Even if Paul Osbaldiston had turned around and aimed at his own team’s uprights, the attempt would have been only two yards longer.
And the field goal he was about to try was three yards farther than anything he had made in 18 previous games that season, and 16 yards longer than two he had missed earlier in the game: one in each direction.
Oh, and there was also that gale-force wind. Officially at his back, but nothing is official when a berth in the Grey Cup is on the line and you are 10 seconds from elimination. That wind swirled capriciously and, like a bad conscience, arose at the most vulnerable times.
But Osbaldiston — “Oz-zy, Oz-zy” to the Ivor Wynne Stadium masses who would soon be chanting his nickname into the night — had always studied wind the way a general studies the opposing army.
The Tiger-Cats kicker had missed a pair of earlier field goals from 38 yards and had been praying for a chance to trade in his goat horns for angel wings during the 14 seconds since Tracy Ham had marched the Montreal Alouettes 90 yards to a touchdown and an apparent 20-19 victory in the 1998 CFL Eastern Conference Final.
The Als thought they were going to the Grey Cup for the first time since returning to Montreal, and so did most of the 25,739 on hand to witness the final home game of the Tiger-Cats’ Resurrection Year. It was the year they got Danny McManus, Darren Flutie and Ron Lancaster — and still had a prime-time Osbaldiston — and went from 2-16 to first in the east.
With 24 seconds left Osbaldiston, all business and anticipation, immediately told McManus — who hadn’t completed a pass in the five he had thrown in the fourth quarter — that he needed the ball at the Montreal 49 yard line to have any chance of winning the game. McManus, with a neat 15-yard slant to Flutie on the first play after the kickoff and a hand-off to Ron Williams, got it to the Montreal 47.
At the Hamilton bench, Lamar McGriggs willed himself senseless, plugging his ears and covering his head with a towel. Fellow linebacker Calvin Tiggle bent on one knee asking for divine intervention. Safety Rob Hitchcock also engaged in silent prayer.
Montreal stationed receivers Jock Climie and Ben Cahoon and kicker Terry Baker in their distant end zone to punt out a missed field goal and avoid a game-tying single.
The Alouette trio never got the chance. Osbaldiston had mapped the trajectory perfectly. With the wind now gusting right to left, the ball drifted 10 full feet before settling inside the left upright, just over the crossbar. Hamilton 22, Montreal 20, time expired.
“I didn’t see the ball go through,” Flutie, the holder, said afterward. “I just saw his foot and felt it. I knew it. I could tell by the pressure on my thumb that he hit it well enough.”
Osbaldiston didn’t see it go through, either, but he, too, knew by feel: the feel of Flutie smothering his head. Within seconds he was wrestled to Ivor Wynne’s hard turf by several tons of black and gold beef.
For years thereafter a photo hung on The Spectator’s lobby wall showing the Ticats reacting at midfield to Osbaldiston’s improbable strike. At the forefront was Hitchcock, the Glendale boy who had grown up on Ticats lore and was now one of their stars. His squinting, chiseled face was creased in ecstasy, Mount Rushmore spewing tears in the overwhelming joy of erasing a nine-year Cup appearance drought. It is one of my favourite shots ever, and that’s saying something given the depth and quality of Spectator photography.
I talked to Ozzie about that kick this week, and fans from that era say that’s what they remember most.
“One of the things that hit me later in life is, ‘Thank God I made it!'” he said. “What would my footprint in Hamilton football have been, if I missed that kick, given what it meant to the team coming from 2-16 and going to the Grey Cup? And thinking of all the people who had stuck with us.
“My perception has changed. Wow, it’s even bigger than I thought at the time.”
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