The 1966 Saskatchewan Roughriders had a safety blanket in the form of, well, their safety.
Bruce Bennett — who was 77 when he died Jan. 12 in Ocala, Fla., of complications from pneumonia and COVID-19 — started in the defensive backfield and moonlighted as the backup quarterback during what would be the CFL team’s first championship season.
With quarterback Ron Lancaster, fullback George Reed,flanker Hugh Campbell and a formidable group of blockers leading the way, the Roughriders’ offence did not encounter much adversity until Oct. 2, 1966.
That afternoon at Taylor Field, Lancaster suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him in the second quarter of a game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Over to you, Bruce Bennett.
With Bennett receiving his most meaningful playing time at quarterback in five years, the Roughriders were able to salvage an 11-11 tie. In fact, he scored Saskatchewan’s lone touchdown, plunging over the goal line from one yard away on a quarterback sneak.
That major had been set up by a 71-yard run by Reed — his longest gain on any of the 3,243 times he was handed the ball during an illustrious career.
“After the game, one of the reporters said, ‘George runs the ball 70 yards and you get it on the one-yard line and you run it in,’ ’’ Bennett recalled during a 2006 interview with the Leader-Post. “I said, ‘Yeah. My high school coach always told me that when you get into scoring territory, always give the ball to your best back.’
“George just rolled over laughing. I couldn’t pass that up.’’
Bennett started at quarterback six days later against the visiting Calgary Stampeders, completing seven of 11 passes for 29 yards and one TD (a short toss to Jim Worden). Mike Ringer, the backup QB for that Oct. 8, 1966 game, saw duty in the secondary in place of Bennett.
In those days, with only 32 roster spots, the Roughriders had decided to use someone who started at another position as Lancaster’s understudy.
Bennett was hardly unacquainted with the fine art of quarterbacking, having called signals for Valdosta High School for undefeated teams that won Georgia state championships in 1960 and 1961.
He was then recruited by the University of Florida Gators as a quarterback and defensive back. He ended up starting in the secondary for three seasons, registering 13 interceptions and being named an All-American in 1965.
An obituary distributed by Bennett’s alma mater noted that he was “one of the first people ever to taste Gatorade as it was being developed by the university and tested on the football team.”
Bennett’s excellence as a collegian was such that he was inducted into the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame.
The Riders’ shrine, the Plaza of Honour, came calling in 1991.
Bennett, a six-time all-star, was an automatic inductee.
He is third on the Roughriders’ all-time list in interceptions (35) and interception-return yards (606). His 112-yarder against Calgary on Aug. 27, 1972 is the longest interception return in Roughriders history.
He also left an important legacy by being an exemplary teammate — “a first-class guy in all ways,” Hall of Fame defensive lineman Bill Baker said the other day.
Decades after last suiting up for the Green and White, Bennett still spoke fondly of his time spent in Saskatchewan.
“It was a good career,” he reflected, “and I couldn’t have picked a better one.”
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