Ottawa’s football king: The enduring popularity of Russ Jackson


July 18, 2014 was a memorable evening for professional sports in Ottawa.

The Redblacks had played and lost two previous Canadian Football League regular-season contests, but this home game against the Toronto Argonauts was their first in Lansdowne Park’s rebuilt stadium, confirming the CFL’s return to the national capital after a nine-year absence.

A capacity-plus crowd of 24,326 included then-prime minister Stephen Harper, a season-ticket holder, and CFL commissioner Mark Cohon, not that it mattered to one unidentified gentleman. Instead, he shuffled past them with a beverage can in his left hand and extended his right to the occupant of the seat on Harper’s other side.

A living, breathing example of the finest of Ottawa professional football, Russ Jackson exchanged pleasantries with the beverage holder, who then resumed shuffling to his own seat. The Redblacks would eventually defeat the Argos 18-17 on the strength of six field goals by kicker Brett Maher.

‘We were like kids’

Three months later, Russ Jackson and his wife, Lois, made the short trip to Hamilton from Burlington for an October contest featuring the Redblacks and the host Tiger-Cats.

After the Redblacks lost 16-6, the Jacksons caught a lift back to their parked vehicle on a bus ferrying sponsors, fans and media to the airport for a return charter flight to Ottawa.

There was some applause as the Jacksons left the bus, the only audible cheers for any Ottawa-connected quarterback that night.

In contrast, many Redblacks players wore “who is that” expressions when Jackson dropped in unannounced at a training-camp workout the following June. He had travelled with Lois on her alumni weekend trip to Ottawa.

Redblacks head coach Rick Campbell certainly knew Jackson, though, and he invited the quarterback of the 1960, ’68 and ’69 Grey Cup-champion Rough Riders — and winner of three CFL outstanding player awards plus four more as top Canadian — to address Ottawa’s newest footballers.

Among the few players who immediately recognized Jackson, then 78, was another Cup-winning quarterback.

“We were like kids, like we walked onto an amateur football field here in Ottawa, and all of a sudden we’ve got the all-time great Russ Jackson walking on the field,” Henry Burris says.

“For me, I was wide-eyed and with a big smile on my face. I was like, ‘Wow!’ I’d heard so many stories about when he played, I’d seen so many clips from when he made key throws to help Ottawa win the Grey Cup back in 1969 and all the years when this (Rough Riders) team was competitive.”

Campbell, whose father Hugh had been a star receiver with the Saskatchewan Roughriders and later a CFL icon as Edmonton Eskimos coach and executive, briefly introduced Jackson as one of the all-time great Rough Riders, a great competitor and a CFL champion. His goal was to emphasize Ottawa’s pro football history for the players on a club entering just its second season.

“It mattered (then), and it still matters,” he says. “It’s always good to learn about the people that came before you and the history behind it. It just gives you a whole new level of respect for football in this town and this city and the fans and all that. You can’t get enough of that.

“Any time we have a chance to interact with him or (other) alumni, we’re going to take advantage of it.”

Legendary Rough Riders quarterback Russ Jackson chats with Redblacks head coach Rick Campbell during training camp at Carleton University in June 2015. TIM BAINES / POSTMEDIA

Mark Goudie, president and chief executive officer of Ottawa Sports & Entertainment Group, says the CFL franchise owners established simultaneous goals to “cut our own swath” and chart a new course for pro football in Ottawa while acknowledging the game’s history in the capital, both good and bad, with the Rough Riders (1876-1996) or short-lived Renegades (2002-2005).

To that end, OSEG regularly features Jackson in alumni events linked to Redblacks games.

“We had polarizing views from people, whether they thought we should be the reincarnation of the Rough Riders or have our new identity, and I think we did a good job of kind of walking that line and honouring the past, but looking progressively forward,” Goudie says. “And, when we honour the past, I think Russ Jackson is the best, most visible example of what Canadian football was in our history by virtue of the fact that he is Canadian, probably the most accomplished Canadian football player in league history, such a gracious man, and had the success that he did and spent his whole career with one team, which was the Rough Riders.”

‘You can’t really escape his legacy’

Brendan Gillanders, a Redblacks backup running back and special-teams regular from Orléans, is only 28 and a generation too young to have seen Jackson in action, but knows the reputation.

“I think there was a stretch of four, five, six years where he was the most exciting player in the league. I don’t think anyone would argue that,” Gillanders says. “He just kind of made things happen. He was a generational player. The city is lucky that we had a franchise player like that to get behind.

“Now you still have awards and stuff like that named after him. It’s like you said: Here in Ottawa, you can’t really escape his legacy.”

