United Football League (1964)
Continental Football League (1965-1967)
Born: January 1964 – UFL expansion franchise.
Folded: September 21, 1967
The Quebec Rifles entered the United Football League as an expansion franchise in January 1964. Based out of Montreal, the new franchise adopted the nickname of its local hero Head Coach, former Montreal Alouettes star quarterback Sam “The Rifle” Etcheverry. The Rifles were a geographic anomaly in the eight-team UFL, a minor league loop based in the Midwest with clubs in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia. In Canada, the Rifles were the first team to play pro football under American, rather than Canadian, rules. J.I. Albrecht served as the club’s General Manager.
The Rifles played out of 13,000-seat Delorimier Stadium, a former home of both the Alouettes (1946-1953) and the Montreal Royals, the long-time farm club of baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers.
The Rifles finished the 1964 UFL season at 5-9. Running back Joe Williams led the league in scoring with 17 touchdowns. Former University of Indiana Hoosier John Henry Jackson handled the quarterbacking duties as one of the early African-Americans to see significant time at the position in the pros.
In February 1965, the UFL clubs split into two factions. The owners interested in pursuing the traditional low-budget minor league model went off to launch the Professional Football League of America. The UFL’s more ambitious franchises, including the Rifles, merged with like-minded clubs from the Atlantic Coast Football League to announce the formation of the Continental Football League. The Continental League announced its intention to pursue a television contract and to compete with the NFL and the AFL for top collegiate talent. The owners hired A.B. “Happy” Chandler, the former Commissioner of Major League Baseball (1945-1951) for the same post in their new organization.
Along with a new league, the Rifles had a new home in 1965. The club relocated from Montreal to Toronto, a shift that got off to a rocky start when the University of Toronto refused to offer a lease at Varsity Stadium. The club reluctantly set up shop at Maple Leafs Stadium, a baseball stadium used by the city’s triple-A baseball team. Etcheverry did not make the move to Toronto and was replaced as Head Coach by former Alouettes assistant Leo Cahill.
Under Cahill, the Toronto Rifles went 11-3 in 1965 and earned a trip to the Continental Football League championship game. They lost to the Charleston Rockets 24-7. The backfield duo of Joe Williams and Bob Blakely finished top two in the league in rushing. Wide receiver Dick Limerick paced the circuit with 17 touchdowns. John Henry Jackson took the snaps at quarterback again, with the exception of one October night in Charleston, West Virginia. FBI agents entered the Rifles locker room moments before kickoff and arrested the 26-year old on draft evasion charges. Charleston’s owner courteously paid Jackson’s $1,000 bond and Jackson made it back to the stadium in time to watch the final three minutes of the game.
In 1966, the Rifles got the Varsity Stadium lease they coveted and moved across town. Jackson lost his starting job to Tom Wilkinson, a rookie out of the University of Wyoming. Wilkinson passed for 18 touchdowns and earned league Rookie-of-the-Year honors. Williams and Blakely finished 1-2 in the league in rushing for the second straight year, both going over 1,000 yards. Cahill’s Rifles were a top club once again and their 9-5 record was good enough to get back to the Continental League playoffs. In the semi-final, they met the Philadelphia Bulldogs in a rematch of the 1965 title game. Once again, the Bulldogs got the best of it, eliminating the Rifles 31-14.
In April 1967, Cahill moved across town to take the head job with the dreadful Toronto Argonauts of the CFL. The Rifles signed CFL legend Jackie Parker to take over coaching duties. It was the first coaching gig for the recently retired 35-year old. But during the pre-season, Parker became alarmed at the desperate state of the team’s finances and resigned two days before the season opener.
The Rifles ownership folded on September 5th, 1967 after only two regular seasons games. Continental Football League officials met in emergency session and agreed to collectively fund and operate the team through the end of the season, possibly as a travel-only team. Now a ward of the league, the Rifles played their third and final game of 1967 on September 16th, losing 16-3 to the Hartford Charter Oaks in a game shifted from Toronto to Connecticut.
Shortly thereafter, the Continental League’s new Akron Vulcans franchise – owned by a con artist named Frank Hurn who bought the club with Chicago mob money – collapsed as well. Unable to operate two clubs at league expense, the league folded by both the Rifles and the Vulcans on September 21st, 1967.
The Rifles ran significant deficits throughout their brief history. The club lost a reported $300,000 in 1965 and $400,000 in 1966.
The Continental Football League folded after the 1969 season.
After the Rifles folded, Tom Wilkinson joined Leo Cahill across town with the Argonauts. He went on to play 15 seasons in the CFL, winning the league Most Outstanding Player award in 1974 and winning five Grey Cup titles with as a member of the Edmonton Eskimos between 1975 and his final season in 1981.
Sam Etcheverry, the man who gave the Rifles their name, entered the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1969. His post-Rifles coaching career was brief, but did include a Grey Cup championship as head man of the Montreal Alouettes in 1970. Etcheverry passed away in 2009.
Rifles President Alan Eagleson introduced the player agent era to the National Hockey League by representing the teenage Bobby Orr in the mid-1960’s. As Executive Director of the NHL Players Association he became one of the sport’s primary power brokers in the 1970’s and 1980’s and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1989. In the 1990’s Eagleson’s ethical and financial misdeeds as an agent and leader of the NHLPA came to light as the result of investigations by Lawrence Eagle-Tribune reporter Russ Conway and complaints by retired NHL players, including Orr. Eagleson was ultimately indicted in the U.S. and Canada on charges of fraud, embezzlement and racketerring. He served a prison sentence in Canada in the late 1990’s.
Toronto Rifles Memorabilia
Toronto Rifles Article Sources
Continental Football League Media Guides
Continental Football League Programs