The 69th Grey Cup was played on November 22, 1981, at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, Quebec in front of 52,487 fans. The 1981 Grey Cup game is considered to be one of the ten best Grey Cup games of all time. CFL football fans saw an unexpectedly exciting game, as the 22.5 point underdog Ottawa Rough Riders, sporting a woeful record of 5 wins and 11 losses, came within 3 seconds of denying the Edmonton Eskimos. The Esks, with a 14-1-1 record, were almost the victims of what would have been the biggest upset in the history of the Grey Cup.
This was the final appearance in the Grey Cup game for the Ottawa Rough Riders, who folded in 1996. A team from Ottawa would not return to the Grey Cup until 2015. Canadian Football Hall of Fame legends Tom Wilkinson (Edmonton) and Tony Gabriel (Ottawa) played their final game in the 69th Grey Cup as did veteran Edmonton centre Bob Howes. Future US Congressman J.C. Watts was Ottawa's quarterback. He won the Grey Cup Most Valuable Player (Offensive) award.
Ottawa unexpectedly built up a lead of 20 to 1 at halftime on touchdowns by Jim Reid and Sam Platt and two Gerry Organ field goals.
The most controversial play in this closely fought game came in the last 4 minutes. Ottawa tight end Tony Gabriel, playing with torn knee ligaments, caught a vital 20-yard pass while Eskimo defender Gary Hayes literally hung off his back. But, completely unexpectedly, the referee called pass interference penalties on both players, wiping out the gain. Gabriel was stunned and argued his case on field. Ottawa soon lost possession of the ball and lost the game. Gabriel, his knee finally disabling him and denied this last moment of greatness, would not play again.
Dave Cutler kicked the game winning 27-yard field goal with seconds left on the clock.