From 1972 through to 1981, the Sudbury Spartans captured but one NFC (Northern Football Conference) championship.
It was a time when the Sault Ste Marie Steelers (4 titles), the Stoney Creek Patriots (3) and even the short-lived Bramalae Satellites (2) were the measuring sticks of the league, at least for a decade or so.
Well, in every year other than 1977, that is. For that one absolutely glorious campaign, it was all Sudbury Spartans.
“No one could beat us,” suggested fullback Mike Reid, now 65 years old and settled in nicely in Calgary and the western way of life. “That was a fun year.”
Reid was the younger of a two-brother tandem that joined a squad that would eventually produce a who’s who of NFC Hall of Fame talent: Ray Owens, Sam Cuomo, Val Buttazzoni, Ottavio DeBenedet, Jim Young, Peter Ennis, as well as Brian Reid.
Quarterback Eugene D’Orazio guided an offense that relied heavily on a running game anchored by speedster Peter Jokinen, the NFC scoring champion one year earlier and DeBenedet, with Reid leading the way as a blocking back.
Many were those on the team whose introduction to the sport mirrored so many other young men strewn right across the City of Sudbury. “We did not play football until high-school,” said Reid. “We played touch football, pick-up football, but there was no organized football until high-school.”
“But we were watching a lot of CFL, my brother and I,” added the man who went on to play four years of university ball with the Ottawa Gee Gees. “We realized that the very mild form of football we were playing in the playground wasn’t the type of football we were going to play when we got to high-school.”
At the helm was the man who could bring it all together: Canadian Football Hall of Famer Sid Forster.
“Sid was a really special guy, a mentor for a lot of the guys,” Reid recalled. “He was able to galvanize a motley crew of individuals. We had a lot of smart guys, guys that understood the game and Sid knew how to use them. It was interesting how Sid coordinated that offense to take advantage of everyone’s talent.”
“We played as a team and won a championship, but it goes right back to him.”
It was a time when men would play football into their early thirties, balancing their passion with the demands of work and family. Brian Reid started to work in the mines right out of high-school. “Every second week, he would miss practice – about a third of the team was like that,” said Mike.
“But for some strange reason, it was almost seamless when we would get to game – that team in particular.”
The individual accolades speak for themselves.
A three-time all-star from 1976 to 1978, Ottavio (Travis) DeBenedet was awarded the August Kangro Memorial Trophy as MVP of the NFC in 1977 after topping the scoring parade that summer.
Just beginning his illustrious career, Sam Cuomo was recognized as the Rookie of the Year. A six-time all-star and one of the pound for pound fiercest hitting linebackers the league has ever seen, Val Buttazzoni was named Lineman of the Year.
The Spartans placed no less than nine separate players on the all-star teams (DeBenedet; Mike Reid; Dennis Schryer; Jim Young; Brian Reid; Moe St Martin; Randy Fournier; Val Buttazzoni; Graziano Pressaco), with Forster taking the Coach of the Year honours.
“We had a fantastic arsenal of offensive weapons,” said Reid, who also mentioned the likes of Gary Bennett and Andy Balson along with so many of the names mentioned above. “These guys were unbelievably fast and fluid and they could really read the holes.”
That said, this did not happen overnight.
“There was an evolution on that team,” said Reid. “There were guys that had played many years, prior to us. They knew what it took. No one knew how good we were until about halfway thought that season – and then we kind of realized, we’ve got everything.”
“That offensive line – they were pulling, they were trapping, they were doing stuff out there that created holes between the tackles for the likes of me to get two or three yards – and I was slow as molasses,” Reid laughed.
It wasn’t as though the 1977 Spartans would be carried by the offense alone.
“We had so much talent on that defense that you hardly even had to coach those guys,” noted Al Nowoselsky, a defensive end who suited up for six summers with the team and has now spent almost that same amount of time coaching a much younger group with the storied franchise.
While some faces remained consistent – Nowoselsky suggested that Buttazzoni was easily the best linebacker that he ever played with – the addition of the likes of Fournier, his partner in crime on the other end of the line, was paramount.
“Those two guys come to mind right away when I think of the ’77 team – and then I had Sam Cuomo playing right behind me.”
The unit epitomized the mentality of that era, a lunch bucket brigade who surrendered no ground without a fierce battle. “We were tough and we were mean, really mean,” said Nowoselsky. “We played old-time, smash ‘em in the mouth type football. That’s what they called it back then.”
To top it all off, this was a hyper motivated crew, having watched their dreams of a league crown slip away one year earlier, despite rolling to a substantial lead in game one of a two-game total points series against the Steelers. There was no way that mistake would be made twice.
“That first game, we whooped them really good, and then we never let off the gas in the second game,” said Nowoselsky.
It was the perfect finish for a perfect summer on a team that remains one of the all-time classics within the wonderful lore of the Sudbury Spartans.