Many sportswriters and football fanatics descending on Indy for the Super Bowl this week share Swanson’s frustration. The largest landlocked city in America is not especially cosmopolitan, a reputation Jon Bois lampooned in his Super Bowl culinary preview.* What the Crossroads of America lacks in charm, though, its downtown makes up for in accessibility, a trait Will Leitch advises his colleagues not to overlook. For a fun football weekend, all fans need is a stadium they can reach without hassle, a few drinks, and unbridled enthusiasm.
In 1948, a merry band of cowboys from Alberta, Canada proved that point when they visited Toronto to cheer on the Calgary Stampeders in the Grey Cup, the title game of the Canadian Football League. It was a charmed season for the franchise, which had rejoined the CFL (with a new team name) just three years prior. First-year head coach Les Lear—a tough bastard who played in four Grey Cups as a player for Winnipeg and was the first Canadian to star in the NFL—transformed Calgary’s roster, bringing on four “gnarly old pros” from the States who would make key contributions all year. Among the American imports was 34-year-old Woody Strode, a half-Native American, half-black defensive end from California who played with Jackie Robinson at UCLA before integrating the NFL in 1946. Strode was named an all-pro for anchoring Lear’s 4-3 defensive scheme, a formation that was used sparingly north of the border and routinely confused opposing coaches.
On the other side of the ball, the Stampeders relied on the rocket arm of Keith Spaith, the first NFL-style quarterback to join a CFL team. It was easy to convince Spaith to sign with the club; the year before, he and several other teammates on the Hawaiian Warriors were banned indefinitely from the Pacific Coast League for betting a combined $6,700 on their own team in the league championship tilt. (They didn't cover a 14-point spread and then were caught and penalized by league officials, which just seems cruel.) With Spaith under center, Lear employed an aerial attack the likes of which Canadian defenses had not seen. On the year, QB1 threw for 1,246 yards, almost 1,100 more than the Stamps’ previous passing leader. Regina and Winnipeg, the two other squads in the Western Division, could not match Calgary’s athleticism or creativity, and the Stamps rolled off 12-straight victories, the first (and only) team in CFL history to finish the regular season undefeated. “We were outlaws,” Strode later said. “We were the misfits, but we’d gone into a foreign country and become the kings over football.”
With a Grey Cup matchup against the Ottawa Rough Riders looming, football fever swept through Alberta, a province of homesteading farmers and ranchers in the midst of its first oil boom. Not content to listen to the game on the radio, several town members met at the Petroleum Club to make arrangements for a championship trip. The idea was to give Toronto a taste of Calgary: on a 13-car train, they packed horses, a chuckwagon, a western band, Sarcee tribe members dressed in full native regalia, 250 fans in western attire, and an enormous supply of beer donated by Calgary Breweries. For three days, the party didn’t stop. As the train pulled into tiny towns along the route, the celebration would spill out onto the platform, giving passengers the chance to “bribe the conductor to hold the train for a little while longer so they could send somebody to the liquor store to replenish the rapidly dwindling stock.” And when they arrived in Toronto 72 hours later, morning commuters were confused to see “cowboys, Indians, square dancers, and horses pouring off the train from the West.”
The game lived up to the Calgarians’ lofty expectations. In front of 20,013 fans, the Stamps—written off as “young, lightweight, and inexperienced” by the Eastern press corp—relied on trickery to secure its first lead. Driving deep into Ottawa territory in the second quarter, Spaith completed a pass to Strode on one side of the field. Receiver Norm Hill, standing yards away from the play on the other side of the field, immediately dropped to the ground near the new line of scrimmage. The Rough Riders, scrambling to reset its defense, lost track of him. Before they could find the 11th Stamp, Spaith called for the ball and floated a fluttery pass toward the hidden Hill, who slipped on his way into the endzone but caught the pigskin from the seat of his pants. In the biggest game of their lives, Lear’s boys had executed a controversial “sleeper play,” and their boldness was rewarded with a 6-1 advantage.
The Stamps’ winning score was preceded by a play almost as bizarre as the “sit-down touchdown.” Deep into the fourth quarter, hanging onto a thin lead, Ottawa’s quarterback tossed a screen pass that landed wide of its target. The Rough Riders assumed the pass was incomplete, but the ball actually fell to the ground behind the line of scrimmage. Strode alertly grabbed the football, looked around to make sure the referee had not whistled the play dead, and rumbled all the way down to the Ottawa 11-yard line, the beneficiary of a botched lateral. Rookie halfback Pete Thodos busted into the endzone on the next play to secure a 12-7 victory.
The fans who had made the boozy cross-country journey to cheer on their Stampeders took the inevitable celebration seriously. Globe and Mail reporter Jim Coleman watched on (November 29, 1948) as fans tore down the goalposts and walked them into the lobby of the swanky Royal York Hotel, where several party members had rented rooms. Men on horseback soon followed. The Winnipeg Free Press (November 16, 2006) later described the carnival as a “collision between highbrow hotel manners and rodeo-style rabble-rousing.” “The gaudily caparisoned Calgary supporters were boisterous and noisy,” Coleman added, “but well-behaved and courteously declined to ride their horses into the elevators.”
A Stamps' surprise win and the ensuing exploits of their wild Albertan fans made the Grey Cup relevant. These days, it’s Canada's largest annual sports event, attracting millions of television viewers and drawing tens of thousands of diehards to the host city each year in search of a “Mardi Gras-like atmosphere.” Hill, who caught the “sit-down” score, is convinced his team’s triumph put the growing city of Calgary on the map, too. "It was the beginning of Calgary, in a sense," he told the Calgary Herald years later (November 18, 2008). “There was a sense of progress in the city that whole year. Of purpose. The belief that anything was possible. "You could actually feel the adventurous western spirit beginning to build, to take shape.”
*To make “Shish-Ke-Bobby Knights,” mash ground beef into tiny balls, boil the meat until it takes on a “wonderful grey hue,” and skewer the spheres onto dowel rods.