As obnoxious as it may sound, the winner of the Super Bowl being referred to as “World Champs” in all likelihood isn’t wrong. Realistically there is no team in any other league that would be able to dethrone the NFL’s champion, and we have history to back this up. The NFL-CFL matchups in the fifties and sixties were dominated by the teams down south but on August 8 1961, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats went up against the AFL’s Buffalo Bills and stunned the Americans. This is the story of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats vs the Buffalo Bills, the last ever time the CFL would face off against a professional American team.
During the 1950’s, the CFL and NFL faced off against each other three times all within Canadian borders. Because of the differences in the sport, normally there would be compromises on the rules such as using three down CFL rules for the first half then four down NFL rules in the second half. This was the case in 1950 and 1951 when the Ottawa Rough Riders faced off against the New York Giants at Lansdowne Park. The Giants won both games handily, 27-6 in 1950 and 41-18 in 1951. But despite the lopsided score lines, the games were well attended and caught the eye of the Toronto Argonauts.
In 1959, the Argos decided to open their new home Exhibition Stadium an exhibition game against the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals (today known as the Arizona Cardinals.) While the first two games switched rule books at the half, this game used a combination of CFL and NFL rules such as eleven players (NFL) and CFL size fields. Despite losing 55-26, a crowd of 27,770 was the largest ever for an exhibition game in Canada, and the money generated encouraged the Argos to arrange more games versus American opposition.
Toronto faced off against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1960 and had a rematch against the Cardinals (now based in St.Louis) in 1961. Again the crowds were high but the dominant wins for the physically larger NFL sides were taking their toll on the Argos. Toronto lost 43-16 to Pittsburgh and 36-7 to St.Louis, and in both games Toronto suffered injuries to their players.
The exhibition games were played in August, pre season for the NFL but right in the middle of the CFL season which made these games highly consequential to the Argos playoff aspirations. Three days after the St.Louis game, Montreal got in on the action with a game against the Chicago Bears that used CFL rules in the first half and NFL rules in the second half, after a tight first half that seen the Alouettes hold a 9-7 lead, Chicago pulled away to win the game 34-16.
The third and final CFL-NFL game in 1961 was between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Buffalo Bills who at the time we’re in the American Football League. The AFL was a separate professional football league that would eventually merge with the NFL and make up most of the teams found today in the NFL’s American Football Conference with teams including the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots and the aforementioned Buffalo Bills.
Playing the Bills made a lot of sense, the two cities are only 102 kilometres apart effectively making the game a local grudge match between the two cities. Plus while Hamilton were a high end Grey Cup contending team in Canada, Buffalo in 1960 finished just 5-8-1 and a notably lack lustre passing attack. Perhaps most crucially, the game was played mostly with CFL rules.
In front of 12,000 fans at Ivor Wynne Stadium, Jim Trimble’s Hamilton side would domiante the game offensively, racking up 106 rushing yards, 371 passing yards and twenty first downs on their way to a commanding 28-8 lead going into the forth quarter and finally breaking the CFL’s curse over NFL/AFL teams. But Buffalo refused to go quietly, the Bills came to life in the forth quarter scoring two unanswered touchdowns to make it 28-21 and suddenly make the came a contest again. But the Ti-Cats wouldn’t let up, they came roaring back with ten unanswered points of their own to make the final score 38-21 to Hamilton!
S. 2 Ep. 05 – Canada Conquers Courageous Curaçao – FC13 Podcast
It was the first time a Canadian team had defeated an American ream since 1941 when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the short lived Columbus Bulls 1941 snapping a nine hame losing streak to teams South of the border. It was also by far the most points ever scored by a Canadian team against an American side. In the aftermath, the American Football League was so shocked by the result that they refused to send more teams up north. Meanwhile the lack of competitiveness and injury toll of games versus the NFL resulted in 1961 being the final year that Canadian and American teams would play a down against each other.
Over sixty years since and the era of play between the two leagues seems almost impossible due to scheduling, player power and a threat of unnecessary injuries makes the games from the fifties and sixties just a quirky moment in time. Looking back it’s undeniable to say that the Americans dominate the matchups but just for one day on August 8th 1961, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats showed the AFL’s Buffalo Bills what the CFL was capable of!
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