An example of that legacy is the Russ Jackson Award, presented annually to a Canadian university football player exemplifying academic achievement, football skill and citizenship. There are four regional winners, one from each member conference of U Sports.

The Ontario University Athletics recipient of the award was among those to be honoured during a luncheon in Hamilton a half-dozen years back when Ettore Lattanzio had his Russ Jackson moment.

“I’m in an elevator with my father and one of our coaches at uOttawa, and this gentleman walks in … nonchalant, quiet. And my dad goes to me, ‘Hey! You know who that is?’” says Lattanzio, a 28-year-old Ottawa native and Redblacks defensive tackle, lowering his voice to mimic Rosario Lattanzio’s whispers that day. “At the time, I didn’t really know him, I didn’t recognize him. And he goes, ‘That’s Russ Jackson!’ ‘Ohhhh … I didn’t realize.’ And then I did, and of course I was very, very proper and made sure it was all cool and everything. It was pretty cool to meet him.”

Not always a star, or a QB for that matter

Widely acknowledged as the best Canadian quarterback and perhaps the best Canadian player ever in the CFL, Russ Jackson wasn’t even regarded as the best prospect in the 1958 draft. Two ends, two halfbacks and one tackle were selected before the Rough Riders took the quarterback from Hamilton’s McMaster University … as a defensive back.

Jackson earned a spot on the 32-man roster as DB, but he was also third-string quarterback, which it turned out the Rough Riders would need that season because of injuries to American Hal Ledyard and Tom Dimitroff. Even so, a few more years — and a memorable 1963 transaction sending fellow hall of famer-to-be Ronnie Lancaster to Saskatchewan — would pass before Jackson entrenched himself as Ottawa’s starter.

Some of that CFL history would qualify as breaking news to Michael O’Connor.

The 23-year-old from Orléans is now a rookie quarterback with the Argonauts, who drafted him in the fourth round in 2019, 61 years after the Rough Riders selected Jackson from McMaster.

“My dad actually speaks very highly of him,” O’Connor says. “I’m definitely too young to have seen him play, but he tells me he’s one of the best ever to do it up here.

“Also, about three years ago, Coach (Pat) Tracey, who’s the defensive co-ordinator at UBC, he was kind of cleaning out his home there, downsizing, and he happened to give me one of his pictures he had, which was a photo of Russ Jackson, Danny McManus and Damon Allen (also long-time CFL quarterbacks).

“Actually, I had that up in my locker for the past three years, just kind of as motivation. Definitely, seeing what he did in his career, it’s something that, as someone I look up to, I look forward to playing one day, and I’m very fortunate to follow in his footsteps.”

Different era, different jobs

A half-century ago, CFL quarterbacking wasn’t a full-time gig, so, before going to practice each day, Russ Jackson went to school.

Hired as a Rideau High School math teacher after his first CFL season, Jackson later became Sir John A. Macdonald High School vice-principal in 1966 and Champlain High School principal in 1970, then Canterbury High School principal between 1973 and ’75.

Because Rough Riders practices were held in late afternoon, extracurriculars were restricted to the morning hours before classes commenced.

“Doing a detention with Mr. Jackson,” Jackson says, “you had to come in the morning because I left as soon as school was out. Within about 15 minutes, I was off to my practice and so on, so, if you were in trouble, the detention was like quarter to eight in the morning, not at four o’clock in the afternoon. That was always the way it was.”

That “way it was” frequently also involved post-practice film sessions focused on upcoming opponents at the behest of Rough Riders head coach Frank Clair.

Thus work days often lasted until 7 p.m., less of a family-related issue when Jackson cracked the roster in 1958, but he and Lois wed in 1960 and then came the births of a son and two daughters between 1962 and ’66.

“One of the reasons I left football was because it was a long day and you didn’t spend much time with the family. During the football season, you were gone from maybe 6:30, quarter to seven in the morning,” Jackson says.

“And the same with the parents. I met with parents in the morning as opposed to after school because I wasn’t able to stay around after school.”

He re-entered the CFL as Argonauts head coach in 1975, but, following two unsuccessful seasons, resumed work as an educator in Mississauga, Ont. He retired in 1994.

A September 1965 photo shows Russ Jackson with Rideau High School students, left to right, Dennis Devine, Ian Ritchie, Caroline Deeble, Francine Beaupre and Juliana McDonald. POSTMEDIA FILES

“My father (Dr. Harry Pullen), ironically, hired him,” former Rough Riders tight end Tom Pullen says. “First football player ever hired as a full-time teacher in the Ottawa board high school system, and he made a career out of education for himself.

