The End of The Regular Season Breaks Up The Regular Routine For Players
One can only imagine the thoughts of Canadian Football League players whose season came to an end last week because their teams did not qualify for the playoffs.
I’ve often thought that as difficult as it is physically for players, mentally and emotionally it must be hard to suddenly break from a routine that began in training camp.
Players come and go as management make decisions on players’ careers and lives. For those who make it to the regular season and start to collect paycheques, there is a singular goal of making it all the way to the end in November and win a Grey Cup.
In the next three weeks, that final game will be played and every player will have concluded the 2017 season.
But that has already come for the players who had to clean out their lockers after the season ended – a practice I’ve seen which was always quite fascinating as a human experience. Sandwiched in cubicles next to another in a room of various dimensions and sizes, this is their home; this is their sanctuary to bond together and share the common element that they play a game for a living.
The CFL is unique because it is a blend of Canadian players, identified as Nationals, and Americans, identified as Internationals. They come together from various parts of North America, some of whom are new to the CFL and are learning on the fly about its history and culture.
It is always interesting talking to a player who comes to the CFL and gets it. Doug Flutie has often said he had more fun playing in the CFL than in any other league in which he played. It was the wide field, the extra man, the ability to call his own plays – he had freedom to do what he wanted.
But when that final game is played, whether it’s at the end of the regular season or the Grey Cup, the players know that whatever happens in the future cannot in any way replicate what they have just experienced. It’s been said that from one season to the next, there could be a 25% change in players. Some players retire. Some are traded. Some leave via free agency or other reasons. Nothing is permanent, but whatever happened during that season is a memory they will take with them forever.
And that’s what makes football, in particular for the CFL and its players, something that goes beyond the gridiron. They play a sport defined by a season of a particular length and schedule, mandated times to begin their days and be part of a group. No one outside of these players can truly appreciate that routine. In the regular working world, there is a fairly set schedule defined by occupations that run Monday to Friday with weekends off, or some other pattern. It’s the life of an athlete, in this case a CFL player, which is so different.
I thought of this in particular for the B.C. Lions, Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Montreal Alouettes, whose players participated in their final games of the season last week, some not knowing if they had played their final game with those teams or even if they had played the final game of their career. Surely every one of those players must have appreciated the opportunity to play that final game, even if was meaningless in the standings, because that’s what they do. Players such as Hamilton’s Jeremiah Masoli and Zack Collaros, two quarterbacks battling for the starters job in a season full of odd moments stitched together, stated they want to be back with the Ticats next season. Who knows what the Ticats will do going forward? Their interim head coach June Jones, who said he wants to be back, took a team that was going through a string of eight games without a victory and turned it around to go 6-4 the rest of the way. He liberated the shackles of some players and it worked. But just when the Ticats were really putting it together, their season ended. So that dramatic energy that brought them closer together in their pursuit of the post-season ended abruptly, albeit on a winning note.
I thought of Montreal Alouettes’ rush end John Bowman, who a few weeks ago provided what I thought was the defining moment of the season, far more impactful than all those amazing one-handed catches. Bowman, one of the greatest rush ends in CFL history, started to cry on the sidelines during a losing game against Edmonton. Any hope of making it into the post-season mathematically ended with that defeat.
“I just really wanted to make the playoffs,” he said in a Montreal Gazette story. “That was my goal coming into the year. I wanted to give this team an opportunity to hoist the Cup again. I’m just going to finish off my last three games and we’ll see.”
If it was indeed his final game, he did what he has been doing for 12 seasons, making sacks and celebrating like a kid happy to be strapping on the pads.
I thought of the Lions’ players, in particular quarterback Travis Lulay, who was enjoying a renaissance as the starter for a few games until he suffered a season-ending injury. Again, as physically debilitating as that injury was, you could tell it was the emotional pain he was feeling.
For the players going forward in the playoffs, it is a week to week proposition. Win and they keep going, lose and it will be time to clean out their lockers.
The weather might be brutally cold for those players still chasing the Grey Cup, but that is a small burden because the championship is in sight and, as the Ottawa Redblacks proved last season, miracles do happen, sometimes in a single, defining play.
I used to admire players during Grey Cup week wearing shorts, no matter how cold. Calgary fullback Duane Forde wore shorts for practice during a brutally cold Grey Cup week in which the Stampeders were one of the two finalists. I asked him how he managed to block out the elements.
“It’s mind over matter,” he said. “If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
He said Pinball Clemons, the Zen master of football psychology and life, used to say that.
So whatever the weather, the players whose teams are in the playoffs will relish the experience. It is this memory that will be there’s forever.
I think it was Don Matthews who told his players before a Grey Cup game, “Give me 60 minutes for a lifetime of memories.”
In the end, those memories can never be erased.