclaimed his starting spot in the final few games.

The Als struggled through the ’71 and ’72 seasons, leading to a change in football operations that included the dismissal of Etcheverry. In 1973, Marv Levy joined the team as head coach after two seasons as the special teams coach with the National Football League’s Washington Redskins. In his first season, he guided the Als to a playoff spot and within one game of making it to the Grey Cup. The next year they advanced to the Cup and won it with a 20-7 decision over Edmonton. The next year they made it to the Cup again, but lost 9-8 to Edmonton. Two years later they made it back to the Cup and won 41-6 over Edmonton in the famous Ice Bowl, which saw the Als, following a suggestion by Tony Proudfoot, affix staples to their shoes and grab a hold of the slippery surface at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal. Dalla Riva had the opening touchdown in the game.

It was during the Als’ run in the mid-‘70s that Dalla Riva established himself as one of the team’s stars. He led the team in receptions in ’75, ’76 and ’77. In 1976, he was the Als representative for the League’s Most Outstanding Player Award. He was the Als’ Outstanding Canadian representative in ’75 and ’76. In 1976, Dalla Riva’s onetime minor football teammate, Tony Gabriel, who had become a star tight end with the Ottawa Rough Riders, won the award.

Marv Levy left after the ’77 season to accept a head coaching job in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs. Joe Scanella took over from Levy and guided the team to two consecutive Grey Cup finishes, losing both times to Edmonton.

Dalla Riva retired after the 1981 season and later had his jersey number retired.

Dalla Riva led the team in receiving five times and finished with a team record 54 regular-season touchdowns, a mark that still stands. He was voted an all-Canadian all-star in ’72, ’73 and ’75. He holds the team record for all-time seasons played (14) and games with at least one reception (164). He finished with 6,413 receiving yards, which stands as the third highest in team history, and is third overall with 450 career receptions.

As he looks ahead to the Scotiabank Coach of the Year Celebration, Dalla Riva is honoured to have the chance to speak about Etcheverry and Patterson.

“They’re icons,” he said. “They’re the history of our league. They helped build it way back then and if you have anything left of the league it’s your history. You hope for the future, but these guys started it … and you’ve got to carry the torch. You’ve got to have respect for these guys. They were there before you and they did it. Sure times change and these kids now today are a lot better and bigger and faster. They just knock it up another notch and I’m proud of these guys and I just hope they’re proud of us what we’ve done through our years. Let’s just carry on.”

 

 

-- statistics --

 

 

Peter Dalla Riva        
  Receiving      
Yr Team C Yds Avg Lg TD
1968 Mtl 8 129 16.1 30 2
1969 Mtl 30 492 16.4 47 2
1970 Mtl 43 609 14.2 38 1
1971 Mtl 18 212 11.8 24 0
1972 Mtl 44 607 13.8 44 5
1973 Mtl 29 415 14.3 28 3
1974 Mtl 37 549 14.8 38 8
1975 Mtl 56 743 13.3 43 7
1976 Mtl 56 763 13.6 36 10
1977 Mtl 50 676 13.5 30 8
1978 Mtl 33 557 16.9 42 4
1979 Mtl 10 210 21.0 57 0
1980 Mtl 11 174 15.8 27 1
1981 Mtl 25 277 11.1 22 3
Total 14 450 6,413 14.3 57 54