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Palazeti's key block paved way for Argos to end Grey Cup drought in 1983

08/21/2013 02:53 EDT | Updated 10/21/2013 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - Officially, it was Joe Barnes's three-yard TD pass to Cedric Minter that earned Toronto its thrilling 18-17 win over the B.C. Lions in the 1983 CFL championship, ending the Argonauts' 31-year Grey Cup drought.

But in "Bouncing Back: From National Joke to Grey Cup Champs," author Paul Woods notes the wild celebration that ensued doesn't happen if not for John Palazeti. It was the veteran fullback's heads-up block on a crucial third-down gamble that allowed Toronto to rally for a 41-36 East Division final win over arch-rival Hamilton.

"I didn't know was just how close they came to losing that Eastern final if it wasn't for John Palazeti," said Woods, a former journalist at the The Canadian Press. "They handed off to Minter and he just squeezed across for the first down but I didn't realize there had been a missed block on the play by, of all people, Dan Ferrone and (Hamilton's) Leo Ezerins had a clear shot at Minter.

"Palazeti saw it out of the corner of his eye and made the block to seal the gap and let Minter get through. They don't make that first down then they don't score the winning touchdown and don't go to the Grey Cup.''

Toronto trailed 36-34 with less than a minute remaining inside the Hamilton four-yard line. Kicker Hank Ilesic came on to try the go-ahead field goal before head coach Bob O'Billovich had a change of heart and decided to gamble on third and about a half yard.

Quarterback Condredge Holloway handed off to Minter on the right side but Ferrone, slated for induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in October, missed Ezerins. Fortunately Palazeti, who played fullback and linebacker throughout his CFL career, picked him up and Minter got just enough for the first down.

"A football game can be decided by one or two plays," Argos offensive lineman Tom Trifaux recalls in the book. "In that instant, if Paco (Palazeti) doesn't make that connection we're not going to the end zone."

Minter's two-yard TD run — behind Palazeti's lead block — with 27 seconds remaining gave Toronto the win and foreshadowed the late-game heroics that were to come in Vancouver.

"Danny Ferrone was a good offensive lineman, but he missed on that play," O'Billovich says in the book.

"It was a very inopportune time to make a mistake and those are the kinds of plays where I could be the goat for the rest of my life," Ferrone told The Canadian Press in an interview. "Palazeti picked up Leo and made a great play out of it.''

Woods's self-published book, available in soft cover and as an ebook, chronicles the rise of the Argos from 1981 (league-worst 2-14 record) to their '83 championship run.

"I had a sense the story had never been really told and kind of felt that was an injustice in a way," said Woods, a longtime Argos fan. "They ended this drought that seemed like it would never end and certainly were honoured incredibly well at the time with the most insane parade you're ever going to see for any sports team in Toronto.

"But it was almost like the pressure valve got released and now we can move on to other things. The Blue Jays started getting good around '83 and became a playoff team in '85 and I kind of felt the accomplishment of that Grey Cup didn't receive the credit or attention it deserved.''

On Friday, the Argos will honour the '83 squad at halftime of their game versus Calgary. Most team members are expected to be on hand, except for Minter. He's a school principal in Boise, Idaho, and the reunion coincides with the start of the school year.

Eleven members of the '81 Argos were on the field two years later in Vancouver. Willie Wood was Toronto's head coach in 1981 but was fired after 10 games. At season's end, Argos president Ralph Sazio hired O'Billovich, an assistant with Ottawa.

O'Billovich led Toronto to the '82 Grey Cup, losing 32-16 to Edmonton in the last of the Eskimos' historic five straight titles.

Woods believes Toronto's '83 Grey Cup win is the crowning achievement of O'Billovich's career. Heady praise, considering the 73-year-old had a 50-year relationship with the CFL as a player, coach and executive before retiring last year as Hamilton's GM.

"To be the guy who broke the drought was a tremendous accomplishment for him," Woods said. "It's like whoever is going to be the coach if the Toronto Maple Leafs ever win the Stanley Cup, that's going to be an unbelievable accomplishment that will overshadow anything else that person does because the weight of history is on your shoulders.

