March 19, 2024

Joe was a true pro: Paopao signed here 40 years ago

Photo courtesy of Bill Dubecky, Royal Studios

Forty years ago today, the Throwin’ Samoan became the Signin’ Reginan.

Joe Paopao, who joined the Saskatchewan Roughriders on March 19, 1984, was one of the first marquee free-agent additions in franchise history — back at a time when players didn’t test the open market nearly as often as they do now.

Paopao became a notable exception when he signed a four-year deal with Saskatchewan.

“He’s the catalyst we’ve been looking for — the veteran quarterback we’ve been seeking,” then-General Manager John Herrera told reporters after the signing of Paopao was announced at Taylor Field.

“He’s one of the premier quarterbacks in the Canadian Football League.”

Paopao had spent his previous six CFL seasons with the B.C. Lions, for whom he had thrown for 3,777 yards and 28 touchdowns in 1981. Subsequent injury issues had opened the door for Roy Dewalt to become the Lions’ starter. Paopao then explored other opportunities and Saskatchewan was a comfortable fit.

Herrera had been the Lions’ Director of Player Personnel before joining the Roughriders on Dec. 8, 1982. After firing Head Coach Joe Faragalli in August of 1983, Herrera named Reuben Berry the Roughriders’ new field boss.

“Rube came in and made every effort to bring me in,” Paopao, 68, recalls from his home in Oceanside, Calif. “I think he wanted someone to bring in some stability.

“In the years before, the Riders had guys like (quarterback) Joe (747) Adams and they were lighting it up. They had receivers like Chris DeFrance and Joey Walters. They had some dudes, but you’ve still got to play defence and you’ve got to be solid in all three phases.”

A solid offer led to Paopao informing Berry that, yes, he would be joining the Roughriders. Not long after a verbal commitment was made, Paopao was contacted by his high-powered agent, Leigh Steinberg.

“Leigh called me and said the Chicago Bears were interested,” Paopao says. “The USFL had started up and they’d depleted all the backup quarterbacks in the NFL.

“So when Leigh told me that Chicago had called, I said, ‘I told the coach in Saskatchewan that I was going to come. I’m not going to back out on my word.’

“The next year, Chicago won the Super Bowl.”

Steinberg, who was the inspiration for the movie “Jerry Maguire,” has represented legendary athletes such as Patrick Mahomes, Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Smith and Oscar De La Hoya over the past 50 years.

“I didn’t even know who he was, really,” Paopao, who played college football at Long Beach State, says with a chuckle.

“My roommate was with the Raiders and he had Leigh (as an agent). My roommate said, ‘Pao, what are you going to do?’ I’d never had an agent. He said, ‘Hey, let’s call my guy — Leigh Steinberg. He has quarterbacks.’ He had Steve Bartkowski, who went Number 1 to the Atlanta Falcons (in 1975), and he had Warren Moon as well.

“Leigh was an interesting guy. His dad was in the military and he found out that my dad was in the military, too. We met and he said, ‘This is what I can do for you and this is what I believe in.’

“The interesting thing was you didn’t sign a contract with Leigh. He said, ‘Joe, I just believe in people’s word.’ ”

The Roughriders gave the fans a reason to believe as Paopao’s first season with the team progressed.

Photos courtesy of Bill Dubecky, Royal Studios


It wasn’t the smoothest start, as evidenced by a 1-6-1 record at mid-season. The fan unrest, fuelled by seven consecutive non-playoff seasons, was such that “Paopao is close to having his sweater number unlisted,” Regina Leader-Post legend Bob Hughes joked.

But then the Roughriders rallied, with Paopao playing an integral role in a 5-1-0 run that included a four-game winning streak. For the first time since 1977, the Roughriders were in the playoff conversation in mid-October, only to lose back-to-back games to conclude the 1984 campaign.

The 1985 season began on an auspicious note for Saskatchewan, which won four of its first seven games.

For starters, Saskatchewan defeated the Ottawa Rough Riders 46-22, with Paopao throwing for 426 yards and two TDs. Five days later, he amassed 438 aerial yards against the host Toronto Argonauts.

