Close-Up: Gridiron memories
The 1960s and ’70s was a unique and unforgettable era in Canadian Football League history, particularly for those who played the game in its heyday.
As a kid growing up in Squamish, there wasn’t much else Lefty Hendrickson envisioned doing with his life.
His daily thoughts were consumed with playing for the Canadian Football League’s B.C. Lions.
“When I was in high school, we’d hitchhike down to Vancouver all the time and go to the games,” said Hendrickson.
“All I wanted to do was play professional football. Back in those times, that’s what I did dream about. That was my goal, being there and playing with the Lions.”
Following a stint at the University of Oregon in the mid-1960s, Hendrickson realized his childhood dream when he signed his first contract with the Lions for the 1968 season.
Hendrickson made $5,500 his first year in the league, and $10,500 in the second. It was decent money for the era, but not the reason Hendrickson played the game.
“A lot of guys just loved to play, and that’s why I did it, not to get rich,” said Hendrickson. “It was fun.”
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Hendrickson recalls the image and lure of the CFL being almost on par with that of the National Football League.
Many top American players migrated north to sign and play with Canadian teams as opposed to staying in the U.S.
“The NFL didn’t have the big TV revenues they do now, so a lot of guys, really good players would come up here to make just as much as they did down there or more,” he said.
“(Lions receiver) Jimmy Young was with Minnesota, but he came up here, signed and stayed here.”
Hendrickson said the CFL game of the ‘60s and ‘70s also differed from today’s in that many players lived year around in the cities in which they played.
“Back then a lot of guys stayed in the communities, stayed in Canada wherever they were from. Most of the guys worked, too, they had jobs outside of football. I even worked during the season selling cars.
“You were in the community a lot, spoke at banquets and you got to know the people. That’s the way it was and we didn’t mind doing it.”
On the field, Hendrickson had a healthy respect for virtually every one of his opponents, even if some of them made life somewhat miserable for him.
Edmonton Eskimos lineman Dave Gasser was one such player. “Gasser would come up with his hands under your face mark, every play, and just rake you over,” Hendrickson recalled with a laugh.
“You knew it was coming, but he’d get you anyway. My eyes and face, all scratched up. So whenever you got at shot at him you took it, you didn’t feel bad about it.”
Hendrickson played for the Lions from 1968 to 1971 before retiring in 1972 to dedicate more time to work and family.
But twice he was coaxed out of retirement by Lions coach Eagle Keys. On failing knees he played both the 1973 and 1974 seasons before retiring for good.
One personal highlight came in 1973 when he was named a Western Division all-star after catching 39 passes for 631 yards.
Then in 2007, along with quarterback Joe Paopao, Hendrickson was installed on the Lions Wall of Fame.
If Hendrickson has a regret about his CFL career, it would be the absence of a Grey Cup ring.
However, in 2000, that dream was partially fulfilled as Hendrickson’s two sons, Scott and Craig, won a Grey Cup together with the B.C. Lions.
“We went to the playoffs three times, but never even got to a Grey Cup,” said Hendrickson, who has lived in Kelowna since 1993.
“That’s why I was so excited to see my boys win it. Looking back, that was actually the highlight of my career. Being in the locker room a lot with them, it was like reliving the times. It was great.”
For the third time in five seasons, Chuck Liebrock found himself one win away from a trip to the Grey Cup.
It was November 1972 and Liebrock’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers looked to be on the verge of winning the Western Conference final over the visiting Saskatchewan Roughriders.
With the likes of Mini Mack Herron, Jim Thorpe and Don Jonas leading the way, the Bombers finished first in the West that season and, to many, looked unbeatable.
But a field goal in overtime by the Riders’ Jack Abendschan sent the Bombers Grey Cup aspirations crashing to earth.
Little did Liebrock know at the time, he would never again come so close to the CFL’s ultimate prize.
“It’s hard to remember what it feels like to be depressed but I know I was,” Liebrock said, nearly 40 years later at his home in Kelowna.
“I just know I left everything on the field that day, sitting on the sidelines after the game was over and being totally spent. I hardly had enough strength to get to the dressing room.
“It’s almost like I wanted it to last so I could remember what it felt like. Of course, we always thought we were going to get back there…but we never did.”
Despite disappointments on the field and multiple injuries during his career, Liebrock said he wouldn’t trade in a minute of his steady, 11-year CFL stint as an offensive guard.
As memorable as the games won and lost were the lifelong friends Liebrock made along the way, some of whom were his opponents on other CFL teams, such as defensive lineman Dave Knechtel.
“Dave and I were best friends, and we had some battles. We would line up against each other and it would be very intense,” said Liebrock, who grew up in Windsor, Ont. “Nothing dirty, but very intense because you both played to win. It was all about pride. When the game was over, you’d shake hands. It was about respecting the other guy and the job he was trying to do.”
As for the best player he faced, Liebrock counts good friend and CFL Hall of Famer John Helton near the top. “He was very quick, strong and had great football sense. He was tough to block.”
After two seasons in Toronto, Liebrock would play nine years in Winnipeg before retiring in 1978.
Liebrock still follows the CFL closely and has watched with interest the many changes in the game over the last 30 to 40 years.
One clear difference to Liebrock is the general conduct of the players.
“There wasn’t the hot-dogging, jumping up and down, fist pumps and handsprings you see now,” Liebrock said. “It used to be guys would catch a touchdown pass, hand the ball to the ref and jog back to the bench.
