He was nicknamed ‘The Birmingham Rifle’ and if you saw him unleash deep throws or whistle quick outs, it was clear the moniker more than fit. ‘The Birmingham Howitzer’ would have worked. Ditto ‘The Birmingham Rocket.’
As the late, great, Winnipeg newspaperman Jack Matheson once wrote, Ralph Dieter Brock ‘could throw holes in the wind.’
Funny thing about that…
The Blue Bombers all-time leading passer, a man whose name is next to be added to the club’s Ring of Honour presented by the Insurance Brockers of Manitoba this weekend at the Banjo Bowl, almost passed on chucking the ol’ pigskin for a living.
He played baseball as a kid, following in the footsteps of his older brother, and his first-ever football practice hardly left a positive impression.
“I went out for one practice when I was about 12 years-old,” said Brock in a telephone interview with bluebombers.com from his home in Birmingham. “My first practice, and I wanted to be a quarterback because I could throw it back then, but the coach put me down on all fours and had the other players jumping over me and doing all these drills.
“I don’t think I ever even got to throw one pass that day. I went home and said, ‘I don’t think football is what I want to do’ and so I didn’t go back out for football until my freshman year of high school.”
What Brock did next was impress enough that he became a starting quarterback at Jacksonville State – they averaged 35.4 points per season as a senior and he is in the school’s hall of fame – followed by 10 years with the Bombers, one year with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and another leading the Los Angeles Rams to the 1985 NFC Championship game as a 33-year-old rookie.
He has been enshrined in both the Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Fame (1990) and the Canadian Football Hall of Fame (1995), and when he hung up the cleats for good in 1985, was second on the CFL’s all-time passing yardage list, behind only Ron Lancaster.
But it’s funny how fate works sometimes. And Brock could be held up as Exhibit A.
It’s not just that his first football practice didn’t make a great first impression, it’s that his trek north to Canada came only after some serious poking and prodding by then head coach Bud Riley.
It was Riley who, while attending the Senior Bowl in 1974, first approached Brock about considering a career in the CFL with the Bombers.
“Bud came down and started to talk to me about Winnipeg and the CFL,” Brock recalled. “I didn’t really know a whole lot about the CFL and wasn’t thinking about Canada. But he started to tell me about Winnipeg and the situation there. I told him I wanted to wait until the NFL draft to make a decision on what I wanted to do.
“A few weeks later they called me back up after making an initial offer and upped the offer. He told me it would be between me and one other quarterback to see who would be the backup to Don Jonas. The World Football League had started up and also had a draft around the same time. They drafted 11 quarterbacks and I wasn’t one of them and so I said maybe I ought to take the offer to go to Winnipeg, play a year or so and see what happens and maybe come back to the NFL.”
Brock would start one game in 1974, but it’s what he did in the winter of ’74-75 that only added to his strong-armed folklore.
First, the back story…
“I remember the first game I played after Don had been traded in ’74,” said Brock. “I went in and started against Edmonton and, man, I just got killed. I swear I didn’t know what the hell I was doing for the most part. But I went home after the season and playing just that one game thinking that I had to get stronger to stand up a 16-game season and the four preseason games. “I had the really good arm, but I needed to bulk up a little bit. I was about 190 pounds and I took a lot of hits. I started lifting and doing the weight workouts like javelin throwers would do.
“I didn’t want to do a lot of lifting just to say how much I could bench press. I wanted to have my arm loose and be able to throw the ball well, still. I could throw the heck out of it, but I just didn’t have a lot of bulk in the upper body.
“I did weighted ball throws. I’d put bee-bees in those plastic whiffle balls, tape them to the ball to get different weights. I’d start off with a four-pound ball that I’d throw up against a backstop. I had a rubber mat that I nailed up against two trees in my back yard, high enough that I could release it like I was throwing a pass.
“I’d use the four-pound ball for about a month, then a three-pound ball, and a two-pound ball for about a month. An actual football weighs about 14-15 ounces and so by the time training camp had arrived I was getting faster and faster arm speed and my arm was in really good condition.”
Just for the record, all the tales about Brock throwing a ball through the uprights from 55 yards away – while on one knee – are true. In Calgary, where Brock points out the air is thinner, he once threw a pass 93 yards in the air while fooling around the day before a game.
There’s more: while trying to impress the Rams’ brain trust in 1985, he threw for 20 minutes to Ram receivers before John Robinson, then L.A.’s head coach, halted the demonstration.
“I’ve coached a lot of great quarterbacks in my day,” Robinson told Sports Illustrated at the time, “including Dan Fouts when he was at Oregon. This guy may be the best I’ve ever seen throwing the ball.”