"The weight of history was definitely on the Argos' shoulders in that game. I think you could argue it's the greatest achievement of Bob's career despite what he did later as a personnel guy."

Toronto's offensive lynchpin in '83 was receiver Terry Greer, who amassed a CFL-record 2,003 receiving yards. But Greer, a two-time Super Bowl champion with the San Francisco 49ers, wasn't the Argos' only proven performer.

The receiving corps also featured solid Canadians Carinci and Paul Pearson while Holloway and Barnes provided a solid 1-2 punch. Ferrone anchored the offensive line while Minter, a two-time all-American at Boise State, was the East Division's top rookie in 1981 and a league all-star in '81 and '82.

Defensively, end Rick Mohr and defensive back Carl Brazley were league all-stars while linebacker Don Moen — who would play a club-record 222 career games with Toronto — was in just his second season. Ilesic, a member of the Edmonton's dynasty, joined the Argos in '83 for the sixth of his record-tying seven Grey Cups.

Leading the organization were O'Billovich, twice the CFL's coach of the year and the winningest coach in Toronto history, and Sazio, the Hall of Famer who was a mainstay with Hamilton as a player, coach and executive before serving as Argos president from 1981 to '90.

Woods learned they were a tight-knit bunch.

"What I discovered reaching out to players, coaches and even trainer Fred Dunbar was how close they were and still are and how special that time was to them," he said. "I asked Terry Greer to compare the camaraderie of the Argos to the 49ers and he said there was no comparison."

Ferrone said what made '83 special was so many players on that squad had to endure a lot of losing before being able to share a championship.

"The outcome of the '83 Grey Cup is also the remnants of the '81 season," he said. "You kind of really make your true friends during the bad times because in bad times you all hang together."

For Woods, one player stands out.

"Condredge Holloway," he said emphatically. "The reverence his teammates have for that guy is amazing ... he was the glue that kept that team together."

When the team went out to dinner, Holloway would be the one to buy the first round.

"He told me, 'As the quarterback I felt it was my responsibility to buy the first round,' but he also enjoyed it because he felt he got to know guys and what motivated them," said Woods. "As I got into this project I realized, 'Wow, this guy's got to be a focal point.' because to use Reggie Jackson's phrase, 'He's the straw that stirs the drink.'''

Holloway joined the Argos in '81 and was named the CFL's outstanding player in '82, leading Toronto to its Grey Cup appearance versus Edmonton. But in '83, he had to watch from the sidelines as his team won the CFL crown.

Holloway started the game but left at halftime due to extreme sickness. Barnes, who began '82 as Toronto's starter before an injury allowed Holloway to enjoy his banner campaign, came off the bench to rally the Argos to their stirring win.

However, Woods said there was no quarterback controversy.

"In Condredge's office at Tennessee he's got a fantastic photo of him and Barnes in the dressing room right after that game," Woods said. "The two of the them have their arms around each other and Condredge looks kind of sick, actually, but I think that picture shows how much being part of that tandem meant to him.''

Woods says Barnes's feelings were mutual.

"If there was a guy who deserved to be a little upset about how things turned out it was Joe," Woods said. "He was a No. 1 quarterback in this league, he started for Montreal and took them to the Grey Cup, was half of a fantastic tandem with John Hufnagel in Saskatchewan in '81 then gets to the Argos in '82 and wins the starting job in training camp and two weeks later is injured.

"Condredge then takes over and wins the Schenley and Joe could've been thinking, 'Hey, I'm a No. 1 quarterback, why am I here as the No. 2?' But he never complained."

Woods said as potent as Toronto's offence was in '83, it could have been even deadlier. Woods learned the Argos had receiver Mervyn Fernandez on their negotiation list in '82 but were told by the league he was ineligible.

Fernandez eventually signed with B.C. Over six seasons (1982-'86, '94) he was a two-time all-star and in '85 captured the CFL's outstanding player award.

"Can you imagine what that offence would've been like with Greer on one side and Fernandez on the other?" Woods said. "Man, that would've been something.''

"Bouncing Back: From National Joke to Grey Cup Champs" is available through www.lulu.com and www.amazon.com.

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