CFLs trio to face Eskimos who gave them cold shoulder

October 16, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

The year was 1992. The passer was Tracy Ham, the receiver Chris Armstrong, the running back Mike Pringle.

The team was the Edmonton Eskimos.

It was, in one sense, the making of Baltimore's 1994 Canadian Football League playoff team.

In another sense, it was the end of the line for all three players.

That was a season that would end awkwardly for Armstrong and Pringle, that would end in a record trade for Ham, that would end in another playoff loss for the Eskimos.

Baltimore's three biggest offensive weapons go back to Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium today for an intriguing, interdivisional matchup of 10-4 Grey Cup contenders.

What might have been has given way to what still might be.

"For me, it's another game," said Ham, who was traded by the Eskimos after losing four of five Western Division finals. "I don't have any ill feelings. If I go back trying to prove a point, if I get caught up in personal battles, I'm not going to do what's best for the team."

Ham sensed the end in Edmonton before the 1992 season started, his relationship with coach Ron Lancaster having soured. Armstrong, cut 12 games into the season, was blindsided. Pringle left of his volition, walking after three games when Lancaster wanted to put him on the practice roster.

All three players downplayed the return trip. But Armstrong's words betrayed his impersonal front.

"I'm trying not to get caught up in what happened in Edmonton," he said.

"It was frustrating. I kept asking, 'Why did I get released? Will I get a chance to play again?' Edmonton took so many things away from me by releasing me."

Armstrong played 20 games for the Eskimos from 1991 to 1992, catching 54 passes and 11 touchdowns. In the end, it was the ones he didn't catch that counted most.

"He had good days, bad days," said Lancaster, then in his second season as coach. "He started dropping balls on us. I decided to make a change. . . . He's having a good year now. I'm happy to see he got a chance to play again."

Armstrong is having an all-star year, with 56 catches for 1,227 yards and 14 touchdowns. Last week he got a measure of satisfaction with five receptions for 93 yards and one touchdown against Las Vegas, whose coach, Ron Meyer, cut him last summer.

"I had a couple of catches along the sideline," Armstrong said. "To see the look in Coach Meyer's face . . . that's the same look I hope I give Lancaster. He looked at me and his eyes dropped straight to the ground."

Pringle isn't looking for any eye contact. He has no argument with Lancaster.

"He asked me to stay," Pringle said. "It was my decision to leave. I didn't want to be on the practice roster."

In three games, Pringle ran for 129 yards, had 39 yards in receptions and 114 in kickoff returns. He goes into today's game leading the league in rushing (1,444), yards from scrimmage (1,840) and all-purpose yards (2,420).

Pringle was asked to go to the practice roster because the preseason starter, Blake Ezor, was returning from an injury. Two games after Ezor returned, the Eskimos, dissatisfied, cut him.

"Pringle would have been the starter," Lancaster said. "I hated to see him go. He's a very strong runner, and since the start of the season he's gotten better."

Ham lost two Western finals under Lancaster and, amid rumblings the two didn't get along, was traded to the Toronto Argonauts in an 8-for-8 swap.

"We had some disagreements, but I didn't think it was bad we had disagreements," Ham said. "[Baltimore coach Don] Matthews and I have disagreements on different things. But the difference is, Matthews lets me play and be the player I am.

"I felt [Lancaster] took it to heart. When he felt that way, obviously he was not going to sign me to a long-term contract."

That was his option year, his sixth with the Eskimos. Before it started, Ham sold his Edmonton home.

Lancaster attributed the trade to Edmonton's failure to reach the title game under Ham, who actually took the Eskimos to the Grey Cup in 1990, when they lost.

"Tracy seemed to get to a plateau and stay there," Lancaster said. "He wasn't able to finish the job, get the team to the Grey Cup. We needed to get some players. Toronto was in the market for a marquee player. . . . We figured maybe Tracy needed a change."

Ham, who led the CFL in passer efficiency in 1992, doesn't wear the rap willingly.

"Both years we lost the Western final [under Lancaster], we were leading in the last minute of both games," Ham said. "For some reason, they said I couldn't get over the hump. I felt if you're up with that kind of time left . . . . [you should be able to hold the lead]."

Still, he said he has no bad feeling for the Eskimos.

"Edmonton was a good situation for me," Ham said. "I was able to play behind Damon Allen and Matt Dunigan the first year, and that experience helped me mature. I was ready to play my second year. I wouldn't have been able to do that anywhere else."

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