Until July of 1985, a Roughriders quarterback had produced only six 400-yard games in more than 50 years since the introduction of the forward pass.

Paopao made it seven and eight 400-yarders in short order.

Then came a July 19, 1985 game versus the visiting Montreal Concordes, against whom Paopao set the Roughriders’ single-game record for completions (38). That total is now fourth on the team’s all-time list, with Kent Austin holding the top three spots (with 41, 40 and 39) due to his passing prowess in the early 1990s.

After the Roughriders’ first six games of 1985, Paopao was leading the CFL in completions (133) and passing yards (1,709), but an injury to his left calf muscle sidelined him for two games and part of a third.

Saskatchewan won its first game without Paopao, thanks to a career-best performance by Homer Jordan, but a 1-8-0 skid ensued.

“We had a really good start, but we just couldn’t get back to that consistently,” Paopao laments. “That’s the way sports are and that’s the way it goes sometimes.”

Paopao returned as the starter in 1986 and helped to engineer one of the classic finishes in Roughriders history.

On Aug. 31, 1986, he threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to Ray Elgaard to give Saskatchewan a 34-30 victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Labour Day Classic.

In the final minute, Paopao lacerated the Blue Bombers’ secondary for four consecutive completions, the last of which was the deep toss to Elgaard. The star slotback crossed the goal line with 22 seconds left.

“Touchdown, good guys,” Paopao says. “Wow, that was special.”

Elgaard reflected on the impact of that play when he was interviewed for The Greatest Grey Cup Ever — my book on the 1989 Roughriders.

“In ’83, it was a mess,” Elgaard said of his rookie season. “In ’86, it was getting better.

“We had a veteran quarterback like Joe. We were fighting to win some games and some good things started to happen. Maybe that game (against Winnipeg) was one of them.

“We couldn’t keep it going long enough to get into the playoffs, but we were starting to do some of those kinds of things more often than we had in the past — win the game at the end with a big play. That’s when it started to change a little bit.

“Joe was a big factor in that. He was a pro quarterback and he had that sort of way about him. He wasn’t going to put up with anything less. That was part of the positive changes.”

Although the 1986 Roughriders went 6-11-1, some important pieces were already in place for a team that sported an 11-7-0 slate in 1988 and won the Grey Cup a year later.

Considerable credit should go to Herrera (the GM in 1983 and 1984) and Bill Quinter (GM, 1985-86), along with Jack Gotta (Head Coach, 1985-86) for their roles in recruiting and developing foundational players.

It was Herrera, after all, who pulled off two all-time CFL Draft steals by using second-round choices to claim Elgaard (in 1983) and safety Glen Suitor (1984).

Under Herrera, the Roughriders also recruited Eddie Lowe, who starred at linebacker from 1983 to 1991, and added a cornerstone offensive lineman (Mike Anderson).

The importance of signing Paopao has already been noted.


After Gotta and Quinter took over, more key players arrived, such as rush end Bobby Jurasin, defensive tackle Gary Lewis, running back Tim McCray, offensive lineman Ken Moore, cornerback Harry Skipper and middle linebacker Dave Albright.

Gotta and Quinter were dismissed after the 1986 season, when Bill Baker was installed as the GM.

One of Baker’s first major moves was an April 21, 1987 trade that sent Paopao to Ottawa for fellow quarterback Tom Burgess.

Paopao was traded again on May 10, 1988, when he was sent to Winnipeg for linebacker Darrell Patterson. The Bombers released Paopao on his 33rd birthday — June 30, 1988.

Paopao returned to the Lions when he was hired as the Quarterbacks Coach in 1989, the same year in which Saskatchewan won the second Grey Cup title in franchise history.

Even though Paopao was two provinces and three years removed from Saskatchewan at the time, he was excited for former teammates who had endured the tough years and were ultimately rewarded with a championship.

“There’s a warm glow in my heart when I think of guys like Roger Aldag and Suits and Robokicker (Dave Ridgway) and everyone,” Paopao says.