“As fate would have it, I ended up playing with Russ in ’68 and ’69, when we won back to back Grey Cups in my first two years.”

After Pullen retired as superintendent of schools, his son was also hired as as an Ottawa teacher, so, like Jackson, he performed double duty until his last season with the 1975 Argos, who held mid-afternoon practices.

“When I started playing with him, when I was in the CFL, you had a following, you had a built-in cheerleading squad throughout the city,” Pullen says.

“I taught at Glebe Collegiate, he taught at Rideau. And Rideau, I don’t know what their enrolment was, but they had parents and so the parents knew that their son was being taught by this guy Russ Jackson, so it was that kind of exposure that he had.

“He was not from Ottawa, but he became like an Ottawa boy.”

Gerry Organ, another Grey Cup winner as a Rough Riders kicker in the post-Jackson years, calls the former quarterback a “centrepiece” of Ottawa football. Similar examples, he adds, include George Reed of the Roughriders and Bernie Faloney of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

According to Organ, that centrepiece status is based not only on performance, but also on character and community involvement.

“Russ played primarily in the ‘60s, I played primarily in the ’70s and ’80s, but even in those days we were community members,” Organ says. “Most of us had second jobs, most of us lived here, most of us had homes here, raised families here. That is all gone now. Look at our own (Redblacks) team here: Even in the last two years, everybody bailed and we had to sign a whole bunch of new people and then that didn’t work, so we had to sign another bunch of new people.

“The community aspect is gone, so iconic accomplishments are going to be very rare in the future because players are just not going to stick around. They’ve got one-year contracts, so they can go wherever they want, and the best players always want to go to the NFL, so there’s a bit of a disconnect now between the fan and the player, so it has to be based now on performance and success, not on character and community. That’s a big difference.”

Running wild, even as a QB

Jim Cain was a Rough Riders’ offensive lineman for nine seasons. Like Jackson, he retired following the 1969 championship.

Cain, who also worked at Statistics Canada, knows numbers. When he talks about the 1968-69 squads, he cites 36 athletes in total, but 29 who played both seasons as Rough Riders and eight subsequently inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame: Jackson, Jerry (Soupy) Campbell, Ken Lehmann, Don Sutherin, Moe Racine, Whit Tucker, Ronnie Stewart and Gene Gaines.

Since game rosters then had only 32 players — now 46 — and inter-division road trips featured Friday-Sunday doubleheaders, staying healthy enough to play mattered, and Jackson missed only a single 1960 game because of injury.

He wasn’t just a passer, either. Even now, Jackson ranks 41st in CFL history with 5,122 rushing yards from 726 carries. His 7.1-yard average carry is tied for second among the top 70 rushers of all-time.

“Now the TV guys say, ‘Oh, so and so called his own number,’ when he runs a quarterback sneak,” Cain says. “Of course, none of them call their own numbers, but Russ did call his own plays, so all those 5,000 yards that he did, he called those plays and put himself out there to try to get first downs and things. And, if you look at the top 10 rushers of all time, most of them are running backs, but nobody had an average like that.”

Rings and other things

When they sat together at a CFL Alumni Association Legends Luncheon during 2016 Grey Cup week in Toronto, Jackson suggested to Cain that the 1968-69 Rough Riders should hold a reunion while enough of them were still alive to suitably celebrate those titles.

“One of the things he said is, ‘You know, we never got those ’69 Grey Cup rings,’ and he said it bothered him, and I said it bothered everybody on the team,” Cain says. “So that led to what was the highlight of our reunion (in August 2018), and that was finally getting 1969 Grey Cup rings.”

Former Rough Riders quarterback Russ Jackson wears the ring marking the team’s 1969 Grey Cup victory. It was 49 years after that game that Jackson and his teammates received those rings, though, during a reunion in August 2018. JAMES PARK / POSTMEDIA

Jackson says his previous inquiries into those missing rings elicited a response along the lines of, “We got rings in ’68. Why do we need another ring?’

“As I investigated, I found that the ’69 team in Ottawa was the only CFL team that hadn’t got rings. Sure, we won back to back, and most of the guys had a ’68 ring, but there were a few guys on that ’69 team that didn’t play in ’68 and they didn’t get a ring, so they didn’t have a ’68 ring to say, ‘Well, I’ve got a Grey Cup ring to show off and show the kids and so on.’ And I thought we need to get rings.”

The 2018 reunion in Ottawa provided an opportunity to highlight the matter again, and it worked. Every ’69 team member received a ring, even those teammates who couldn’t attend the gathering or their families.

