Undefeated and untied, the Big Garnet and Grey Machine known for steam rolling opponents was in danger of running out of gas ... so near to its desired destination.
University of Ottawa Gee-Gees quarterback Jim Colton had been helped to the Exhibition Stadium sidelines with a busted ankle after plunging into the end zone recovering a Neil Lumsden fumble put the Gee-Gees up 14-8 over the Calgary Dinos in the 1975 College Bowl.
But Colton was done.
This is not the way head coach Don Gilbert drew it up.
Gilbert gave the controls of his impressive offensive machine to 16-year-old Yves Leclerc half-way through the third quarter.
Leclerc usually played when the Gee-Gees were up by three or four touchdowns.
He was a project ... he’d come to the big city from Marieville, Que. skipping CGEP and was supposed to be the future.
Now, he was asked to decide the present.
Would he fumble?
Forget the snap count he’d called moments before in the huddle?
Throw a pick-six or two?
“My father barely spoke English, none of the lineup spoke French and some were American,” Gabriel Leclerc said.
Gabriel said his father was given simple instructions by Gilbert: “Give the ball to Neil,” as in Lumsden the man with the tree-trunk thighs, the balance of Baryshnikov and the ability of carry defenders like a mover lugging furniture upstairs.
There were almost 23 minutes remaining. Leclerc threw two passes, one complete to Jeff Avery, one incomplete.
He protected the lead and the Gee-Gees celebrated a 14-9 victory ... the first undefeated 11-0 team in Canadian college history.
And so they gathered in Ottawa the all-Canadians, all-OUAs, all the role players and all the back-ups for the annual U of O Touchdown dinner as the 1975 team was inducted in the school’s Hall of Fame at the Chateau Laurier.
Lise, Yves’ loving wife and childhood sweetheart, and their son Gabriel brought the former quarterback to a reception held fittingly at Fathers and Sons restaurant in Sandy Hill and re-enactment of the 1975 team photo on the steps of Tabaret Hall.
Yves, now 56, sat in a wheel chair, with a feeding tube, unable to speak.
One by one players greeted Leclerc, hugged him and wished him well in his recovery.
“He was over the moon,” said Gabriel, “he can’t communicate but the emotion on his face was the most we’d seen since he’s been sick.”
The teenager saved the Gee-Gees to victory when they were fighting for their football lives. No false steps -- Avery blamed himself on the interception slipping and falling -- Yves Leclerc held a firm and steady hand on the tiller.
Yves Leclerc had their collective backs.
Now as Leclerc fights for his life, the Gee-Gees have his back, praying for him, and encouraging him on his road to recovery.
He’s made giant steps and more to go.
“We’re all cheering and rooting for Yves, for everything he’s trying to overcome,” said Kingston native Doug Falconer, a corner back on the 1975 team.
* * *
Yves Leclerc was not a dumb jock. He put the student in student-athlete. In 1978, he graduated not only with 1975 College Bowl ring but he was also presented with the Governor General’s academic achievement award which went to the top student at the university.
Upon graduation he was the No. 1 student of the 40,000 eligible with a degree in Engineering. In three years of honor work in computer science he had grades of 9.7, 9.0 and 9.5. Not easy when studying pass patterns and being a teen-age father after his beloved Lise gave berth to Gabriel in 1977.
And then Yves vanished.
* * *
Where was Yves?
He missed the five-year, the 10-year reunion, the 20-year anniversary celebration.
And then one day Gilbert was watching McMaster play the Gee-Gees in 2000 in Hamilton. As always he had his eyes on the field and his mind on his former players.
“Anyone hear from Yves? How come anyone can’t find Yves?” Gilbert asked the people he was with.
Prior to the half Gilbert bounced down the stairs from five rows on the right side of the aisle, turned and asked “anyone want anything from the canteen?” and before anyone answered Gilbert screamed “YVES! YVES” and came up the stairways three rows on the left side of the aisle.
It’s a jump ball for who is more emotional? Hall of Famer Pat Gillick or Gilbert and when the coach spotted his former quarterback, Gilbert was crying.
Where had Yves been?
After school Lise and Yves were living in St. Hubert, Que.. One day Yves returned home and asked his wife “ever hear of Saudi Arabia? Want to move there?” He took a job at a Saudi university.
