Joe Zuger - Quarterback - 1962-71 - Arizona State
No Ordinary Joe - Ken Peters - Hamilton Spectator 30-10-2007
The former Canadian Foot-ball League quarterback who continues to hold the league record for most touchdown passes in a single game answers the door to his Marlowe Drive home and offers a shy smile.
It's been 45 years since the Pennsylvania-born rookie passer electrified a Civic Stadium crowd by passing for eight touchdowns to lead his Tiger-Cats to a 67-21 victory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Nine playing seasons, five Grey Cup appearances and more than a decade in the Hamilton front office -- not to mention triple bypass heart surgery and an ongoing battle with diabetes later -- Joe Zuger continues to enjoy his other passion of painting and enjoying Hamilton Mountain retirement with the same woman he married in that rookie season, Ellie.
The container of toys and building blocks in his attractive family room attests to the fact that Zuger, 67, spends more time playing with his grandchildren than he does thinking back on a storied Canadian Football League career.
But that will change, if only for a day or two, this week. On Thursday night at Michangelos Banquet Centre, the Tiger-Cat Alumni Association will honour Zuger and both the 1957 and '67 Grey Cup-winning teams at their annual awards dinner. Then, on Saturday night at the final Tiger-Cat contest of the season, fans, young and old, will rise to their feet and applaud as Zuger's name is the latest to join other legends such as Sazio, Mosca, Henley and Barrow on the facing of the Ivor Wynne Stadium press box.
Born Joseph Zugrovics of Hungarian descendants -- Zuger's father shortened the surname -- the Hamilton passing and punting legend would come north after a stellar three-year collegiate career at Arizona State University where he played offence, defensive back, and punted.
Drafted by the Detroit Lions in the 18th round (248th overall), Zuger spurned an offer from the National Football League club in favour of coming north to play quarterback -- and equally significantly, punt -- for fellow Pennsylvanian Jim Trimble's Tiger-Cats in 1962.
"Jim came and visited me in Pennsylvania and we sat down with my brother and my dad over the dining room table with a bottle of booze -- that's the kind of guy he was, he was a Pennsylvanian -- and we worked it out."
Zuger, who would finish his CFL career with a 45.5-yard punting average, said the chance to kick the ball was what sold him on coming north.
"He (Trimble) sold me on how important the punting game was up here, with the single. He said it would be an asset and that really attracted me."
Zuger showed up in Hamilton in 1962. It looked just like his Pennsylvanian home of Homestead, a small steeltown just 12 kilometres southeast of Pittsburgh.
"I thought I had been born and went to heaven. In 1962-63-64 and '65, we went to the Grey Cup every year. So I got kind of spoiled. That was half my career. I figured, 'Hey, if I could play for 10 years, maybe we could be in the Grey Cup 10 times,'" Zuger laughs. "It was a great run."
Zuger won championships in '63 and '65. And one more with the team he believes is the best in Ticat history, the 1967 club that beat Saskatchewan 24-1 in Ottawa.
"'67 was the greatest team I ever played on. They never scored a touchdown on our defence in six games."
Zuger's passing prowess went hand in hand with his punting and fit then head coach Ralph Sazio's on-field strategy perfectly. The offence would get what it could before Zuger would pin the opposition deep and allow the vaunted defence to keep them that way.
"I was more of a manager than a flashy all-star quarterback. It was a management thing and I think that was the way Sazio liked it and taught it. Manage it, don't get yourself in trouble, just play it tight, kick the shit out of the ball and put them in a hole. That's what we did. In 1967, which was Ralph's last year, it worked to perfection and what a way to go out."
Zuger also excelled at a part of the game rarely seen these days. The quick kick.
"It worked hand in hand with defence. Put them in a hole and keep them down there. Field position. A lot of people thought it was boring, but we won."
He credits a skinny neighbour for his punting prowess.
"We used to go to the playground and that was all we did. It was just up the block and we would just kick to each other. We used to play a game called 'Kick the Goal,' where if you kicked it in on the fly, you got so many points or you could even throw it in. That's the way I learned how to kick."
Zuger stayed relatively injury-free with a couple of bizarre exceptions. He lost the tip of his pinky finger on his nonthrowing hand in Regina when it became lodged in a defensive end's face mask. The injury required skin-grafts to repair.
Zuger hung up his cleats in 1971. His final contest was a playoff tilt in Toronto and the Hamilton quarterback was pulverized into the sidelines by Jim Stillwagon and Jim Corrigal. Zuger's shoulder was separated and his collarbone broken as he laid in tatters on the pavement of Exhibition Stadium.
"It hurt like hell."
Zuger stepped down and the decision paved the way for a young black scrambler who would lead the Ticats to the 1972 championship. A Toledo kid by the name of Chuck Ealey.
But little did Zuger realize at the time that his retirement would simply usher in the start of his second career as the GM who would replace Sazio.
Zuger served as director of player personnel in 1980 before becoming Ticat GM in 1981 under rather bizarre circumstances when Sazio left for Toronto.
"I was scouting in Seattle when I got a call from Sazio who said, 'get on a plane, take the red-eye and get back here as soon as (you) can.' That's all he said."
Zuger came into the Tiger-Cat office the next morning.
"He (Sazio) said, 'Here's my files. I'm going to Toronto, goodbye.' He said, 'I'm recommending you as General manager. I talked to (owner) Harold (Ballard) and said, 'If you don't want him, I'll take him to Toronto with me.' And that was it."
Zuger went home to sleep, returned to the Tiger-Cat offices at noon where Ballard hired him as the new GM. That would start an 11-year stint that would see Zuger oversee Grey Cup appearances in 1983-84-86-89, but just the lone championship in 1986.
Zuger and Ellie bought their Marlowe Drive home in 1965 and have been there ever since. It still amuses him greatly when fans will stop him and express surprise that he's still in the city.
"People say, 'You're still here?' I said, 'I never left.'"
He admits he'll feel a lot of emotion Saturday night when his name appears on the press box beside those he played for, such as Sazio, played alongside, such as Henley, and those he helped bring here, such as Earl Winfield.
"The thing that amazes me is there are three different sections. There are the ones I played for like Ralph (Sazio) and (Jake) Gaudaur, the ones I played with like (Angelo) Mosca, (Tommy Joe) Coffey and (Garney) Henley. Then there are the guys who played for me. That's like three different eras. That's the most gratifying."
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