Retro: Eskimo Great John LaGrone
By Terry Jones
Special to CFL.ca
It was a call Judge John LaGrone of Borger, Texas never expected to receive.
“Hello, this is Dave Jamieson of the Edmonton Eskimos and we're celebrating the 1960s up here this year and we were wondering if ...”
“No, I didn't see that one coming.”
The 60s represented the only decade in which the Eskimos had nothing to celebrate.
The team won three Grey Cups in the 50s, three more in the '70s, four in the '80s, two in the '90s and two more this decade. But none in the '60s. Zero.
In 1968 the Eskimos had one All-Star. One. John LaGrone.
His name is associated more with losing than winning. But John LaGrone was the player who proved to be the missing link to the title teams which would follow.
So when the Canadian Football League decides to make last year's retro game experiment a league-wide promotion this year, who do you bring in?
John LaGrone. No contest.
LaGrone will be in Edmonton for the first and main retro game July 16 against the B.C. Lions with the Eskimos wearing the uniform from back when they were the worst team in the league.
If you were to pick one player who stood above the rest during that sad sack era, it would be John LaGrone.
He was the player most responsible for the team which crawled through the 60s learning to walk and go on to greatness a decade later.
“He turned us from being a terrible team into being a respectable one,” remembered former G.M. Norm Kimball. “And he did that the first day he came to us. Jerry Griffin and Dave Gasser helped. But John LaGrone was the main reason. I can't say enough about him.
“I always viewed John as being from another era. After his second year he told me it was kind of a joke being paid to play, that he'd have played for nothing. After that he became a determined negotiator because he felt it was his due.
But the essence of the guy who would have played for nothing remained.
“He was never a rah-rah guy. But he was a real leader in a silent way. He kept us respectable when the offensive talent was lacking, when we had inconsistent quarterbacking and the rest of it,” said Kimball.
“He was the only truly great player we had.”
LaGrone had been a CFL All-Star five of eight years in the league, a Western All-Star six of those eight years. He was a Schenley Award winner, made it into the Canadian Football League Hall of Fame and the Eskimos Wall of Honour. But he was the one Eskimo great who never won a Grey Cup.
It would have been the perfect ending to his story if, like '60s survivors Bayne Norrie and Dick Dupuis, LaGrone ended up winning a Grey Cup.
He finally got there in 1973 and might have been the most compelling story in the dressing room when the Eskimos lost.
“I'd been up there all those years trying to get to that game and win a Grey Cup and that's the worst I ever felt,” he said.
He'd feel even worse the next year when the Eskimos got back and lost the Grey Cup game again. He'd retire the next year ... the year the Eskimos finally won.
LaGrone hasn't been back to Edmonton since 1988, the same year he was inducted to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and he was put on the Eskimos Wall of Honor.
“It doesn't seem that long,” he said.
While his name and No. 66 are on the facade at Commonwealth Stadium, LaGrone never played in the big park.
“No, it was a little more intimate in Clarke Stadium. I miss all those people yelling at you at Clarke Stadium.
“I remember my first game. We got beat by Winnipeg and I was standing by coach Neil Armstrong when an empty whiskey bottle missed his head. I learned to keep my helmet on.”
He said he heard Armstrong give what he believes was the greatest coaches speech of his career that year.
“We lost five of our first seven games and he told us there was a lot of talk that he was going to get fired at the end of the season and added 'If that happens, a lot of you guys will be gone before they fire me.' We won seven of our last eight and made the playoffs.”
It was a team with a great defence and no offence which went through quarterbacks at a record rate.
“Our offensive line was a little porous, too,” LaGrone remembers. “I remember a game against Calgary in my second or third year. Wayne Harris knocked Jim Thomas’ teeth out he hit him so hard,” he said of The Thumper getting to the running back better known as Long Gone Thomas from the only two plays that ever worked, sweep left and sweep right.
“Nobody blocked him the whole night. It was almost criminal.”
LaGrone says he still follows the Eskimos to this day on the internet.
While 34 consecutive years of making the playoffs didn't compute with his time with the team in the 60's, he said it sounded a little more familiar lately.
“A couple years sounded pretty tough. But for some of those guys, they were probably like me. I was young enough I didn't think about it.
“We had pretty good team unity,” he said of the group which used to populate the seedy bar at the Grand Hotel.
“I remember we had a player by the name of E.A. Sims who went in there for a beer before practice and was sitting in a stall in the washroom when a guy was knifed to death in the next stall and he ended up on the front page of the paper as a witness, saying how the man with the knife looked at him as he wiped the blood off the knife and said 'It was personal.' They never caught that guy.”
LaGrone says he was a witness not a participant when a group of players shaved the head of then Journal sports columnist Wayne Overland when the not-to-popular-with-the-players scribe decided to go to training camp to do a George Plimpton try-out-for-the-team series of articles.
A future judge has to be careful about stuff like that.
“I became a judge 19 years ago,” said the 64-year-old of his seat on the bench in Hutchison County in the Texas Panhandle.
“That's a long time. But the '60s that's a really long time ago.”
It was a decade in Edmonton, he figured, that time had forgot.
SWIVEL HIPS SAYS:
John LaGrone was truly one of the Eskimos’ all-time greats. Between him and running back Jim (Long Gone) Thomas, they were all the Eskimos had during the 1960s.