Ronald Reagan was the president, Madonna and Prince were battling on the Billboard charts, and Beverly Hills Cop was topping the box office.
After an undefeafted regular season, the Panthers rolled through playoff wins against Richmond and Kamloops to set up a provincial title game at Vancouver’s Empire Stadium against the heavily-favoured Vancouver-based Notre Dame Jugglers.
That game set up a championship featuring Abbotsford’s “mac attack” offence of quarterback Lance McDonald and wide receiver Ken McIntee against the blazing speed of Jugglers running back Elmore Abraham (who is now a football coach and teacher at ASSS).
However, the game turned into an epic defensive performance by the Panthers and the tide turned on a massive goalline stop by the Abbotsford defence.
“They were a running team and we knew we had to stop Elmore to win,” recalled former Panthers assistant coach Gerry Keryluik. “They marched all the way down the field and were first and goal and it felt like they were going to just punch it in. We called for a blitz, Paul Gill met Elmore and Ivan Kehler smacked him down and we stopped them. That was the ball game.”
Two touchdowns from McIntee, including a hail mary from McDonald on the final play of the first half, secured a 14-4 win for the Panthers. The only points Abbotsford allowed were due to a pair of safeties conceded.
The Panthers senior varsity football team has never managed to capture another provincial title since then, coming close in 2015 with superstar Chase Claypool.
Now, that 1984 run is set to be celebrated on Saturday at Panther Field.
|The Abbotsford Panthers 1984 squad is the only senior varsity football team in school history to win a provincial title.|
The will to win, resiliency and drive to win a provincial title were cited as the main reasons for the Panthers historical win, but both Gill and Keryluik cited a surpising and devastting ruling involving five players from the title team when they were part of a successful Grade 10 season that was cut short.
Back in 1982, the Panthers junior team competed in the Coqutilam conference and after an undefeated season they were set to compete in the playoffs against teams from the Vancouver conference. But what the Abbotsford team and players did not know was that the Vancouver conference had a special rule in which players had to remain 16 or younger the entire season. If they turned 17 they were inelgible.
Unfortunately for Abbotsford, five of the team’s players, including Gill and McDonald were ruled inelgible due to age. That rule left the Panthers reeling and they were quickly eliminated.
“The players were in tears,” Keryluik said. “They were so intensely motivated to win it all and they weren’t allowed to play. After that those young men dedicated themselves to being the best they could be. They had a reason now to be motivated, and they worked their tails off.”
Gill said it was heartbreaking to have his Grade 10 season end in such fashion.
“It was like someone ripped your heart out,” he said. “As a kid, your goal is to compete in the playoffs and win a provincial title and we weren’t allowed to do that in 1982. It gave us that motivation going forward because we felt like we should have won in Grade 10. It was terrible at the time but it made us stronger. We developed grit, resiliency, loyalty and character after going through that and it became part of our makeup as a team.”
The landscape of B.C. high school football was quite different in 1984, as there were fewer teams and all clubs played in one conference. Students would transfer to specific high schools to have the opportunity to play football, and competition was stiff. But the Panthers had a special weapon in head coach Bill MacGregor.
“He was an unbelievable coach,” McDonald said. “He was a huge player coach and was incredibly motivating. He cared deeply about us and we would never want to disappoint him.”
MacGregor’s passion for football extended to other schools, as he helped launch programs at both Rick Hansen and Robert Bateman secondary schools.
“He was an amazing leader,” Gill said. “He was well-respected in the school and was a great adminstrator. He wasn’t just admired by the football guys, everyone respected him. He helped make us be the best we could be.”
MacGregor’s influence can be shown in the types of people he helped mould through football and life lessons. McDonald is now the principal at Bateman, Gill is a respected teacher at W.J. Mouat, and other members of the 1984 went into the medicine, agriculture and aviation fields, among others.
“It’s all about the challenges you face as a player that you have to try and overcome,” McDonald said. “That plays a role in your life after you’re done with the game. Sports gives you the oppotunity to fail and get back up and try all over again. Many of us realized that from playing on that team – our coaches never allowed us to fail.”
High school football remained a passion for many of the players from the 1984, including McDonald and Gill, who helped coach the Rick Hansen Hurricanes to a AAA football provincial title in 2004.
McDonald, when he was the principal at ASSS, also hired current Panthers senior varsity head coach Jay Fujimura back in 2009.
Fujimura has gone on to lead the Panthers back to prominence, nearly winning a provincial title in 2015. Today’s Panthers have also been churning out quality players on a regular basis that have moved on to the collegiate level.
“Both Jay and Elmore have done a great job putting Panther football back on the map provincially,” Gill said. “Having that program remain strong is so important to the school and the community.”
McDonald said the legacy he wants the 1984 title win to be is the creation of a true high school football community in Abbotsford. The W.J. Mouat Hawks captured senior provincial football titles in 1992, 2002 and 2005, Hansen earned a provincial crown in 2004 and last year the Bateman Timberwolves were one win away from a title of their own.
“Some of the work we did back in the 80s made it possible for some of those other schools to give more of these kids in and around Abbotsford opportunities,” McDonald said. “I love that there are so many kids playing high school football now here.”
Keryluik agreed, saying that the lasting efforts of the Panthers players as citizens will be felt for many years to come.
“They are out there making their legacy everyday,” he said. “They are so involved as people and are out there sharing their gifts with the world in so many ways. It was a special group and a special team and I’m so excited to get a chance to honour them one more time.”
The Panthers will recognize the 1984’s efforts on Saturday starting at 1:30 p.m. at Panther Field. Afterwards, today’s Panthers take on the current Jugglers in a re-match of that historical 1984 title game.