An Interview with the Last Canadian Quarterback
From the Sens’ legendary ‘Hamburgler’ streak last spring, to the Fury’s impossible season, and the Redblacks playing for the Grey Cup this weekend, Ottawa’s sports teams have had more success in 2015 than we know how to handle.
To reflect on some of Ottawa’s past sporting triumphs, and to celebrate the Redblacks’ stunning year, Ottawa Life Magazine called up former Ottawa Rough Riders quarterback and Canadian football icon Russ Jackson. In a sport increasingly dominated by Americans, no Canadian before or since has led teams and won seasons like Russ Jackson did. Jackson played with the Ottawa Rough Riders for 12 years and led them through the team’s golden age, including 3 Grey Cup wins. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1973 and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1975, and he’s a member of the Order of Canada.
We spoke with Jackson last Sunday, just before the Redblack’s win against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, to talk about his legacy, the new team and how a coin-toss decided his entire career.
Ottawa Life: So Russ, you already have a pretty unmatched legacy in Canadian football, is there anything you still want to add to it?
Russ Jackson: I think I’ve reached that plateau. Being a Canadian who played quarterback, which was a very unusual situation in the Canadian football league, I think that I left a legacy that is still talked about in the sense that no one else has come along in the last 40 or 50 years to play first-string quarterback for a CFL team for any length of time.
That’s still my legacy, they still talk about that—that I’m the ‘last Canadian quarterback,’ and ‘when will the next come along?’ So I believe that my legacy has been written, I don’t think there’s anything else to add to it now and I’m very proud of it.
And in your 12-year career with the Rough Riders, how long did you play as their quarterback?
Well I started in 1958 as the defensive back and I was sort of the third string quarterback. Ahead of me they had two Americans, Hal Ledyard and Tom Dimitroff, and they both got hurt, one broke his leg and one broke his arm. So during that ’58 season I was the only show in town. So I got a chance to play, had success, and basically from then on I was playing quarterback. Not all the time, because I was sharing it with an American, but then in the early ‘60s I took over as the first-string quarterback and played all the games. Throughout my 12-year career I only missed one game, because [of] broken ribs.
Wait, broken ribs and you only missed one game? Was it at the end of the season?
No that was in the middle of the season. In those days you played when you were hurt, a little bit more than you do now.
So it was a bit of chance that those people were injured and you were able to play quarterback. Do you think you would have eventually been given the long-term position even if that hadn’t happened?
Yeah, that’s something that no one knows. I mean, these things happen and if you take the advantages you get you have that opportunity to succeed and play the position you want. But would it have happened if they hadn’t gotten hurt? I really can’t answer that.
You look back at your life and there are things that you don’t think of as being important at the time, but as you look back 50 years later you say ‘that was really influential on my life.’
I can recite one other one. When I was graduating from McMaster University, the BC Lions had the first draft pick. I know the general manager was trying to decide whether to pick Russ Jackson or an outstanding running back from Western University by the name of Bill Britton. And as the story goes as I heard it, it came right down to the GM making the choice. He flipped a coin, and it came up Bill Britton.
So he drafted Bill Britton, I ended up in Ottawa, and I look back and say ‘if the coin came up Russ Jackson I never would have gotten the chance to play quarterback.’ You don’t look at them at the time as being important but you look back now and say wow, would you be talking to me now?
It seems like the sort of thing that could keep you up at night.
As long as it turns out well, they wake you up but you smile. If they didn’t turn out well they wake you up but you don’t smile.
You’ve said before that while you were with the Rough Riders teaching was your job and football was your hobby. Was it common for football players to have two jobs back then, or was that something you did a little bit differently?
No it was common. We didn’t get paid a whole lot actually, most athletes, whether they played hockey in the NHL or football in the CFL, salaries weren’t like they are now. Most players had a second job. Education was really good because training camps didn’t start until the July first weekend and if you were a teacher you were on holidays over summer.
It made it really great because when you retired you’d already put 10 or 12 years into a profession and you moved right into it as you left. That worked out well.
So the Rough Riders didn’t end up lasting forever, are you happy to see that Ottawa has a new team?
Oh it’s great, and to think that last year in their beginning they went two and 16 and this year here they are in first place playing this weekend to see if they can get to the Grey Cup. I mean it’s just a fantastic start to the new franchise, the Redblacks. I give the players and coaches and the ownership all the credit for getting it organized and getting a competitive team together very quickly.
It really is amazing. You led the Rough Riders in what is considered their most dominant era, the 60s through to the early 70s. During that time did it really feel like you were on top? Was there a lot of energy there?
Oh yes, I mean people often talk about it being the Golden Years. It was the only show in town professionally. The fans were behind you, they almost felt like they had a part of you. In those days players basically played for one team, and part of it is due to the fact that we did hold jobs down in the city and salaries weren’t high. There wasn’t an extra million dollars to trade someone like they could now. Nobody’s going to give up their job or a chance to play football in Ottawa for an extra $500 or $1000.
People stayed in the town, they stayed with one team and I think that helped make it into the Golden Years because the fans almost felt they had ownership of the players. They knew them, they knew who they were, they recognized them on the street. It’s different now because players move around more.
I think it was not just in Ottawa but most of the CFL cities, that the ‘60s and early ‘70s were looked at as the Golden Years. Now it’s not uncommon for a quarterback to have played for maybe three or four teams over his twelve or fourteen-year career and that changes things I think a little bit for the fans.
It’s changed a lot in other ways too. Today it seems like football players are getting injured a lot and retiring younger.
Yeah, well some of them are yeah. It’s a much tougher game. It’s like hockey, they’re getting bigger and bigger and the arena’s not getting any bigger. It seems like every game someone gets hurt.
So are you going to be watching the next Redblacks game?
Oh I’ll be there. I’m leaving for Ottawa tomorrow.
Was there anything else you’d like to add while we’re talking?
Not really…just that it was a great life, and I was thoroughly pleased that I had that opportunity to play professional sport and play football.