Saturday, 3 August 2013

My Grade Six Teacher…and the Sleeper Play



Ron Lancaster (23) and George Reed (34).
Photo courtesy Saskatchewan Roughriders

A Canadian Football League game played on Remembrance Day, 1963, may have been the most unusual contest the Saskatchewan Roughriders ever participated in. And they’ve played in some weird ones. Yes, I know, the 13 men on the field in the 2009 Grey Cup. You don’t have to mention it.

The following is not just a football story, per se. To set the stage, the Riders finished third in the Western Conference in 1963 with a 7-7-2 record. The team was on the rise, with Ron Lancaster, George Reed, Hugh Campbell, and Clyde Brock all in their first season as Riders, with some great years still ahead for all 4. Their opponents in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs would be the mighty 10-4-2 Calgary Stampeders, who had scored a whopping 427 points to lead the entire CFL. They also had the league’s leading rusher in Lovell Coleman and the leading passer in Eagle Day. I always loved that name…Eagle Day.

The semi-finals back then were a silly, two-game total-point affair…which, thankfully, they don’t do any more. On November 9th, the Riders lost the first game in Calgary by an embarrassing 35-9. When the Riders returned to Regina on the 11th to play the second and final game at Taylor Field, no one gave them a chance. The stands were nearly empty. How could the Riders score 27 points or more to take the semi-final? Impossible.

Calgary  kicked off to start the game and the Riders returned the ball to their 34. On the first play from scrimmage, while his teammates were in the huddle, Rider halfback Ray Purdin calmly strolled over to the far sideline directly in front of the Calgary bench. The Riders snapped the ball, and before the Stampeders knew what happened, Lancaster threw the ball over the startled opposing defensive backs to a wide open Purdin who raced 76 yards for a touchdown. After that, as it’s been said many times, all hell broke loose! The handful of fans at the park came alive. So did the Rider bench with lots of hooting and hollering. After a quick 7 points, the Roughriders all of a sudden believed in themselves.

As the game went on, everything went right for them, while the Stamps floundered. More and more Rider fans—who had been listening on the radio--flowed into Taylor Field. By the third quarter, the place was full and it was rocking. By the end of the wild and whacky game, the Riders won 39-12 and the semi-final total-point by a slim 48-47 margin.  With his career in doubt all season long, Lancaster rose to the occasion by completing 26 of 45 passes for 492 yards and five touchdowns.  Reed topped the game off by scoring the winning touchdown on a 10-yard run.  The Stamps' Larry Robinson missed 4 field goals from inside the 30-yard line, QB Eagle Day couldn’t hit his receivers, and running back Lovell Coleman was stopped cold by a stingy Rider defense.

To this day, the game is carved in stone as “The Miracle at Taylor Field.”

I was living in Regina’s east end at that time, attending St. Mark’s Catholic School, near Park Street and Victoria Avenue. For those of us going into grade six the following September, 1964, we were given a tall, solidly-built, young teacher named Brian Doege. A bachelor, he was new to the school, originally from Toronto, we had heard. And he drove a foreign make, a yellow VW Karmann Ghia rag top that stuck out like a sore thumb wherever he went. That year, a flag football league (somewhat new at the time) was established with St. Mark’s and the other Catholic schools in our district. I think there were 4 or 5 teams. St. Thomas, St. Joseph’s, and Holy Rosary, for sure, from what I can remember. A big football fan, Mr. Doege took on the coaching duties with gusto. Instead of going only with the older, bigger grade eights, he wanted me and a friend of mine, Don Chalupiak, on the team because we were fast, especially Don who could run like a deer. So, we joined up as receivers. Two other grade sixers were chosen. The rest of the team were from the two older grades. We played our games after school. Eight-man football in our league. We didn’t have uniforms or anything like that, not even a jock strap to protect those vital areas. Just our street clothes, what we went to school with that day. Strange, because we did have blocking in our league. We scrimmaged the ball. No sissy steamboat counts for us prairie boys.