“I think it finished the circle for me in terms of my thinking over probably four or five years, that there were some kids that didn’t get rings, and it’s important,” Jackson says. “Today, all you hear is “we’re going to get a ring, we’re going to get a ring. I don’t care what sport it is.”

Cain attributes Jackson’s continuing popularity to his dominance as a player and his standing as a championship QB, but also emphasizes that Jackson played for only one CFL club.

Again using the Redblacks as examples, Cain mentions the 2019 departures of quarterback Trevor Harris and receiver Greg Ellingson as free agents after three and four Ottawa seasons, respectively. “So you look at the Redblacks, and who is the most popular probably or the person we know most, and it’s (receiver) Brad Sinopoli. And certainly he’s a really good player and happens to be a Canadian guy, but the other guys they move around too much.”

Russ Jackson and his wife, Lois, speak to Gov.-Gen. Roland Michener and his wife, Norah, on the day Jackson was invested into the Order of Canada on April 21, 1970. POSTMEDIA FILES

Riders were only game in town

Whit Tucker, the receiver on Jackson’s longest Grey Cup pass play — an 85-yarder against Saskatchewan in 1966 — says those Rough Riders owned the spotlight in Ottawa.

“It was fabulous for all the football players,” Tucker says. “We were the only game in town at that point. The Ottawa 67’s didn’t come along until 1967, and there was no (National Hockey League) team. We were the only pro team in town, basically, so we got a lot of attention. It was fun. We had a lot of laughs.”

Some of that laughter would have erupted at the Locanda Tavern, a Laurier Avenue establishment owned by another Ottawa football legend, Bobby Simpson. Rough Riders players had pre-game meals there before heading to the stadium.

“Come game time, though, (Jackson) was dead serious,” offensive/defensive end Ted Smale says, “and, as I say, he would brook no nonsense. He’d take suggestions, but he’d tell you to shut up, if necessary.”

Other former teammates echo that all-business description. Bob O’Billovich, a Rough Riders defensive back and backup QB in the mid-’60s, credits head coach Frank Clair with getting the most out of Jackson’s smarts and athletic ability.

“I played against Russ when I was in Hamilton,” says Don Sutherin, an all-star defensive back and kicker for Hamilton, Ottawa and Toronto between 1958 and 1970, “and he was always a very, very instrumental quarterback for the Ottawa Rough Riders. We had a tough time beating them, a lot of times.

“But I never really realized and appreciated Russ until I was traded to the Ottawa Rough Riders (in 1967) and I played up there three years and we won two Grey Cups with him. I’ll tell you, I think he’s among the top three quarterbacks that I ever played against or for.”

‘Cool dude’ with a story to match

As a CFL receiver for six of seven seasons between 1963 and 1969, Hugh Campbell and his Saskatchewan teammates beat Ottawa for the 1966 Grey Cup and lost to Jackson and Co. in 1969, so his son knows more league history than most.

As Rick Campbell explains it, Jackson’s star still sparkles not only because of his accomplishments as a player, but also because of his off-field reputation. “I had known him by hearing about him through others. He played in the era my dad played and all that, so I learned about football from back then. Just interacting with the guy, he’s such a ‘cool dude’ as I would call him. He’s just pleasant to be around.

“And the longer you’re in this business, you have a great amount of respect for people that can play the game at a high level for a long time and do as well as he did.”

Legendary Ottawa Rough Riders quarterback Russ Jackson is featured on the new stamp issue.
Former Rough Riders quarterback Russ Jackson was featured on a stamp issued by Canada Post in June 2014. POSTMEDIA FILES

Jim Cain acknowledges that Henry Burris sailed into retirement as a CFL champion following the Redblacks’ 39-33 overtime victory against the Stampeders in 2016, but reminds everyone that Jackson did so twice.

For his part, Burris calls Jackson the “Mount Rushmore” of CFL quarterbacks.

“These guys weren’t only just players that they cheered for every game day and read about and went to bed with excitement to go see what they were going to do the very next day, but they were guys that they looked forward to meeting on the street, walking around, in different restaurants, walking around the city, going to a different school,” Burris says. “Well, you want to go to that school because that’s Russ Jackson’s school. He’s the principal.

“It’s those types of legacies that were created, not only on the field. A legacy to me is bigger than what you do between the lines. It has to do with impacting people’s lives. When they talk about you, it’s not about how much money you make or how many touchdowns you score, but it’s all about the people that you affect.

“Russ Jackson, he impacted so many people’s lives, and it’s more than what he did on the field. It’s also about the people that he touched when he lived here and worked here in the community as well.”

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