August 18, 2010

Retro Profile: Tom Wilkinson and Dan Kepley

Brian Snelgrove

He was the architect of an offence that would send the Eskimos to six Grey Cup games in a seven-year span in the 1970’s.

He was the backbone of an Eskimo defence that would become a CFL dynasty.

On a team full of stars, in a decade full of stars, perhaps none shone brighter than Tom Wilkinson and Dan Kepley.

Wilkinson (1972-81) played for the Edmonton Eskimos for ten seasons and never missed a game. He has completed the second most passes in club history with 1382 and trails only current Eskimo quarterback Ricky Ray. He is fourth in all-time passing yards with 18,684 and fourth in touchdown passes with 129.

Wilkinson was the Western nominee for Most Outstanding Player in both 1974 and 1978 and took home the award in ’74. He was a CFL all-star three times (1974, ’78 and ’79).

The University of Wyoming pivot played for the Toronto Rifles of the defunct Continental Football League for two seasons (1966 and ’67) before stints with Toronto (1967-70) and B.C. (1971) in the CFL. Wilkinson joined the Eskimos in 1972 and would spend the rest of his career with the Green and Gold.

Wilkinson led the Eskimos to six Grey Cup appearances in the 70’s, winning three times (1975, ’78 and ’79).

“In the early 70’s things weren’t so good but getting Bruce Lemmerman really turned things around,” says Wilkinson.

“He was a very good quarterback and then we brought in guys like Bob Howes and Charlie Turner and had some good O linemen that gave us time to throw. We had a good running attack with guys like Jim Germany, Angelo Santucci and Don Warrington. Warrington was our best leader. He was the ultimate team guy. He taught me that the team was way more important than me. We had a great defence with Kepley and Dave Fennel, David Boone, Ron Estay and others. Such a good defence. We had the best punter in the league in Hank Ilesic and the best kicker in Dave Cutler. As an offense we didn’t have to gamble a lot. We had such good teams.”
“Getting there (to the Grey Cup) in ’73 was quite an accomplishment,” adds Wilkinson. “In ’74 we got beat so in 1975 there was this sort of feeling that maybe we’re not going to win one. When we won it really got the monkey off our back.”

“Losing in ’77 in the Ice Bowl was a turning point for us,” he says. “During the winter we dedicated ourselves to proving that we were better than that and it made us work even harder. We won the next year and then the next and the next.”

Wilkinson was the Most Valuable Player in the 1978 Grey Cup as he led the Eskimos to a 20-13 victory over the Montreal Alouettes. In ‘79 both he and Warren Moon threw touchdown passes as the Eskimos beat the Als 17-9.

He finished his career with a total of five Grey Cup rings as the Eskimos won again in both 1980 and ’81.

Wilkinson was the first Edmonton player immortalized on the Eskimo “Wall of Honour” at Commonwealth Stadium in 1982 and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1987.

“I was a pretty good quarterback that played on a lot of great teams,” says Wilkinson. “It was a great honour but I honestly believe I was representing all those players from those great teams. What bothers me is that not one of our offensive linemen is in the Hall. I believe that I was just a representative of those teams and everybody on them.”

After his playing days Wilkinson did commercials for television and radio for more than 25 years. He was Head Coach of the Alberta Golden Bears from 1991-2000. “I really enjoyed that,” says Wilkinson. “I don’t think I was patient enough to coach high school and the expectations are always high at the professional level and there is not a lot of security in it.”

Now 67 Wilkinson lives in Sherwood Park, a suburb of Edmonton, and keeps busy with his wife, three children and four grandkids. He is involved in the Eskimos Alumni Association and helps former players through golf tournaments and other fund raising initiatives. He and anywhere from 25-40 other ex-Eskimos attend most Edmonton home games.

“I felt very fortunate to be here at the time I was,” says Wilkinson. “It was great to be part of it.”
Arguably the finest linebacker of his era, Dan Kepley (1975-84) joined the Eskimos following a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys in 1975. The East Carolina University graduate went on to become a Canadian Football Hall of Famer and spent his entire ten year career with Edmonton.

He was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player three times in a five year span (1977, ’80, and ’81). Kepley was on the winning side of a Grey Cup team six times as a player with the Eskimos (1975, 1978-82) and twice as a coach (2003 and ’05).

“I was just trying to learn the game,” says Kepley of his arrival north of the border in 1975. “After being released from the Cowboys Frank Morris (Eskimo’s Director of Player Development) came down to see me and took me up to Edmonton. It was October and I had no clue about the Canadian game. On my first trip there was a terrible snowstorm and it was freezing. We went by Clarke Stadium; he pointed to it and said, “There’s your new home.’”

“Playing for the Eskimos taught me and guided me,” says Kepley. “Guys like Tom Wilkinson, George McGowan, Bob Howes and all the other great leaders on those teams. They taught me we speak in plurals. It’s about we. We do it together or we don’t do it at all. You are just one small piece of the puzzle.”

Kepley played in four Grey Cups in the seventies, winning three times. Yet it is the 1977 game that the Eskimos lost 41-6 to Montreal that he remembers most. “That’s the one that stands out,” says Kepley.

“That was the so-called Ice Bowl and we got our butts kicked. We felt we had a better team than Montreal. But the big thing is we were able to come back in ’78 and show we were better and to win again in ’79 showed that ’78 wasn’t a fluke.”

A five-time CFL all-star (1977-81) Kepley joined his teammate Wilkinson on the Eskies “Wall of Honour” in 1987. Kepley was elected to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1996. “That was truly an amazing feat,” he says. “It is really beyond words for me, to be in a fraternity with the likes of Jackie Parker. It’s like that old saying, ‘I’m not worthy.’”

Following his retirement Kepley worked as a football analyst on radio and television for the Eskimos. He went to CBC as a colour commentator and moved to Philadelphia to work with ESPN on College, Arena Football and CFL games.

Kepley returned to Edmonton in 199 and re-joined the Eskimos in 2002. He has been with Edmonton ever since and is currently the linebackers coach. When he’s not on the gridiron, Kepley spends his time playing golf and helping out with various community events and fundraisers in Edmonton.

“I’ve always been a black and white kind of guy,” says the Eskimo legend, recalling both his football and personal life. “There’s not much grey with me. It’s all or nothing.”