“There were a bunch of guys who put in their time and their ship came in that year. I was in the so-called foxhole with those guys and they were quality people.

“We had a lot of quality players. For whatever reason, we could never put it together, but the next generation came in right after us and got it done.”

Burgess, for whom Paopao was dealt in 1987, played a major role in the success of the 1989 Roughriders. In addition to leading the team in touchdown passes (22), Burgess replaced an injured Austin in the second quarter of the West Division final in Edmonton and helped the John Gregory-coached Saskatchewan side win 32-21.

Austin was back behind centre for the 77th Grey Cup Game and ended up earning offensive MVP honours after throwing for 474 yards and three touchdowns in a 43-40 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Although Burgess didn’t see action in that game, he did notice a vulnerability in the Tiger-Cats’ defence and therefore suggested a play that turned out to be a 75-yard TD bomb from Austin to Jeff Fairholm.

“When I was there, it wasn’t our time,” Paopao says. “But they got Tom and Coach Gregory and those guys and they were able to turn it around and win the Grey Cup.

“What a game. That’s one of the greatest CFL games ever.”

Paopao would soon meet one of the greatest CFL players ever — Doug Flutie.

After spending one year on the Lions’ coaching staff, Paopao returned to active duty in 1990 and shared the quarterbacking duties with Flutie during the latter’s first season of Canadian professional football.

Flutie threw for 2,960 yards and 16 touchdowns in 392 attempts as a first-year member of the Lions. Paopao was close behind in TD throws (14) despite attempting 168 fewer passes than Flutie. As well, Paopao threw only seven interceptions, whereas Flutie was picked off 19 times.

Following a successful comeback season, Paopao went into coaching full-time.

He was the Lions’ Quarterbacks Coach in 1991 before spending two seasons as B.C’s Offensive Co-ordinator (O.C.).

He then called plays in Edmonton in 1995 before being named the Lions’ Head Coach in 1996.

His CFL resume also includes time spent with the Blue Bombers (O.C., 1997 and 1998), Lions (O.C., 1999 and 2000; Receivers Coach, 2014), Ottawa Renegades (Head Coach, 2002 to 2005), Tiger-Cats (O.C., 2006) and Ottawa REDBLACKS (Quarterbacks Coach/Play Caller, 2019).

“I went back to Ottawa (in 2019) as a coach and to go back to the new stadium in Regina was pretty cool,” Paopao says. “It was, ‘Wow! Look at the new stadium!’

“I remember Taylor Field. That’s historic. You can’t replace it. You do, eventually. That’s part of change. But I remember those coloured seats and thinking, ‘That’s something different.’

“There was the legacy when I got there … Ron Lancaster. You read about all the great players and the great players that they had.”

Regina has also impacted the Paopao family legacy. Joe and his wife, Dotti, have three Vancouver-born sons (Tyler, Andrew and Carson) and one daughter (Kristin).

“Kristin was born in Regina,” her proud father says.

“For my wife and I, we have so many great memories of Regina. We lived near Gordon Road and Argyle and some of our fondest memories are of our neighbours — good, honest people who had a genuine care about things.

“I remember going outside one morning and the snow line was right above my roof line, almost. Someone came over and cleaned up my driveway.”

That “someone” was Roughriders teammate Bob Poley.

“Canadians are the sweetest people in this world, but don’t mistake their kindness for weakness,” Paopao continues. “They’re not soft. Don’t tell Roger Aldag that he’s soft. Don’t tell Bob Poley that he’s soft. There was Neil Quilter, Lawrie Skolrood, Gerry Hornett … we had some dudes on that team. Ray Elgaard, he’s not soft.”

There is a soft spot, though, when Paopao thinks of his three years with the Roughriders.

“I’ve got really great memories because of the people and a lot of great thoughts about Saskatchewan,” concludes Paopao, who is still involved in football as a high school coach.

“I didn’t get a ring, but it just wasn’t our time. I refused to go down a negative path. I just tried to keep positive and keep working.

“If you do it right, good things will happen.”