It was zone football. Each zone was 15 yards long, with 4 in all, meaning a 60-yard-long field. Four downs to make a zone. With the Purdin touchdown catch still fresh on the mind of every Rider sports fan, Mr. Doege came up with his own modified sleeper play. And…he said to us under great secrecy, that we were going to use it once on each team throughout the year. So, we had to make sure that we did it right. Don was elected the guy. Our Ray Purdin. Mr Doege’s instructions were simple. When it was time for the play, Don was to go to the far side of the field, away from the opposition bench, just inside the playing field by a foot or so, kneel down on one knee and make sure his flags were “accidentally-on-purpose” not visible. Make like a spectator. And don’t go off-side at the snap of the ball!

We tried it in our first game. We were deep in our own end. A quick huddle on our part and…Don got behind the defenders, made the catch and was gone for a touchdown.  It worked about 3 or 4 games in a row. We were winning games, too. On one occasion, Don couldn’t make it to school on game day, the flu or something, and I took his place as the sleeper guy. My one and only chance for stardom. When the time came, I did everything I was supposed to do. No one on the opposition took note of me on the other side of the field. We snapped the ball and I got behind the startled defenders, just like Purdin the year before, but…I was overthrown. I think it was the only time all year that the play didn’t work.  Due in part to our sleeper play, we were the team to beat that year. By the end of the season, word got back to our principle that we were pissing off the other Catholic schools. Some of them even accused us of cheating! My word! The Roughriders weren’t cheating…

Mr. Doege was known for several other things that year at St. Mark’s. First off, he was our protector against the grade eights. We used to play a lot of soccer before the morning and the afternoon bells and during the recesses. And we usually doubled-up with the older guys because there was only so much playground room for everybody involved. Over the course of a few days, Mr. Doege noticed that one of the grade eight’s—Conrad was his name--was pushing around the younger, smaller guys, like me. Conrad was big for his age, 6-foot-1 or so, about the same height as Mr. Doege. So, one day, our teacher decided to come out to play soccer with us. I always thought that soccer was a non-contact sport. Not that afternoon. The first time Conrad touched the ball, Mr. Doege—in full shirt and tie--nailed him with a shoulder check that nearly knocked poor Conrad out cold. Once the dust settled, Mr. Doege helped Conrad up, but warned him to dispense with his bullying of the younger kids. Posters against bullying in the halls or the playground weren’t needed in our day, not with a teacher like Brian Doege around. Calmly walking away, Mr. Doege winked at me and a couple others nearby. Conrad never bothered us again.

Next, sometime near the end of May, Mr. Doege informed our grade six class that we didn’t have to write our year-end tests. Throughout the higher grades in those days, the kids had to write those brutal Provincial Departmental Exams, as they were called. He said that most of the teachers didn’t pay any attention to them and would just throw them in the garbage without even looking at them. Our subject average was based on the school year only, he claimed. So, why write them. (I asked my sister-in-law school teacher about that very topic a few years after and she confirmed what Mr. Doege had said).


And lastly, with June drawing  to a close, Mr. Doege told the school principle that he wanted to dig a hole to use for an open-pit BBQ at one end of the playground for the sole purpose of us having a wiener roast to celebrate our finished year. The principle said, no way. Too dangerous, against regulations, or something like that. Mr. Doege then called the city fire department. And they too said he couldn’t do it. Too bad.  Mr. Doege went ahead with the open-pit BBQ idea anyway. We even had hamburgers to go with our hot dogs. Pop, the whole bit. And lastly, Mr. Doege dared to grow a then-controversial goatee during the school year. Now the female teachers were thinking he was a pretty cool guy. Meanwhile, we had known that all along. The principle, however, was not impressed with facial hair on one of his male teachers. For some strange reason, Mr. Doege wasn’t invited back for a second year at St. Mark’s. Or maybe he just quit. No one told us. Maybe Conrad’s mom had something to do with it. But we sure missed him.

Then, in my last year of high school, I was reading the weekend edition of  our local Regina newspaper, the Leader-Post. I turned to the Star Weekly supplement in the middle and there was a color picture of Brian Doege, wearing a full goatee, complete with a feature story on how he had become a very successful art dealer in the Maritimes. Our “Sleeper Play” Brian Doege had made the big time.

Where is he today? I wish I knew. He’d be in his 70's, for sure, perhaps 80, if he’s still alive. Over the years, I’ve tried to track him down by way of the internet. But no leads. He could be anywhere around the globe. By far, he was the best teacher I ever had, as well as the most memorable. Every time I read anything about the Ray Purdin sleeper pass and “The Miracle at Taylor Field,” I think of Brian Doege.

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