After two years he was hired by Oracle and moved to Dubai until 1996.
Then, he worked in Ottawa, Toronto -- living in Oakville from 2000 to 2004 --and Montreal for Oracle. He was a regular at any Gee-Gee functions after that.
* * *
The Leclerc wedding party arrived in Monetgo Bay in late April, 2014. Gabriel was about to marry Robyn, the love of his life on May 1.
Yves had been sick in bed after arriving in Jamaica. The resort doctor said it was the flu and gave him pills.
The groom awoke to a beautiful day and was on his way for a round of golf with his brother, Alex, best man Pierre Martinez and father in law Keith Hardiman. As they were about to get in the cab Hardiman told Gabriel “call your mom.”
Lise was going to let Gabriel go golfing, but now Yves had become unresponsive. He was rushed to first one hospital and then a larger one.
There were 32 wedding guests awaiting the nuptials. Calls were made to Yves’ insurance company. News came two hours before the wedding: Yves was being evacuated off the island.
Should Gabriel go with his parents or stay and get married?
“I broke down trying to figure out what to do next,” recalled Gabriel.
And just then a downpour began in Montego Bay.
After half an hour Gabriel decided he couldn’t go on the plane.
The clouds cleared and the sun returned.
He wed Robyn with their four children -- Joshua, Hayley, Justin and Noah -- on hand.
“At the dinner, we dedicated our speeches to my parents who couldn’t be there and updated everyone on the situation,” Gabriel said, “needless to say we didn’t have an eventful after party.”
* * *
When Yves was a first-year student in 1975 he sat beside Roch Cousineau, 17, from Sturgeon Falls, Ont. Cousineau saw Yves’ dark red jacket that read “Castor” from his home town team in Marieville and the conversation went like this:
Roch: “why are you wearing a football jacket?”
Yves: “Because I’m a football player with the Gee-Gees.”
Roch: “No way, how old are you?”
Yves: “I’m 16.”
Roch: “Get lost, no way, if you play, what position?”
Roch: “F--- off!”
And that was the start of a beautiful friendship which thrives until this day.
* * *
Where was Yves?
Yves was flown to a neurology trauma centre at Jackson Memorial hospital in Miami. He began having seizures and fell into a deep coma.
The doctors said Yves had meningitis and encephalitis.
Unsure of the next step the decision was made to bring Yves to a Montreal hospital. Gabriel would rather forget the trip to Sacre Coeur hospital.
Doctors there said Yves had suffered three strokes while in his coma, affecting the part of the brain that gives a person initiative (when to wake up, when to grab a drink when thirsty etc.).
“Basically they wrote him off, they put him in what I called the death wing,” Gabriel said. “It didn’t have air-conditioning, windows didn’t have screens and they tried to force us to sign a do not resuscitate order.”
Since Lise was living in the Laurentians it was decided to move Yves to a hospital in Ste-Agathe.
“The hospital had never had a coma patient, my father went in there like a rock star, he had his own room, mom spent 18 hours a day there, nurses were all around,” Gabriel said.
And on the fifth day in Ste-Agathe around midnight the phone rang at Lise’s house. Time to get to the hospital.
Yves was lying eyes wide open after five weeks in a coma.
Then, doctors had to decide what other problems he had.
He had lost his hearing.
He had lost the ability to swallow.
* * *
Since last June, Yves has had cochlear implant surgery to restore his hearing.
While he has lost his sense of initiative he is able to do things when asked.
Yves had a tracheotomy tube inserted to assist his breathing and a feeding tube.
Gabriel had been to one Touchdown Diner before with his father about 10 years ago.
Yves never really talked much football with his son, but that didn’t stop Gabriel from reading his mom’s scrapbook.
“I have a picture of my father with Don Gilbert, Ken Guarisco, Jeff Avery, Rocky DiPietro and my father has this big goofy smile on his face,” Gabriel said.
Now on the night before this Touchdown diner Yves, Lise and Gabriel arrived at the restaurant.
One by one the old perfect warriors who won that night at Exhibition Stadium headed to the table to see Yves. One needed a cane. One limped badly.
