March 13, 2023

Bud Grant, A Pro Football Icon

Bud Grant faced the Saskatchewan Roughriders as many as six times in a season during his lengthy, legendary association with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

As the Blue Bombers’ head coach, Grant was victorious in 10 of his first 11 visits to Taylor Field after taking over as Winnipeg’s field boss in 1957.

But he never experienced an outcome in Regina that was more to his liking than was the case on a terrifying October day in 2015.

While on a hunting trip to Saskatchewan, Grant — an avid outdoorsman and Minnesota football icon who was then 88 — survived a crash landing at Regina International Airport.

Grant was a passenger in a small plane that was piloted by Jim Hanson. The duo, which was travelling from Minnesota and destined for Kindersley, was to stop in Regina to refuel and to clear Canadian customs before continuing on toward west-central Saskatchewan.

What was supposed to be a routine landing in Regina was the exact opposite.

Although the instrument panel in the twin-engine aircraft indicated that the landing gear was down, the wheels had not, in fact, descended.

“The next thing we knew, the propellers were shredding, sparks were flying, and pieces of the undercarriage were bouncing around,” Grant told Paul Friesen of the Winnipeg Sun in December of 2015.

The airplane skidded along the runway over a distance that was roughly the equivalent of three football fields.

Remarkably, the occupants of the plane — Hansen, Grant and the coach’s hunting dog — were uninjured and undeterred.

They soon made their way to Kindersley, as intended, but only after renting a U-Haul.

That was not the first aviation-related close call for Grant, who lived until 95 before passing away early Saturday morning at his home in Bloomington, Minn.

On Dec. 9, 1956, Grant was supposed to be on board Trans-Canada Air Lines Flight 810, which was to make an eastward milk run after the East-West Shrine All-Star Game in Vancouver.

However, Grant changed his flight reservations at the last minute — a decision that saved his life.

The four-engine Canadair North Star ended up crashing into Mount Slesse, near Chilliwack, B.C. The accident killed all 62 passengers and crew — including four members of the Roughriders (Mel Becket, Mario DeMarco, Gordon Sturtridge and Ray Syrnyk) and one Blue Bombers player (Calvin Jones).

The all-star game turned out to be Grant’s farewell to football as a player.

After starring as a receiver and defensive back for Winnipeg from 1953 to 1956, he was hired as the Blue Bombers’ head coach, just shy of his 30th birthday.

(Photo provided courtesy of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers) 

To this day, he holds the Canadian professional football record for interceptions in a playoff game. He registered five of the Blue Bombers’ eight interceptions in a 43-5 victory over the visiting Roughriders on Oct. 28, 1953.

Grant had also made a game-saving defensive play in his first game of any description against Saskatchewan, tipping a Glenn Dobbs pass away from Herb Johnson near the goal line in the latter stages of a Sept. 4, 1953 game in Winnipeg. The Blue Bombers held on to win 13-6.

Harry Peter (Bud) Grant had made the move to Manitoba despite catching 56 passes for 997 yards and seven touchdowns with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles in 1952.

Unimaginably now, Grant received a superior offer from Winnipeg and, like many other American-born players of the day, made the move to Canada.

His eventual transition to coaching also proved to be seamless.

Over 10 seasons with the famously stoic Grant as the head coach, the Blue Bombers posted a 122-67-3 record and won four of their six Grey Cup appearances.

(Photo provided courtesy of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers) 

Grant’s final game as a CFL coach was against Saskatchewan, which in 1966 swept the Blue Bombers in the best-of-three Western Conference final en route to capturing the first Grey Cup championship in franchise history.

The Roughriders secured their first Grey Cup berth since 1951 by winning 21-19 at Winnipeg Stadium on Nov. 16, 1966.

In February of that year, Grant had appeared at a function in Saskatoon and observed, presciently, that “the percentages are with the Roughriders this year.”

Sure enough, Saskatchewan defeated the Ottawa Rough Riders 29-14 at Empire Stadium in Vancouver on Nov. 26, 1966.

Earlier that week, Grant had written a guest column for the Winnipeg Free Press and predicted a victory by Saskatchewan (9-7-1), even though Ottawa (11-3-0) was heavily favoured.

“It’s important that a team knows what to do under pressure in close football games,” Grant wrote. “Saskatchewan won a lot of tight games in the West this season, while Ottawa was never under a great deal of pressure.”

Grant was soon courted by the Minnesota Vikings, with whom he would spend 18 NFL seasons while becoming synonymous with the franchise.

He guided Minnesota to a 168-108-5 regular-season record, along with appearances in the 1970, 1974, 1975 and 1977 Super Bowls.

(The Vikings’ roster in each of those championship games included defensive end Jim Marshall, who in 1959 made his pro football debut with the Roughriders. Marshall scored one touchdown as a Roughrider, catching an eight-yard pass on a tackle-eligible play that produced six points versus Winnipeg on Aug. 29, 1959 at Taylor Field. The visiting head coach on that occasion: Bud Grant.)

(Photo provided courtesy of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers) 

Grant entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994 — 11 years after being enshrined in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. He thus became the first person to be inducted into both shrines.

“Growing up in Winnipeg, Bud Grant was a fixture in the community,” CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie tweeted on Saturday. “He impacted so many lives on and off the field.

“What he accomplished in his playing and coaching career was legendary and inspiring.”

Grant is honoured by a bronze statue that was unveiled in 2014 outside IG Field, the Blue Bombers’ home facility.

“Bud Grant is a Blue Bombers icon who set the standard as a coach in the Canadian Football League in Winnipeg and later became a Pro Football Hall of Famer in the same role with the Minnesota Vikings,” Winnipeg Football Club president-CEO Wade Miller said via social media on Saturday. “His teams were tough, disciplined, intelligent and won consistently, as evidenced by the Grey Cup championships won during his tenure.

“The WFC offers its deepest condolences to the Grant family and his many friends and former players, both here in Winnipeg and in Minnesota.”

The sad news also resonated in Saskatchewan, where Grant was such a familiar face — even as a visitor — over 14 seasons. He was 20-13-1 (including 11-5-1 at Taylor Field) against Saskatchewan as the Blue Bombers’ head coach.

“Our condolences to the entire Winnipeg football family,” the Roughriders tweeted on Saturday. “Our hearts go out to you.”