February 11, 2024

Saskatchewan became home for Super Bowl champion Robert Holmes

When the Kansas City Chiefs first won a Super Bowl, Robert Holmes was the first to carry the football.

In fact, the Chiefs’ first two running plays were both up-the-middle surges by Holmes, who helped Kansas City defeat the favoured Minnesota Vikings 24-7 on Jan. 11, 1970 at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans.

When Holmes was next part of a team that competed in a championship game, he was a Saskatchewan Roughrider and the year was 1976.

“I remember seeing him come into the dressing room and he didn’t look like an NFL running back,” recalls a chuckling Jim Hopson, who was an offensive lineman with the Green and White from 1973 to 1976.

“He was about 230 pounds, he was carrying a bit of extra weight, and he looked like a bowling ball.”

Hence the nickname: Tank.

The 5-foot-9 Holmes spent four seasons (1968 to 1971) with the Chiefs before seeing subsequent National Football League duty with the Houston Oilers (1971-72) and San Diego Chargers (1973 and 1975). In 1974, he played in the short-lived World Football League.

As a rookie with the Chiefs, Holmes rushed for 866 yards in 14 American Football League regular-season games. He scored seven touchdowns — a total he matched with San Diego in 1973.

By 1976, though, he was nearing 31 and, apparently, the end of the line.

He was released by Houston on the first weekend of September and soon cleared NFL waivers.

Next stop: Saskatchewan.

He began a five-day trial with the Roughriders on Sept. 28, 1976.

“A lot of us were a little bit in awe,” Hopson says. “He had played in the NFL for a long time and we were thinking, ‘Robert Holmes … my goodness!’ ”

Despite having such impressive credentials — not to mention a Super Bowl ring — Holmes didn’t big-league anyone or carry on like the CFL was beneath him.

“He had a big smile and he was very friendly … a good guy,” Hopson says.

“I remember that him and I and Steve Mazurak went out for beers after practice one day. Robert said, ‘Where are you from?’ I said, ‘Regina.’ He said, ‘Regina?! I thought you were an American!’

“That was the best compliment I ever received in my life. Robert Holmes had played in the NFL and he thought I was an American!”

A number of American running backs had played for the Roughriders of 1976 when Holmes joined the team.

Pete Van Valkenburg was the opening-day starter at halfback, alongside fullback Steve Molnar. John Washington and Keith Barnette also got a look at halfback over the first few months of the season.

Barnette scored two touchdowns on Sept. 26, 1976 against the Calgary Stampeders but, alas, he also suffered a season-ending knee injury in that home game. Holmes arrived two days later.

On Oct. 2, 1976, Holmes dressed as the designated import against the host Winnipeg Blue Bombers and was summoned for on-field duty after Van Valkenburg struggled.

Holmes ended up rushing for a team-high 37 yards on five carries, the first of which was a 15-yarder.

Van Valkenburg was soon released, clearing the way for Holmes to receive his first CFL start.

He seized the opportunity, rushing 21 times for 101 yards in a 34-3 victory over the visiting Toronto Argonauts on Oct. 10, 1976, five days after his 31st birthday. As well, he caught three passes for 60 yards, including a 42-yarder.

Holmes drew another start a week later, rushing 16 times for 43 yards in a 28-15 victory over the B.C. Lions in Vancouver.

Three days later, another American running back (Molly McGee) arrived on a five-day trial. McGee was quickly activated and elevated to front-line duty for the final two regular-season games, with Holmes returning to the role of designated import.

McGee rushed for a career-high 144 yards on Nov. 7, 1976, when the Roughriders rallied for a 33-31 victory over the host Calgary Stampeders and clinched first place in the Western Conference.

McGee added another 100 yards — 44 fewer than Molnar — when the Roughriders ran over the visitors from Edmonton in the West final, won 23-13 by the locals at Taylor Field.

With the running game purring and quarterback Ron Lancaster enjoying a season that would be rewarded with his second decoration as the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player, Saskatchewan was heavily favoured to defeat the Ottawa Rough Riders in the 64th Grey Cup Game, to be played at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto.

Leading up to the championship contest, Roughriders Head Coach John Payne had a decision to make.

Slotback Tom Campana, who had suffered stretched ankle ligaments in the regular-season finale at McMahon Stadium, was healthy enough to return to the lineup.

However, the receiving corps was faring quite well with Canadian-born Leif Pettersen playing slotback in place of Campana as part of a receiving corps that also included wideouts Rhett Dawson and Steve Mazurak and tight end Bob Richardson.

Somehow, some way, Payne wanted to find room on the active roster for Campana, who ultimately served as the designated import for the fateful final game of the 1976 season.

As luck would have it, McGee suffered a rib injury in the first half and was unable to return to the game.

Campana, who was neither 100 per cent nor a running back by trade, was next in line.

With the game on the line, the Roughriders stuffed a quarterback sneak by Ottawa’s Tom Clements on third and goal from the one-yard line in the final minute.

One first down by Saskatchewan on the ensuing possession would have enabled the Roughriders to exhaust most, if not all, of the time that had remained.

Back-to-back carries by Campana — who rushed four times for four yards on the day — did not enable Saskatchewan to move the chains.

The Roughriders were forced to punt and, well, if you have read this far, you probably know the rest.

With 20 seconds remaining, Tony Gabriel caught a 24-yard touchdown pass from Clements. Gerry Organ’s convert gave Ottawa a 23-20 lead that held up as the final score.

Nearly 50 years later, Hopson still wonders “what if …?” when he thinks of that game.

“I really believe that we win the Grey Cup in ’76 if we dress Robert Holmes,” Hopson says.

The ’76 Grey Cup Game was played two months to the day after Holmes arrived in Regina.

Even in that short time, he developed an attachment to this part of the world.

After the 1976 season — his last in professional football — Holmes moved back to Texas, but he moved back to Saskatchewan in the early 1980s.

He ended up settling in Belle Plaine, just west of Regina, and making this province his permanent home.

“He was happy here,” Hopson says. “He worked in construction and lived a simple life.

“He had played about as long as you can play in the States (as a running back) and he was a legitimate star. If he had wanted, he could have used his fame to his advantage, but I wouldn’t doubt that a number of people out there (in Grand Coulee) didn’t even know that he had played for the Kansas City Chiefs.”

Most memorably, he played for them in the fourth Super Bowl, carrying the ball five times for seven yards while attempting to find holes in a formidable Vikings defensive line that included Jim Marshall — who had made his pro football debut in 1959 as a member of the Roughriders.

Like Holmes, Marshall’s games-played total with Saskatchewan was in the single digits.

Over nine games, he was used primarily on the defensive line, although he lined up on offence on occasion.

The highlight: An eight-yard touchdown pass Marshall caught while lining up as an eligible receiver on Aug. 29, 1959 at Taylor Field.

That touchdown was scored against a Winnipeg team that was coached by Bud Grant, who would subsequently spend 18 seasons as the Vikings’ field boss. For 13 of those seasons, Marshall was a starter on a formidable Vikings defensive line that came to be known as the Purple People Eaters.

Marshall found time to dine in Super Bowl VI, registering five defensive tackles in addition to sacking Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson for an eight-yard loss.

The game ultimately went in the books as a surprising loss for the Vikings, who were 13-point favourites.

As a result of that upset victory, Robert Holmes was forever a Super Bowl champion.

He was 72 when he passed away on April 14, 2018.