Celebrating the 1955 and 1956 Gaels football teams

The program for the 1955 Yates Cup game in Richardson Stadium.

Courtesy of Ron Lake

Not everyone remembers the first Richardson Stadium, but those who do may remember the glory of the Gaels football teams of 1955 and 1956.

For the first time in 18 years, the Yates Cup came to Queen’s – and the Gaels then won it two years in a row.

Even if you’re not a die-hard Gaels football fan, most people who have come through Queen’s will be familiar with names from that team that have since become tricolour legend. Head coach Frank Tindall and assistant coach Hal “Moose” McCarney, for instance, both have fields named in their honour. Miklas-McCarney Field on West Campus is named for two assistant football coaches, while Tindall Field fills the footprint left by the original Richardson Stadium on Main Campus where the kindly old coach built his name.

One of the players who helped Queen’s to their back-to-back Yates Cup victories was full-back Bill “Surpy” Surphlis. A medical student from 1952–58, Surphlis recalled his best memory: winning those two years for the coaches.

“Frank and Moose had been there for a while and hadn’t been winning,” Surphlis said, referring to Tindall’s first seven seasons at Queen’s, where the Gaels failed to finish with a winning record. “They were good coaches in every way, but just hadn’t won. My feeling is that winning [the Yates Cup in 1955 and 1956] established them as successful coaches.”

He may not have earned the lasting fame of Ronnie Stewart or Gary Schreider, or possessed the quickness of Al Kocman, but Surphlis made his mark in a talented backfield with the reputation of a man who was tough to tackle, especially in the mud. As the conditions worsened, and the grass, churned by cleats and rain, turned to soup, Surphlis only got better.

Surphlis, who, like many of his teammates, was recruited personally by Tindall at his Toronto high school, said that, although winning for the coaches is his best memory, it’s the season-ending loss in the previous year that’s the most vivid.

“We ended up tied with Western [in the standings], so we had to go to Toronto to play at a neutral field,” Surphlis said. “We had the game won, but we lost it on a bizarre mistake on the last play of the game. The only positive result from that was that we felt so terrible, we were determined to come back and win.”

The 1954 team finished the regular season with a 4–2 record, before falling 20–18 against Western when a missed Mustangs field goal was jumped on in the end zone for a Western touchdown.

Bill Wherrett was a walk-on who joined the team as the center in 1954, and had only positive things to say about his teammates, despite the loss that year.

“The team in ’54 was just as good as the teams that won subsequently,” Wherrett said. “It had many of the same great players that stuck around for the next two years.”

In 1955, Queen’s looked dominant through the regular season with a 6–1 record, but the team’s fate was in question even before the season started.

“On the ’55 team, we knew it was good, but we didn’t have a quarterback,” Wherrett said. “One of the coaches knew about Gus Braccia who played at Temple and tried out with Ottawa [Rough Riders]. Queen’s recruited him, and he was interested. Literally 2000 students showed up at the practice where Gus Braccia arrived. He ran a few plays, then threw a pass in practice 70 yards, and a cheer went up from the audience.”

With Braccia under centre, the Gaels' only loss of the season came against their rivals Toronto early in the year. So naturally, it was the Varsity Blues whom the Gaels hosted at Richardson Stadium for the Yates Cup.

  • Team photo of the 1955 Gaels football team.

    The 1955 Gaels football team.

  • Black and white photo of the crowd watching the 1955 Yates Cup game at Richardson Stadium.

    The crowd watching the 1955 Yates Cup game at Richardson Stadium.

“The [1955] Championship Game against University of Toronto in Kingston where Queen’s won 18–0 is one of my best memories,” Wherrett said. “It was a powerful game, and the crowd was tremendous.”

As if winning the first Yates Cup for Queen’s in 18 years wasn’t enough of a feat, that team brought home the championship trophy again the following year, and again beat Toronto to do it. After a 4–1–1 record through the regular season, with a tie against the Varsity Blues in the season opener, Queen’s squeaked out another Yates Cup in a 4–2 game against Toronto.

The final in 1956 needed some last-minute heroics, and it was the kicker Jocko Thompson who made the play. With the game on the line, Thompson split the uprights for a field goal on the last play of the game, and the Yates Cup came to Queen’s for the second straight year.

Four players from these teams went on to the CFL, with Stewart having the most success. One of the finest running backs in Queen’s history – and the MVP for three years – he played on three Grey Cup teams with the Ottawa Rough Riders and is a member of the CFL Hall of Fame, despite playing at just 5’7” and 155 lbs.

Schreider also did well in the pro ranks, with the skill to play all over the field. In addition to being an outstanding back on both sides of the ball, he began to kick field goals and converts with Ottawa, where he won the Grey Cup in 1960. After graduating with a law degree from Ottawa and contributing as the defensive coordinator with the Rough Riders, Schreider helped found the CFL Players Association.

Stewart and Schreider were joined by Lou Bruce in Ottawa, who played several years as an end in the CFL.

Jim Hughes, a versatile tackle, made his way to Hamilton to play for the Tiger-Cats.

While most teams have their standouts, during the Yates Cup years, the supporting crew was always standing by, ready to support their teammates.

Ends John Milliken, Jay McMahon, Pavel Fedor, and the 1954 captain Jack Cook caught passes and blocked as well.

Clair Sellens, Russ Thomas, Graydon Harrison, and Mitch Wasik were effective tackles for the Gaels. Jack Abraham was solid as a defensive guard, while Vic Uzbalis and Russ Radchuk were superb offensive guards.

In addition to his duties as a running back, Kocman also used his speed as a member of the defensive secondary. Karl Quinn and Jim Cruickshank were strong defensive backs as well.

Gary Lewis, named captain for both the 1955 and 1956 seasons, was an outstanding linebacker and center. Wherrett filled in at center once Lewis made up his mind to play on the defensive side of the ball.

The ingredients of sound coaching, good recruiting, and the unique team tradition drew athletes to Kingston and to Queen’s. Tindall became a skilled mentor with a father-like leadership style. McCarney’s defensive skills plus the support of Al Lenard’s quarterback advice, along with Jack Edwards’ firm and fair direction of the intermediate Comets made for a perfect combination of coaching.

At the fiftieth anniversary of the historic victories, current head coach Pat Sheahan nominated the entire team to be inducted into the Queen’s Football Hall of Fame.

Now 10 years later, Queen’s paid tribute to their 60th anniversary during the grand opening of the revitalized Richardson Stadium on Sept. 17, with a few members of the team able to attend the game and be honoured in person.

Prefer the offline issue?

The Queen's Alumni Review is the quarterly magazine for Queen's University alumni. Compelling stories and photos make it a must-read for all who love Queen's.

Download Winter 2016