Sam Etcheverry - Quarterback - 1952-60 - Denver
Ian MacDonald - The Montreal Gazette - November 1997
It was Sam Etcheverry's field of dreams, and people did come. They most certainly did come. Forty years later, the premier quarterback of his generation remembers that "you could look up in the trees and see kids hanging there'" at the east end of Molson Stadium, on the McGill University campus.
Now middle-age, those Park Ex kids still stop Etcheverry and remind him that's how they sneaked into Alouettes games in football's golden era of the 1950s.
"It was really great playing in this city in those years," Etcheverry said the other day. "The fans were fantastic. When we would come out to warm up, there would already be thousands of people there. It was right downtown. And it was intimate."
The stadium, capacity 26,218, sold out most of the time Sam Etcheverry played there from 1954 through 1960. He literally wrote the record book, with 183 touchdown passes, not counting his first two seasons in Montreal, 1952 and 1953, when the Canadian Football League evidently didn't keep records.
Over nine seasons in Montreal, as No. 92 and then No. 14, he never missed a game. He would be introduced last, simply as "the quarterback, Sam," to a routine standing ovation.
The Alouettes of 1997 will be at the McGill stadium on Sunday for a playoff game against the B.C. Lions, an accidental rendezvous with history, because the rock group U2 has commandeered Olympic Stadium - where, for two seasons since pro football returned to Montreal, the Alouettes have played to near-empty
houses. Molson Stadium is getting a $55,000 facelift for the occasion, and clearly it has seen better days, but it is still hallowed ground.
"It's an important market test for us, no question," Alouettes president and CEO Larry Smith said. "People have been telling us for months that if we were downtown they would come. The pre-sale far exceeds anything we've done all year."
Smith, the Bishop's graduate and running back on the Marv Levy-coached Alouettes teams of the 1970s, has his own boyhood memories of the stadium, "toward the end of Sam's era - I remember people looking down on the stadium from the windows of Royal Victoria Hospital."
In the middle years of the 1950s, Jean Drapeau might have been mayor, but Sam Etcheverry owned the town. Sports writer Larry O'Brien had called him "the Rifle," because he threw the ball so hard. The coach, Peahead Walker, had found him in a player catalogue out of the University of Denver.
Walker had a system - he handed the ball to Etcheverry. And Sam threw it to gifted receivers like Hal Patterson and Red O'Quinn, who rode with him to the Hall of Fame. A wide receiver named Joey Pal would occasionally refuse to go out after the game if he thought Sam hadn't thrown to him often enough.
Those autumn afternoons at McGill are remembered most for the perfect spirals Etcheverry threw to Patterson, and the circus catches by No. 75. One play went 109 yards, a record that still stands.
"I had to throw it through the goal posts," Etcheverry recalled, "and Hal just went straight up. He must have been 6 feet up when he caught it."
Altogether, Etcheverry led an awesome offensive machine that, one day at McGill in 1956, beat Hamilton 82-14. Etcheverry's team was never out of a game. Down 24-9 to Toronto at halftime in the 1955 Eastern final, Etcheverry and Patterson led the Alouettes to a remarkable 38-36 comeback.
"The camaraderie" is the reason Etcheverry gives for staying in Montreal in 1954, when the St. Louis Cardinals of the National Football League offered more than twice as much as the $8,500 he was making with the Alouettes. "I guess it was stupid of me, but we were so close."
The 1954 Alouettes included a fullback named Alex Webster, who went on to do great things with the NFL's New York
Giants, and a halfback named Chuck Hunsinger, who is remembered for the fumble that broke Montreal's heart in the 1954 Grey Cup against Edmonton.
Heavily favoured and leading 25-20, Montreal was driving for the touchdown that would have put the game out of reach. Deep in Edmonton territory, Etcheverry shoveled the ball to Hunsinger. The film showed it was an incomplete pass. The referee called it a fumble. Jackie Parker ran 90 yards the other way with it. Final score, Edmonton 26, Montreal 25.
Forty-three years later, the memory still rankles Etcheverry. "It was the wrong damn call," he said. "It was hard to swallow."
After that, Montreal could not solve Edmonton, and lost the next two championships to them. Etcheverry finally got his Grey Cup ring as head coach of the Alouettes in 1970, "but it still doesn't make up for the ones we lost."
The decline of football in Montreal can be traced to an infamous event known as "the trade," when Alouettes owner Ted Workman traded Etcheverry and Patterson to Hamilton for Bernie Faloney and someone named Don Paquette. Workman was so eager to unload his two stars, Etcheverry learned later, he paid the Tiger-Cats an additional $15,000 to take them off his hands.
With a no-cut, no-trade clause in his contract, Etcheverry declined the honour of playing in Hamilton, and was set to go to New York, where he might have led the Giants to greater glory, when St. Louis reminded him that they still owned his NFL rights.
Through his playing and coaching days, and his business career as a stockbroker, Etcheverry has usually called Montreal home. This is unusual for someone from New Mexico, who had never owned anything warmer than a windbreaker.
"The city has been good to me," he says.
At 67, Etcheverry still puts in a full day as an investment counselor at RBC Dominion Securities. But he won't be at McGill on Sunday - he and his wife, Norma, are leaving today for a golfing week in Florida.
There is just a touch of regret in his voice about that. This is his team, playing on his field.
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