There were hugs, there were tears, there were hand shakes and there was hope.
“Don Gilbert was a special part in his life, my father was very excited to see him,” Gabriel said.
Said Gilbert: “I hugged Yves and told him that I loved him.”
Eric Upton, a five-time Grey Cup champion, Miles Gorrell, who played 19 years, Mike Murphy, a five-year CFL veteran, Al Moffat, inducted into the Brantford Hall with Wayne Gretzky, Bill Harrison, who played five years, Ian MacPherson, Terry West, DiPietro, a CFL Hall of Famer, Avery, Falconer, Guaricso and Gilbert were all there to see Yves.
Collectively players from the 1975 team played in the CFL for 92 years, while Brian Keating and David White went on to NFL camps,
Mike O’Connor, Bill Cherniuk, Clarence Coleman, Cam Thompson and trainer Gerry Bourgon have all passed since college football’s greatest team had its season saved by a 16-year-old. They were looking down smiling.
“Before I spoke to Yves I spoke with Lise and got choked up,” said Falconer. “I gave him a kiss and told him I loved him. I looked into his eyes and he was looking back. He squeezed my hand.”
Gabriel said his father’s teammates verified all the stories he’d heard how Yves “was a baby when he showed on campus.”
And on the Leclercs move, one foot in front of the other ... left, right, left.
They hope doctors will remove the breathing tube and then be able to get Yves off the feeding tube.
Lise, Gabriel and Alex are looking after Yves, who used to call the signals in their household.
“My father looked after my brother and I,” said Gabriel, “now, it’s our turn to pay back.”
* * *
Often I’m asked which was the most exciting team the 1992 Toronto Blue Jays or the 1993 Blue Jays?
Well, the answer was neither.
The answer is the 1975 Ottawa Gee Gees.
Besides Brian Keating going to camp with the NFL’s New England Patriots and the speedy D. T. White going to the Indianapolis Colts (“hey David are you still the fastest man in the banquet hall?” White answered “yep , 3.4 speed ... three hours, four minutes”) player after player from the 1975 Gee-Gees went in the CFL draft
1976 CFL DRAFT
Neil Lumsden- 1st Round (Territorial Protection) Toronto Argonauts
Jeff Avery- 1st Round (Territorial Protection) Ottawa Rough Riders
Bill Harrison- 1st Round (Territorial Protection) Hamilton Tiger Cats
Allan Moffat- 1st Round, Edmonton Eskimos
Tim Berryman- 1st Round, Edmonton Eskimos
Ian Mac Pherson- 1st Round, Edmonton Eskimos
Eric Upton- 2nd Round, Edmonton Eskimos
Terry West- 4th Round, Saskatchewan Roughriders
Doug Falconer- 6th Round, Toronto Argonauts
1977 CFL DRAFT
Mike Murphy- 1st Round (Territorial Protection) Ottawa Rough Riders
Cam Thompson- 4th Round, Calgary Stampeders
Hugh Fraser- 6th Round, Toronto Argonauts
Dan Sartor- 6th Round, Ottawa Rough Riders
Vince Zvonkin- 9th Round, Calgary Stampeders
1978 CFL DRAFT
Miles Gorrell- 1st Round (Territorial Protection) Calgary Stampeders
Rocky Dipietro- 1rt Round (Territorial Protection) Hamilton tiger Cats
Julian Hanlon- 4th Round, Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Sandy Grey- 4th Round, Montreal Alouettes
Yves Le Clerc- 6th Round, Yves Le Clerc, Hamilton Tiger Cats
Clarence Coleman- 7th Round, Montreal Alouettes
Dan Medwin- 8th Round, Hamilton Tiger Cats
Collectively players from the 1975 team played in the CFL for 96 years. As they moved through their professional careers in the CFL, awards presented to players from the 1975 Gee Gees Team included:
1 CFL Hall of Fame Inductee
1 Grey Cup MVP Canadian
2 CFL Frank M Gibson Trophies for Outstanding Rookie Eastern Division
2 CFL Leo Dandurand Trophy Outstanding Lineman Eastern Division
20 CFL and Divisional All-Star Selections
23 Grey Cup Appearances
12 Grey Cup Rings
And they’re all behind Leclerc.