TORONTO – The downtown streets of Ontario’s capital will soon be injected with a blast of Canadiana as football fans from across the country descend on Toronto in eager anticipation of the 100th Grey Cup game.
Not far from the festivals, fun and boozy parties sits a quiet field where Canadian football history was made over a century ago. Rosedale Field, the site of the first Grey Cup, is tucked away in a tony neighbourhood just beyond the city’s skyscrapers and urban din.
The University of Toronto Varsity Blues defeated Toronto’s Parkdale Canoe Club 26-6 on Dec. 4, 1909, in what was then known as the Dominion Championship of Canadian Amateur Rugby Football. The first half was fairly even but the Varsity squad wasn’t threatened after outscoring Parkdale 9-1 in the third quarter.
The historic field still sees plenty of use.
The grass is uneven in spots and is pockmarked by bare patches near the goalposts and midfield from recreational games. It’s also a popular spot for dog owners, who use the space to throw balls and give their pooches a run.
Maple trees line the perimeter of the field, which is flanked by a hockey rink, parkette and small baseball diamond.
A walk on the gridiron can make a football fan’s mind wander.
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Where did Varsity’s Smirle (Big Train) Lawson shake off those would-be tacklers on his 50-yard run to the end zone late in the game? How impressive was the eight-rouge kicking display by Hugh Gall? Did the 3,800-odd fans in attendance realize the cultural importance of what they were watching?
Back then, the sport was more of a football-rugby hybrid. Laterals were common and the focus was on the running game.
The equipment also looked completely different. The oval-shaped ball was bigger, pads were a fraction of the size used today and all-wool sweaters were the norm.
“You’re looking at more of a rugby-based game where you’re moving the ball backwards and laterally instead of going forward to take movement down the field,” said Mark DeNobile, the executive director of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. “I don’t think back in 1909 they ever expected – 100 years later – the style of football there is today or the equipment.”
Senior amateur and collegiate champions from Ontario and Quebec battled for the Grey Cup in the early years with rules governed by the Canadian Rugby Union.
Players were smaller back then and moved a little slower.
They used light leather helmets that didn’t have suspension or face masks. Some players even shared helmets.
A try was awarded – a precursor to the touchdown – for a major score. The tackling was also closer to the style used in rugby.
“In the early eras of Canadian football it was more based on shoulder tackling and hitting at the waist and dropping down and wrapping up the ankles,” DeNobile said.
“For some reason (today’s players) have gotten away from that. … you can imagine the concussions back in yesteryear where you’re just wearing a piece of leather.”
The difference in shoulder pads is remarkable. The early-era pads were as thick as a magazine and a far cry from the rock-hard equipment used today.
“It just goes to show you the evolution of the game … (it’s) basically a leather patch with stuffing in it,” DeNobile said of the old pads.
The team picture of the ’09 champions shows players wearing long-sleeve shirts with lace tieups to the collar along with thick, heavy-looking shorts over leggings. Coaches and managers look dapper in top hats and long coats.
The trophy – a silver cup on a wooden base which cost $48 to produce – wasn’t ready for game day. It was presented to coach Harry Griffith’s winning side in March 1910 and had just 18 players listed on the championship trophy plate.
A photo of Lawson from the title game made the front page of the Toronto Daily Star. The caption described an airborne Lawson being thrown into touch as he tried one of his “hurdle plays.”
The Grey Cup was not contested for three years during the First World War. The 100th Grey Cup game will be played Sunday between the Toronto Argonauts and the Calgary Stampeders at Rogers Centre in front of a sellout crowd of more than 52,000.