The last great Canadian Quarterback

The last great Canadian Quarterback

A lot of people will be watching Andrew Buckley as he starts off the pre-season quarterbacking the Calgary Stampeders.  The first start of Buckley’s pro career will be the first start by a Canadian-born Stamps quarterback in any competitive format since Greg Vavra, as far back as 1984.

Whilst we know Bo Levi Mitchell is the starter for the Stamps, we also know that CFL fans in Canada would love to see a Canadian quarterback succeed. It is something they have been waiting on for a long time now. Whilst in their 2015 regular season finale, the Alouettes had Brandon Bridge become the 15th Canadian to start a game at QB in the history of the CFL, I believe it had been as much 20 years before that since a Canadian started a game at the position (BC’s Giulio Caravatta in 1996).

Buckley and Bridge (who is now in Saskatchewan) both must face the pressure of fans wondering if they could be the next “Canadian quarterback.”  One imagines it to be a handicap the athletes can do without. We saw a similar thing in the UK with the long drought between male British Wimbledon winners adding an extra layer of pressure and expectation.

On  recently Pat Steinberg mooted the idea that the wait may be coming to an end and that Buckley or Bridge may be the ones to break the hoodoo. I am not going to pretend to know if that is true or even why there has been such a gap. What I do know though is that you have to go as far back as the 1960’s, when Russ Jackson was leading the Ottawa Rough Riders to find the league’s last Canadian star quarterback. (As an aside for UK fans if you are confused by Saskatchewan being the Roughriders and Ottawa now being the Redblacks but in the 60’s Ottawa having the Rough Riders it is explained here).

Russ Jackson took over as Rough Riders QB in his rookie season, when Americans Hal Ledyard and Tom Dimitroff both sustained injuries.  Jackson himself was much more remarkably durable throughout his 12 seasons with the Rough Riders.

As incredible as it seems now, he was originally signed as a defensive back before converting positions. Going into training camp in 1958 Jackson was tried out at quarterback as well as playing defensive back. He still wanted to attend teacher’s college in Toronto meaning he wouldn’t be at practice all the time. His contract included a bonus, salary and a weekly plane ticket to fly back and forth between Ottawa and Toronto. Following the injuries to the two signal callers ahead of him one imagines he was led to concentrate more on the football for a while.

Jackson led the Rough Riders to the playoffs every season he was with them and to to three Grey Cup victories (1960, 1968 & 1969). He completed 1,356 passes for 24,592 yards and 185 touchdowns while rushing for 5045 yards and 54 touchdowns and was the Eastern Conference passing leader from 1963 through to 1969.

To say Jackson was the recipient of honours recognising his play during his CFL tenure may be to understate the case. He was a six-time Eastern Conference All-Star quarterback (1962, 1963, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969) and the CFL All-Star quarterback in the 1966, 1968, and 1969 seasons. In 1963, Jackson was the first double winner of the Schenley Outstanding Canadian and Outstanding Player Awards. He also won a further two Most Outstanding Player awards in 1966 and 1969.

For many he was considered  the leading CFL quarterback of the 1960s. Once even referred to as the “YA Tittle of the North” in the Nevada Daily Mail.

Russ Jackson was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1973. There are still plenty of people who would consider him one of the best Canadian-born players to play in the CFL, while you may be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn’t at least consider him to be amongst the best Canadians to play at quarterback.

However, any success that Jackson had on the field didn’t translate into success on the sidelines. He coached the Toronto Argonauts from 1975-6 and his teams finished last and out of the playoffs in both of those years, limping to a combined record of 12-18-2. That was just a short interlude though, for by then Jackson had returned to teaching where his post CFL career would primarily remain focused.

We don’t know if the next Russ Jackson is out there already or on his way. You can guarantee that when they do arrive however the CFL will feel it has something to celebrate.

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