Vanstone: “49 Stop” was the start of something big
One pivotal play isn’t always remembered when people reminisce about an unforgettable Grey Cup game that was played 30 years ago on Tuesday.
Dave Ridgway‘s game-winning, 35-yard field goal with two seconds remaining in the fourth quarter is the signature moment of the CFL’s 1989 championship game, in which the Saskatchewan Roughriders defeated the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 43-40 in Toronto.
The Kick was preceded by back-to-back completions from Kent Austin to Mark Guy, who made clutch receptions of 18 and 10 yards.
But if not for a 20-yard reception that doesn’t always appear on the highlight packages, how would that game have ended? And who would have won?
Let’s set the table to put that play in perspective.
With 44 seconds remaining, the Tiger-Cats’ Tony Champion — playing with broken ribs — made a miraculous, twisting touchdown catch on third-and-goal from the nine-yard line. Paul Osbaldiston’s convert created a 40-40 tie.
Following a 25-yard kickoff return by Tim McCray, Saskatchewan had a first down on its 36-yard line.
The drive began with a long incompletion — an attempted bomb to Don Narcisse.
On second-and-10, the Roughriders needed to move the chains … or else?
Ray Elgaard, a future Hall of Fame slotback, had a suggestion — a play called 49 Stop.
On each side, the slotback was to run a square-out pattern which was then turned upfield, with the wide receiver to run a post route.
Narcisse, lined up as the wideout on the right, ran the post. Elgaard, the right slotback, executed the out-and-up — with one adjustment.
Instead of continuing down the sideline on the out-and-up, Elgaard stopped 17 yards downfield, near the sideline.
Austin launched a perfect pass, which had enough arc to be out of the reach of Tiger-Cats linebacker Pete Giftopoulos, and enough steam to arrive before defensive back Lance Shields could knock down the ball.
Elgaard calmly caught the pass, barged ahead for three more yards, and stepped out of bounds to stop the clock with 25 seconds left.
“Great throw,” CBC analyst Ron Lancaster said during the telecast on Nov. 26, 1989 — 23 years to the day after he had quarterbacked Saskatchewan to its first Grey Cup victory.
Great call, too.
“In a shootout like that, and it’s second-and-10, (Hamilton’s defensive backs are) going to be bailing out,” Elgaard recalls from his home in Las Vegas. “They’re going to be playing deep, deep Cover 3, which is the corner going way back. There was this gigantic hole in front of him.
“The 49 Stop is kind of designed to go over the top, but it works perfectly if you want to throw it underneath. So we had plenty of time and it seemed to me like an easy way to pick up 15 or 20 yards.
“I just said, ‘Hey, 49 Stop.’ Kent looked at me and he said, ‘Yeah, right on.’ I never did that. I wasn’t a mouthpiece in the huddle or anything, but it just occurred to me and I threw it in there and Kent said ‘OK’ and then he called it. Away we went.”
Elgaard’s timing was as perfect as the execution turned out to be.
“Outside of all the times Ray made it into the end zone for us, one of the biggest catches he ever made occurred on that second-down throw from Kent on the final drive,” Ridgway reflects.
“That catch kept us moving and eventually Kent got us into field-goal range. It was a great catch, but also worth noting is what an amazing — and gutsy — throw Kent made in the situation.
“How many people at that time realized that if that ball had slipped a little while leaving Kent’s hand — instead of being a tight spiral — and Giftopoulos had intercepted the pass, the Tiger-Cats would have been in automatic field-goal range for Ozzie?”
Or, if the pass had been incomplete, the Roughriders would have had to punt — in a game that, from the second quarter onward, had a “last team with the ball wins” feel.
It never came to that, thanks to 49 Stop.
“It was a play we needed and we got it,” Elgaard says. “There were a lot of those plays in that game and lots of guys made them.
“They’re all massive when you look back on it, with a game that was that close, but that was key to getting us rolling.”
The game got rolling after Hamilton assumed a 13-1 lead.
The Roughriders and Tiger-Cats combined for five consecutive touchdown drives in the second quarter.
Saskatchewan scored three of those majors, all through the air. Austin connected with a wide-open Elgaard from five yards away before hitting Jeff Fairholm on a 75-yard bomb and Narcisse on another five-yarder.
One week earlier, Elgaard had returned to the lineup after missing four games due to torn ligaments in his left knee — an injury that required surgery.
He proceeded to catch two touchdown passes to help Saskatchewan, which had a 9-9 regular-season record, upend the 16-2 Edmonton Eskimos by a 32-21 count in the West Division final at Commonwealth Stadium. (Edmonton’s 16 wins are still a CFL single-season record.)
A 47-yard TD bomb from Tom Burgess — quarterbacking in place of Austin, who had suffered a knee injury in the second quarter — to Fairholm helped Saskatchewan assume a 24-20 lead at 9:52 of the third frame.
Barely two minutes later, Burgess found Elgaard for a 14-yard score. In tight coverage, he made a leaping grab in the back right corner of the end zone and nimbly landed in-bounds.
The pass route: The aforementioned 49 — an out-and-up — without the Stop.
As Elgaard returned to the bench, offensive lineman Bob Poley said, “Dude, that’s the best (censored) catch I’ve ever seen you make.”
That is saying something, considering that Elgaard made 830 catches for 13,198 yards and 78 touchdowns during 14 seasons in green and white.
“What does it mean to me?” Elgaard says of the second TD catch in Edmonton. “Nothing special. I don’t reminisce that way.
“It ended up being an important play in the game, but it was still a long way to go in the game. It wasn’t like that was the nail that closed the door, but it was a touchdown and we needed a touchdown.
“We were playing the big shots and we were playing them on their field and we’re still a kind of team that isn’t sure what we are, but we’re here. Nobody thinks we should be, but we are. The next thing you know, it was, ‘OK, we’re in this thing.’
“That play buoyed us even more, to some degree, and maybe fired up our defence even more to stop them again, but they were already doing that. Everybody played so damned well in both of those (final two) games. There were lots of plays all over the place.”
And lots of memories that endure — ones that remain vivid despite the passage of time.
“Thirty years is still a pretty big chunk of time,” Elgaard reflects. “It seems like a long time ago but, then again, it doesn’t.
“There are still some pretty clear memories. There are remembrances of people and events that surround the whole story. The fact that some of that stuff is in print and gets brought up every now and then, that helps you remember stuff. It was a long time ago, but we still recall it.
“There’s a lot of things that happened 30 years ago that I don’t have a clue what they were, but we all remember this stuff.”
Including the kick-start that was provided by 49 Stop.