“There was no hooby-doo for the TV cameras. But with TV and media today, I guess it’s a way for guys to get noticed.”
Differences in the eras aside, Liebrock admits he still loves football, the game “that changed my life.”
Today, he gives back to the game by coaching a minor football team, the Kelowna Lions.
Gerry Herron ran across his share of characters during his brief Canadian Football League career. Perhaps none was more unique or memorable than one of his teammates with the 1970 B.C. Lions.
“Our middle linebacker that year was Apollo Creed—Carl Weathers from the Rocky movie,” Herron said with a laugh. “He used to make us laugh. He used to say he was just too pretty for this game. He’d be in the huddle making cracks all the time. ‘I’m going to Hollywood,’ he’d say. Sure enough he became a helluva a star. Those are things you don’t forget.”
Not surprisingly playing in the CFL wasn’t all laughs for Herron who played two seasons with the Lions 1970 and ‘71, and a third with the Calgary Stampeders in 1972.
Herron, who grew up in Kelowna, likened the pro game of the era more to that of a war than a casual sporting event.
“It was a culture that was hard to explain, very brutal, but still a very good culture,” Herron said. “It was success-oriented, you were basically warriors going into battle with each other, like comrades in a war.
“The war started with three-a-days in training camp, and went on all season. You developed a bond with a group of people that wasn’t like anything in regular society you could describe.”
A hard-hitting defensive back out of Washington State, Herron both dished out and received plenty of punishment over the course of his CFL career.
It ultimately led to an early retirement for Herron who underwent five knee operations and eventually the loss of every cartilage in both knees.
If given another chance, he would have played the game with far less physical abandon.
“My biggest regret is that I wasn’t more mature when I played,” said Herron. “I would have learned how to stay out of harm’s way a little better. I was a hitter but I wouldn’t do it again. It would be more about defending the pass. I was beat up, the pounding shortened my career.”
Still, Herron is grateful he remains relatively healthy, unlike a number of his teammates with the 1971 B.C. Lions. Of the 32 men on the roster that year, Herron said eight have died.
Herron, 64, wouldn’t be surprised if the constant pounding to the head and resulting concussions were responsible for the deaths of many of his former teammates and opponents.
“A lot of these guys were linemen who were banging their heads on pretty much every play,” Herron recalled. “It certainly affected the cognitive abilities of some of the guys I knew and played with.
“There were lots of concussions back then, makes you wonder how much had to do with the contact. And if you look back at the Edmonton Eskimos, those Grey Cup teams of the ‘70s, a surprising amount of those guys are gone, too.”
As for the Canadian Football League of today, Herron likes the product and considers himself a fan. “I have a preference to the CFL over the NFL now, the game is exciting, the quality of the player is very good,” he said.
“The Canadian athlete is much better trained than before, there are better minor and junior programs, more Canadians in division one football.
“It’s a lot more exciting to watch than it was than a lot of points in time over the years.”
For 14 years, few players made a bigger impact on the CFL playing field than John Helton.
A nine-time all-Canadian, two-time outstanding defensive player, and CFL Hall of Fame inductee, the Pennsylvania native was renowned for his skill, toughness, and reputation for giving his all on every play.
Yet, for all he accomplished as a defensive lineman with the Calgary Stampeders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers from 1969 through 1982, Helton isn’t overly sentimental or nostalgic when it comes to his CFL playing career.
“To be remembered for my football really isn’t a big deal to me,” said Helton, now 64. “I felt like I was a manual labourer, football was my job. I played to win and liked to win, but that wasn’t what it was all about. It was more about doing the best work I could and contributing to the team. My goal was to be the best I could be and work hard every day.”
Some of Helton’s hard work was responsible for the Stampeders Grey Cup victory in 1971.
On a rainy November day in Vancouver’s Empire Stadium, Calgary beat the Toronto Argonauts 14-11. And while hoisting the Cup was a pleasant memory for Helton, it didn’t carry with it quite the elation and satisfaction he may have expected.
“I remember sitting there after the game and telling my teammate Howard Starks, ‘Is that all there is,’” Helton said. “It felt like Cinderella at 12:01. It’s over now. It was better to win than lose, but that was it. We put our clothes on, went back to the hotel and enjoyed our evening.
“I say that with no bad motive, just honesty. I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong, and I don’t say it to knock any player, any teammate, or team. That’s what it was for me, my personal experience.”
Still, Helton acknowledges his 14 seasons in the CFL taught him many lessons about life in general, and had a big hand in determining the person he is today.
“You get knocked down, you get up and you go again, that’s the best thing football ever taught me,” said Helton, who moved to Kelowna last year.
“Don’t lay down, you get up dust yourself off and keep going…don’t allow fear from preventing you who you can be.”
Helton still follows the CFL and enjoys watching the games, but is rarely nostalgic about his own career. His greatest joys today, he says, are his grandchildren, his children and his wife.
As for the single biggest highlight of his CFL career, Helton points to his induction into the Hall of Fame in August 1985—not for the recognition of his own accomplishments, but because of the people who were there to share the experience with him.
“My wife’s mother was still living, my mom and dad were still living, my brothers and sisters came, and my in-laws came, too,” Helton recalled.
“Everybody who mattered was there, and I could say thank you to them for sharing my ride and being a part of it.
“It’s best thing that ever happened. It was extra special.”