He wasn’t overly big for a linebacker, at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, but Mike Widger compensated with speed, agility and, most of all, intelligence.
And like many professional football players in the 1970s, he lived as hard off the field as he played on it.
“To me, he was always an exceptional player because he had great natural instincts,” said Wally Buono, the general manager and head coach of the British Columbia Lions. “The game came very easy to him, cerebrally. He was always very sharp. He wasn’t necessarily the greatest specimen, but don’t let that fool you. He was a tremendous player,”
Widger, who spent seven seasons with the Alouettes from 1970-76, passed away on March 3 at the Golden Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Salem, N.J. The cause of death wasn’t immediately known. Widger was 67.
Widger, a native of Pennsville, N.J., completed his Canadian Football League career in 1978, following two seasons with the Ottawa Rough Riders. An East Division all-star six times, he was named a league all-star in 1973, ’74, ’75 and ’77. He won two Grey Cups with Montreal — in 1970, when the third-place team upset Calgary, and again in 1974. The Als lost the championship game the following season. Widger played collegiately at Virginia Tech, where he was an all-American.
Widger’s impact wasn’t fully recognized statistically, since quarterback sacks and defensive tackles weren’t recorded at that time. But he had 10 career interceptions and a mind-boggling 23 fumble recoveries, scoring two touchdowns. He was considered one of the best linebackers of his era and didn’t miss a game his first eight seasons. He was the Als’ nominee as outstanding defensive player in 1974 — the first year of the award.
Widger was part of a gifted Als linebacking corps that included Carl Crennel, Chuck Zapiec and Canadian Buono, who doubled as the team’s punter. Widger’s nickname was Crescent St. Mike and, in retirement, was one of the owner’s of The Longest Yard, a downtown Montreal bar.
“He was old school. He played hard and smart. He was very tough and had a knack for making plays. He could beat you with his smarts and he could beat you physically. He just made plays,” Buono said. “At times, you wondered how the hell does he do it? He’s not in shape. He’s hung over half the time. I don’t know if he ever slept. But when it came to playing, he played.
“I’ve always thought Mike Widger was a great player and a tremendously good teammate. He was a guy that probably lived high on both ends of the spectrum. He lived life hard and played hard. I’m not sure which one he was better at.
“This is disturbing news.”
Peter Dalla Riva, the former Als’ legendary tight end, said Widger was fast, agile and smart. Dalla Riva compared him to Calgary’s Wayne Harris and Edmonton’s Dan Kepley, two of the game’s leading linebackers at the time.
“He was a heck of a ballplayer. He was real smart and he really knew the game. He was a big part of our teams in the 1970s,” Dalla Riva said. “He knew tendencies. Some guys just know the game — the angles. You learn that with experience. But he had it from the start and that’s why he was a defensive captain.
“He was a team man and you could depend on him. He had your back and he came to play. He wasn’t overly big or powerful. He worked the whole field, from sideline to sideline.
“This news came as a surprise and it came out of the blue.”
Marv Levy, the Als’ head coach for five of the team’s most productive seasons, said he was always impressed by Widger’s work ethic. It was a bond shared by many of his teammates, which helped Montreal to great success.
“The team orientation character. Those were some of the qualities I saw in so many of them,” said Levy, now 90. “He was bright and always into it. He served as a great example.
“This is sad news to hear.”
Widger is survived by three brothers and a sister. His funeral will be held Thursday evening in Pennsville. The burial will be private.