MONTREAL — Former Montreal Alouettes quarterback Sam Etcheverry died Saturday following a lengthy battle with cancer.
He was 79.
Etcheverry, who spent the majority of his career with the Alouettes, was one of the most dominant quarterbacks in the CFL during the 1950s.
Nicknamed “The Rifle,” he led Montreal to three straight Grey Cup appearances and was named the league’s top quarterback in 1954. Two years later, he became the first quarterback in league history to pass for more than 4,000 yards in a season.
The Alouettes announced Etcheverry’s death in a press release.
Toronto Argonauts consultant Nick Volpe, who joined the CFL club as a safety, kicker and backup quarterback in 1949, fondly remembers Etcheverry as being a winner on the field and a class act off it.
“He was an outstanding quarterback for many, many years,” said Volpe. “But he was also a gentleman.
“You couldn’t help by like him.”
Volpe, 83, has been associated with the Argos for six decades and was the MVP of the 1950 Grey Cup game — the famous Mud Bowl which Toronto won 13-0 against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Over that span Volpe has seen his share of outstanding quarterbacks in Canada, but says in his mind, Etcheverry will go down as one of the best ever to play in the CFL.
“In his time I think he was the best quarterback in the league,” Volpe said. “He was always able to rally his team.
“I think he goes down as one of the top three or four quarterbacks ever to play in the CFL. Everybody tried to be as good as he was, he was the person to look up to.”
Etcheverry set nearly every quarterback record in Alouettes history, finishing with 30,303 passing yards and 186 touchdowns while becoming one of the franchise’s most revered players. He also holds league records for most passing yards in a Grey Cup game (508, in 1955) and most consecutive games with a passing touchdown (34, from 1954-56).
Following a trade to Hamilton and a short stint in the NFL, the six-time all-star returned to the Alouettes as a coach and led the team to the 1970 Grey Cup championship.
Peter Della Riva, a former Alouettes tight end who played for Etcheverry in 1970, recalled a coach who was well-liked by the entire locker-room.
“I met Sam when I started in Montreal in 1968,” said Della Riva. “Then I only knew him by his reputation as a great player. I remember watching him when he came to Hamilton when I was growing up.
“I think we won the Cup because of him. he had so much respect from the players. He was so good to us compared to what we had before. He was a players’ coach.”
Della Riva said that Etcheverry came up to Montreal from his home in North Hatley, Que., for an Alouettes pre-season game in June and was in ’good spirits.’ That night, they retired the jersey of Hal Patterson, who was Etcheverry’s favourite target during his playing career.
“He and Hal put football on the map in Montreal,” said Della Riva.
Etcheverry continued working with the franchise after his coaching days were over, serving as president of the team’s alumni association even when the Alouettes didn’t have a team.
Etcheverry was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1969.
“All of us in the Canadian Football League feel a pang of sorrow, and a debt of gratitude, upon hearing of the passing of one of our legends, Sam Etcheverry,” CFL commissioner Mark Cohon said in a statement.