Brock was still essentially a raw project when he became the Bombers’ full-time starter in 1975, not long after Chuck Ealey had been traded. Winnipeg was 10-6 in both 1976 and 1977 with Brock at the controls, losing to Edmonton 14-12 in the ’76 West Semi-final on a 53-yard field goal by Dave Cutler in the fourth quarter and then fell to the B.C. Lions – ‘The Cardiac Kids’ – in the ’77 West Semi-final when Joe Fourqurean got his finger on a Brock-to-Mike Holmes bomb to preserve a 33-32 decision.
But it was the Bombers of 1980-82 that would be among the best in club history never to win a championship. Winnipeg went 32-16 over that stretch and twice lost to the Edmonton Eskimos – in the midst of their five-championship dynasty – in the ’80 and ’82 West Finals.
“We had some really good teams, heck, from ’76 all the way up until the time I left in ’83. We were always on the verge,” said Brock. “And from ‘80 on, we were right there again… it was just playing against Edmonton who didn’t make any changes every year and just got better every year. We played them tough. I really think we were the only team that only had a chance against them.”
Brock led the CFL in passing in three seasons during that stretch – 1978, 1980 and 1982 – and, after breaking Sam Etcheverry’s all-time passing yardage record in ’81, won his second of back-to-back Most Outstanding Player Awards.
Not long after Brock’s days in Winnipeg began to turn. He had signed a five-year deal with the Bombers in 1980 and when head coach Ray Jauch announced during the 1982 season he was bolting to the upstart USFL to coach the Washington Federals, Brock started to get the itch to head down south, too.
His football clock was ticking, after all.
“Before the ‘83 season we had been talking with (Bombers GM) Paul Robson about shortening my contract so that I could finish my contract in the USFL,” Brock said. “Paul said he would see what he could do. I was going to hold out and said I wasn’t going to come back for training camp. Paul, from what I remember, said if I came back we could talk about it.
“I didn’t want to do what I did, but I honestly didn’t know what to do to get my contract shortened. So I held out. I played in the first six games and we were 5-1 and I didn’t really know the new offence with Cal (Murphy) and the new staff in there. But I was playing pretty good for somebody who didn’t know the offence very well. But nothing was being done and I held out and it forced Winnipeg to trade me.”
Brock had been suspended, and frustrated, when he uttered his infamous line about Winnipeg and ‘How many times can you go to the zoo?’ It certainly didn’t endear him to Bomber fans. And even talking about his departure all these years later, Brock still seems bothered by what unfolded – he was traded to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for Tom Clements. And a year later it was Clements leading a Bomber team Brock had grown up with to a victory in the 1984 Grey Cup… over Brock and the Ticats.
“Oh man, I swear I didn’t want to go anywhere else in Canada.”
“But, what happened, happened. I think back now and it’s, ‘Man, I should have just stayed in Winnipeg…’ I mean, we were on the verge of winning and being a Grey Cup winner.
“But if I had stayed I might not have ever got an opportunity to see what I could have done in the NFL and I would have been thinking, ‘I wonder if I could have played in the NFL…’ I hated it. I really did. I didn’t want to leave that way. I wanted to finish my career in Winnipeg and then come down here, but it didn’t work out that way.”
After the 1984 CFL season Brock, then 33, worked out for five NFL teams and had offers from four. Robinson, the Rams’ coach, had seen some CFL film of Brock but…
“He seemed to just appear one day from out of nowhere, like Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo. in ‘Damn Yankees’ or Roy Hobbs in ‘The Natural’”, Robinson told Sports Illustrated in 1985. “I just hope he hasn’t had to sell his soul to the devil.”
Brock started that season for the Rams, establishing rookie records for passing yards (2,658), touchdown passes (16) and passer rating (81.8) – since broken – and to a division title. But fighting a chronic back ailment Brock was just 10 of 31 for 66 yards in a NFC Championship loss to the Chicago Bears. Just a few months later, after injuring his knee in the preseason, his football career was over.
Brock turned next to coaching, including stints as offensive coordinator in Hamilton, Ottawa and Edmonton. He last coached in 2009 in south Alabama before settling back in Birmingham.
Brock and his second wife, Jamie, have two children, Hayley and Kaleb.
And Brock still watches the CFL as often as he can… especially if it’s a Bomber game.
“When the Bombers are playing and if I can’t watch it on TV I get on the laptop and watch it that way,” said Brock. “I keep up with what’s going on. I enjoy watching them.
“It’s amazing. I’m just thrilled to death about being added to the Ring of Honour there. This tops it for me, of all the kudos I’ve had. I’m just so honoured.”
F Scott Grant
KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS