George McGowan - Receiver - 1971-78 - Kansas
excerpt The Best Receiver not in the Hall of Fame - Ted Soutar - Monday, July 8, 2002
George McGowan made arguably the most important catch in Eskimos history on November 18, 1973. It was the Western Final in a thick blanket of ice fog at Edmonton's Clarke Stadium. With less than a minute remaining on the clock, Tom Wilkinson found McGowan open for a major score to give the Eskimos a 25-23 victory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders and send them to the Grey Cup for the first time in 13 years.
The headline in the Edmonton Journal the next day told the story: "In Fog, A Vision of Grey". Edmonton sportswriter Terry Jones called it "…the rebirth of the Edmonton Eskimos as they were once known. They were, after 13 years of living under a black cloud, back in the Grey Cup." They didn't win it that year, but it started them on a streak that will most probably never be broken by any professional team in any sport: nine championship appearances in ten years, with six championship rings to show for it.
Born in Bethesda, Maryland, McGowan moved to Glendale, California as a youngster. After high school, McGowan
attended two years of junior college in Glendale before winning a scholarship to Kansas University. His first year at Kansas, 1968 was quite productive, with 32 receptions for 592 yards and five TDs. In spite of these numbers - the 32 receptions was just three off the then-KU record for one season - the coaches thought he'd make an even better defensive back. Drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the 6th Round of the 1970 NFL draft, McGowan quickly found himself on the outside looking in. McGowan was a teammate of Bruce Lemmerman's in Atlanta, and the two worked out together over the winter in California. But they were both released soon after training camp began. "I was really down, until the Eskimos called me. They worked me out as a defensive back too, so I didn't crack the lineup. But my friends told me to keep at it, and I was happy when I received an invitation to return to Edmonton the following year."
McGowan's football life really began in 1971. As a rookie, he made 49 catches for 827 yards and five touchdowns. With Lemmerman joining the team late in the season, the Esks won their last five games in a row. It's the last time they've missed the playoffs. They finished second in '72, only to lose the Western Semi-Final 8-6 to Saskatchewan. Along the way McGowan caught 54 passes for 1,015 yards and 11 TDs.
Finally, in 1973 the team finished in first to set up the classic Western Final with the 'Riders. For his 81 catches for 1,123 yards and nine majors, McGowan was rewarded with the Schenley Award as the Most Outstanding Player in Canada. At that time, only two players - Terry Evenshen with 96 in 1967, and Hal Patterson with 88 in 1956 - had caught more passes in a single season than McGowan did in 1973. Former Eskimo great Tommy Joe Coffey twice caught 81 (1964 & 1965), so it was evident that McGowan was in good company. And according to coaches around the league at that time, he deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as those gridiron legends.
Former BC Head Coach Eagle Keys (who played against Patterson) often compared the 6'2" 190 lb McGowan to Patterson, another KU grad.
His former coach Ray Jauch recalled, "George really stood out in practice because he was prepared to work. You could see he'd be a great receiver in time. He'd catch anything in a crowd." "George ran patterns just like they were drawn up in the playbook. He'd get to the correct spot and catch the ball. And although he didn't possess great speed, his quickness allowed him to break the odd long one. He could run with almost anyone for the first 30 or 40 yards." And from Bruce Lemmerman, "I'd rate him as one of the best receivers in the league. George had a great pair of hands, and would run his patterns perfectly. He'd catch as well in a crowd as he did in the open."
In his first two years in the league, McGowan quickly grew to respect the abilities of a number of opposing defensive backs. Included in his "best defenders" list were the likes of Hamilton's John Williams, and Saskatchewan's Ted Dushinski and Lewis Cook. "Williams and Cook liked to bump and run with you. Especially Williams. For a little guy he sure liked the contact. And Dushinski was one of the best zone players that I ever ran up against."
It's often been said that the mark of a player is how his opponents, rather than his teammates rate him. Former Saskatchewan all-star defensive back Ted Provost, who probably saw McGowan as much as any other player, had this to say: "McGowan had the greatest eye-hand coordination I ever saw. He was the best in the league."
He might have been the greatest receiver in the history of the league if his knees hadn't failed him.
In 1974, there was a players' strike, which shortened the preseason for the veterans. Whether a direct result or not, McGowan suffered a serious hamstring injury preparing for the All-Star game and missed almost the entire season. "The only two times I tried to play that year I was pathetic", he later recalled. "At least in '77 I was able to play most of the games."
In 1975 the "Comeback Story in Canadian Sport", as Edmonton sportswriter Terry Jones called him, bounced back to set a CFL record for receptions in a season with 98; Gabriel had 65. That record was special because it took him until the following January to get it. It seems he had caught a pass on July 29, 1975 - the first game of the year - that he hadn't been given credit for. He caught seven passes that night, but only got credit for six. The Eskimos charted the game film and sent it into the league. McGowan went on to catch 97 passes that season, only to be informed January 15, 1976 that the seventh catch was finally credited to him, making his total 98 for the season.
Several players have since passed that mark, but it would stand until 1981, when Winnipeg's Eugene Goodlow would catch 100. Even so, the six years between McGowan's and Goodlow's records is still the third-longest stretch of all time. Hal Patterson held the record of 88 catches for 11 years before Terry Evanshen broke it with 96; it took McGowan 8 years to break Evanshen's mark.
In 1976 he was again injured in preseason - this time his knee - but still managed to catch 60 passes to finish second in the West behind Saskatchewan's Rhett Dawson (65); Gabriel led the league that year with 72. For all intents and purposes, his career was over then, but he would hang on for two more injury-filled seasons before finally calling it a career.
Hugh Campbell recalled, "He couldn't run deep. We tried to fool people into thinking he still could, but really, that was it for him." The story making the rounds in Edmonton at the time was that McGowan was trying acupuncture to try to save his career. It worked for awhile; he was able to play in most of the 1977 and 1978 seasons, but hampered by serious knee injuries, his most productive days were behind him.
His heirs-apparent were a skinny kid by the name of Waddell Smith, and a Howdy Doody-lookalike named Brian Kelly. When he suffered one final knee injury at training camp in 1979, he knew it was time. He just couldn't be George McGowan anymore. He played in five Grey Cups, losing in 1973, 1974 and the "Ice Bowl" game of 1977, and winning in 1975 and again in 1978. With that final cup win, McGowan hung up his cleats forever.
George McGowan was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2002.