November 9, 2023

Rob Vanstone: Remembering the “Little Miracle” of 60 years ago

George Reed’s game-winning touchdown run led to another carry on Nov. 11, 1963 — 60 years ago on Saturday. 

Jubilant Saskatchewan Roughriders fans lifted the rookie fullback on to their shoulders and transported him to the tunnel after the home team engineered a comeback that was soon dubbed “The Little Miracle of Taylor Field.” 

Such an outpouring seemed to be inconceivable after the Calgary Stampeders routed the Roughriders 35-9 in the opener of the CFL’s two-game, total-points Western Conference semi-final. 

Saskatchewan’s lone touchdown in Game 1, played at McMahon Stadium, was on a 16-yard, second-quarter pass from Ron Lancaster to Hugh Campbell. 

“I’m not bragging,” a chuckling Campbell said during a recent interview, “but if Ronnie hadn’t thrown me that touchdown pass, we would have lost by 33.” 

It was a blowout either way, but the margin proved to be crucial. 

When the teams collided again just two days later in Regina, the Roughriders needed to win by at least 27 points. 

Sure enough, the home side prevailed 39-12 — thank goodness for the Lancaster-to-Campbell major in Calgary — and advanced to the conference final against the B.C. Lions. 

By game’s end, Taylor Field was packed. It was a different story at the outset, because a victory in the two-game set had been widely conceded to Calgary by many observers of the gridiron game. 

When Dale West’s parents informed him that they would not be travelling from Saskatoon to Regina for Game 2, due in part to a less-than-promising weather forecast, the second-year Roughrider replied: “Too bad. You’re going to miss a hell of a game.” 

The tone was set on the first play from scrimmage, when Lancaster found Ray Purdin for a 76-yard touchdown. 

The “sleeper play,” which was later outlawed by the CFL, called for Purdin to inconspicuously hang around the sideline until the ball was snapped. 

The ploy worked. By the time anyone from the Stampeders noticed him, he was wide open and about to haul in a pass from Lancaster. 

“When they came out with the sleeper play on the sidelines, we were pretty shook up,” legendary Stampeders linebacker Wayne Harris told me during an interview on Dec. 28, 2007. 

Purdin’s touchdown, followed by a Frank Tripucka convert, quickly pared Calgary’s lead to 19 points.  

By halftime, the Roughriders’ deficit had been reduced to 10 — and the crowd had increased by several thousand spectators. 

While the game was in progress, fans in the stands could see headlights all around the stadium, as people frantically made their way to the stadium. 

The Roughriders continued to close the gap, which they finally overcame with two minutes left in the game. Reed’s 10-yard touchdown run gave Saskatchewan a 48-47 advantage after 118 minutes of football. 

Two minutes is an eternity in Canadian professional football. With more than enough time to march into range for a game-winning field goal, the Stampeders did precisely that. 

It came down to the final play, on which Larry Robinson lined up for a 35-yard field goal. 

The kick barely missed the uprights. The Roughriders’ Gene Wlasiuk retrieved the football, whereupon he faced the imperative of ensuring that Calgary did not register a game-tying rouge. 

Before Wlasiuk could be tackled in the end zone, he punted the football out of danger. 

Robinson fielded the kick on Saskatchewan’s 40-yard line and attempted to boot the football back into the end zone. 

Robinson, under heavy pressure from onrushing Roughriders, could only watch as the ball sailed out of bounds at the 25-yard line. 

All this time, I was just standing next to (veteran receiver) Jack Gotta and if he clapped, I clapped,” said Campbell, who had joined the Roughriders just two months earlier. 

“I thought Jack Gotta was the oldest man playing football in history, because he had played nine years or something. He kind of took me under his wing the first few weeks.  

“If he was happy, I was happy. If he was worried, I was worried. At the end, everybody was cheering, so I figured we had won it.” 

Not since 1956 had the Roughriders emerged victorious from a playoff series. 

Seven years before the “Little Miracle,” Saskatchewan had also won a two-game, first-round set, thanks largely to a 42-7 victory over the visiting Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Game 1. Winnipeg won Game 2, by a 19-8 count, but was outscored 50-26 over the two games. 

The events of seven years later were much more suspenseful. 

“That one was a fluke,’’ Lancaster, who threw for 492 yards and five touchdowns on Nov. 11, 1963, said in a 2007 interview.  

“When we were down 26 points in ’63 going into the second game of a total-point series, that’s a fluke. You shouldn’t win. But, on the other hand, if you’re going to play the game, you don’t play the game to lose, either. You play to win. 

“Things happen. Sometimes you get lucky at it and sometimes you don’t. That particular day, it was our day and we got it done.” 

Therefore, the Roughriders were far from done. 

In fact, they would play three more games in 1963. 

After the Lions won 19-7 at Taylor Field to open the best-of-three West final, the Roughriders evened the series four days later with a 13-8 victory at Empire Stadium in Vancouver. 

In Game 3 — the Roughriders’ fifth playoff contest in a span of 14 days — the Lions cruised to a 36-1 victory. 

There was, however, one more remarkable finish to come. 

When the Roughriders arrived at the Regina airport at 2:30 on a frigid Sunday morning, they were welcomed home by nearly 2,000 people.  

“We never expected anything like this,” Lancaster told the Regina Leader-Post after speaking to the crowd. 

“It was awful late and awful cold. It’s hard to believe so many people would come out to greet us. It really made us feel good. 

“There’s not a team anywhere with better fans than these.”