Still unimaginable four decades later

Imagine having a Canadian Football League team with a Super Bowl quarterback, three first-round NFL draft picks (including the No. 1 pick overall), a Pro Bowl MVP and a wide receiver who averaged 600 yards over six NFL seasons. Now imagine how many games that team might win in one CFL season.

How about three?

With those six talented and decorated players, the 1981 Montreal Alouettes lost 13 games, most of them comfortably. Painfully, I was part of the radio broadcast for all 16, starting with a season-opening 48-8 loss in B.C., followed by slaughters of 58-2 in Winnipeg, 62-11 in Edmonton and 29-3 in Calgary.

This was a starting line-up that featured quarterback Vince Ferragamo, who two years earlier almost won a Super Bowl; first-round draft picks linebacker Tom Cousineau (No. 1), running back David Overstreet (No. 13) and defensive end Keith Gary (No. 17); NFL punt return all-star Billy (White Shoes) Johnson; and Chicago Bears’ exceptional receiver James Scott.

It was unimaginable then that a team so good could be so bad, and four decades later it still is.

It was that bad, yet it almost wasn’t.

The Grey Cup has never featured a team with only three wins, and it won’t in two weeks, simply because 3-win teams never even make the playoffs…but that 3-win team did. The first of its victories was 23-22 over Toronto and it gave the Alouettes a playoff spot, with one win more than the Argos. That almost gave them a Grey Cup appearance.

In the conference semi-final, at Lansdowne Park in Ottawa, the Als lost 20-16 to the Rough Riders, who then eliminated Hamilton before losing the Grey Cup to Edmonton 26-23, on a field goal as time expired. Personal note: football “experts” are always asked for predictions and this was the closest I ever came. I predicted overtime.

How close did the Alouettes come? They were ahead 16-10 at half-time and — according to the game chart I still have —were at the Ottawa 7-yard-line when time ran out. It was their best game of the season, which didn’t say much, and the first time they looked like “a team.”

That 20-16 defeat, however, was the final chapter for many stories.

Ferragamo, then the third-string quarterback, watched from the press box. It was also the end for (a) Scott, a CFL All-Star; (b) Cousineau, who’d be in the CFL Hall of Fame had he stayed; (c) Johnson, who took his “Funky Chicken” end zone dance back to the NFL; and (d) the Alouettes, who folded and re-surfaced as “Concordes” for four years before being re-branded as Alouettes in 1986.

Overstreet, the East’s Rookie of the Year who died in a fiery car crash before he turned 26, and Gary played one year as Concordes before making it in the NFL.

Never had the expected for a CFL team become more unexpected.