Remembering Two Winnipeg Greats

By Chris Lawton

This week the Winnipeg Blue Bombers mourned the loss of two former greats. First Ken Ploen and then Gerry James. They were 89 and 88 respectively. Of course, this is a sad time for their families and a sad loss for Bombers fans. But it is also an opportunity to celebrate two players who were also teammates during a successful period for the team.

If you love the history of the game, and you love remembering greatness, then this is a great opportunity to that with these former Winnipeg greats. So let’s take a look at the impact each had on the team.

Ken Ploen

Ploen had starred at quarterback for the Iowa Hawkeyes, who in 1956 he led to a 9-1 record and berth in the 1957 Rose Bowl game. With Ploen at the helm the Hawkeyes 35-19 win over Oregon State. A game in which Ploen completed 9 of 10 passes for 83 yards and a touchdown, as well as running 8 times for 59 yards, including the opening score on a 49-yard run. After that Iowa never trailed and Ploen was selected as MVP.

The Cleveland Browns selected him in the 1957 NFL Draft, but Ploen signed on for the Blue Bombers instead. It was a decision neither he nor the organization would go on to regret.

He was with the team from 1957 to 1967. A time that saw the team appear in 6 Grey Cup games and win 4 of them. Between 1958 and 1962 he led a truly dynastic team that made five straight Grey Cup appearances, logged a 63-17 regular season record and took home four league titles.

Of course, this was a very different time for football. Ken Ploen is remembered as a great QB. When you look at his completion per centages they are in the mid to high fifties usually and this was pretty good for the era. But we shouldn’t forget he was also very versatile. Perhaps he is best remembered as QB and leader on a Dynasty team, but he also played DB, leading the West Division with 10 interceptions in 1959.

Ploen took over full time as the starting QB in 1960 and held that role until he retired. He finished with 16,470 career passing yards and 2,997 career rushing yards. It is worth noting here that losses on passing downs were counted in this in the early part of his career too. He had 6 career receptions, 3 of which went for touchdowns, and just to add to the versatility as a rookie he went 25 of 32 on kick conversions!

Ploen led Winnipeg to Grey Cup wins in 1958, 1959, 1961 and 1962. As well as appearances in the 1957 and 1965 Grey Cup games. In 1961 he was the MVP in the first Grey Cup game ever to go into overtime.

He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1975.

Gerry James

Gerry James was a Winnipeg Blue Bombers blue blood. His father Eddie ‘Dynamite’ James is a Canadian Football Hall of Fame member who was part of the Winnipeg ‘Pegs, the first team from the West to lift the Grey Cup. A feat they achieved in 1935.  His name remains synonymous with the CFL as the Eddie James Memorial Trophy is presented to the leading rusher in the West Division to this day. A lot for Gerry to live up to then, and the shadow of the father was there again in Gerry’s nickname ‘Kid Dynamite’.

Many would have crumbled under the pressure and expectation of the name, but not Gerry James. He joined the Winnipeg Blue Bombers out of High School in 1952 at the age of 18. He would be a Blue Bomber from 1952 to 1964, before finishing with a final season in Saskatchewan.

In his first two seasons he was mainly on special teams, but in 1954 as a running back he had 106 carries for 576 yards and 4 touchdowns. That earned him the Most Outstanding Canadian Award in the first year it was presented. It was an award he would win again in 1957.

Throughout his time with Winnipeg, the Blue Bombers often utilised a three-back attack, with the focal point being the great Leo Lewis. However, in 1955 he had a great season with 189 carries for 1,205 yards, (6.4 yards per carry), and 7 touchdowns. He missed the 1956 season but returned in 1957 with 197 carries covering 1,192 yards, (6.1 yards per carry), and 18 touchdowns. He also caught a TD for 19 overall on the season.

He never really matched those numbers again, but still made significant contributions to the Winnipeg cause. Like Ploen he also displayed his versatility, handling conversions and field goals pretty regularly from 1960 onwards.

That versatility was even better demonstrated however by the fact that he was a two-sport star. He played for the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1955 to 1960 becoming the first player to appear in a Stanley Cup and Grey Cup final in the same year.

Overall, he had 995 carries covering 5,554 yards and made 143 kick conversions, and 40 Field Goals. He was on the four Grey Cup winning teams with Ploen in 1958, 1959, 1961 and 1962. As well as appearing with Winnipeg in the 1953 and 1957 Grey Cup games.

He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1981.

You can read more about each player on the Blue Bombers own website, where they have paid tribute to Ploen here, and James here.



Chris originally started following the NFL with the ‘first wave’ of fans when it was shown on Channel 4 in the 1980’s. He has been a keen supporter of the Miami Dolphins since 1983. Chris first encountered the CFL in 2016 and instantly fell in love with the Canadian game. He has been writing about the CFL 2017. Chris has a degree in history, postgraduate degree in librarianship and can be found on twitter as @CFLfanUK