It All Comes Down to the Players in the Grey Cup
The Grey Cup week in many ways is all about the players because despite all the coaching and preparation it ultimately comes down to what happens on the field and the ability to execute the game plan.
For the members of the Toronto Argonauts and Calgary Stampeders, who will make history playing in the 105 edition of the Canadian Football League championship game this Sunday in Ottawa, this will be about memories.
Throughout the week, they will be featured in a multitude of TV, radio, print and online stories. Such is the magnitude of the Grey Cup – that one game a year that stands on its own as a unique piece of Canadiana.
It is a national championship played exclusively by Canadian-based teams but with players from Canada and the United States – Nationals and Internationals – that separates it from any other trophy that is part of our country.
I covered many Cups and always found it interesting to ask what the game means to the players who have come from different corners of the football globe. For one game, this will be their moment to make history. There will be some who go into the game as virtual unknowns and emerge as celebrated heroes; whose names and stories will be part of the lore of this sport.
To be sure, there will be tons of stories this year about Argo quarterback Ricky Ray, the future Hall of Famer, who goes into the game not knowing if this will be his last with Toronto or possibly the last of his career. The 38-year-old indicated in a story last week with the Toronto Sun he is uncertain of his football future beyond this season. Time is not necessarily on his side, which is why winning this Grey Cup may mean more to him than anything else he has done in his brilliant CFL career. There have been others such as Damon Allen, Anthony Calvillo and Henry Burris who collectively defied time by winning the Grey Cup when supposedly their shelf life had expired.
I can remember back in 2002 when Ray began his CFL career with the Edmonton Eskimos with a background that seemed as if it was scripted by someone with a whimsical flair. A native of that pleasantly-named Happy Camp, California, which has a population of less than 2,000, Ray had worked as a driver for Frito Lay at one point when he had been out of the game following his college graduation at Sacramento State but with aspirations of playing professionally. A few games into his rookie year he was thrust into the starter’s job because first-string quarterback Jason Maas suffered an injury. Thus, began the legend of Ricky Ray, who became known as Frito Ray. How he evolved into the Eskimos’ full-time starter and led them to a Grey Cup championship in his second year after losing the game in his first season in Edmonton is something that will be told and re-told this week and revisited when he is enshrined in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. There has never been a CFL quarterback who threw a ball as wonderfully as Ray, putting the right type of arc and touch on a pass, particularly the corner fade. That is his signature throw. It is a work of art. Nor has there been a player of Ray’s stature who has played with such controlled emotion.
On the flip side, there is Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, who is only 27 and is carving out a Hall of Fame career of his own. He, too, came into the CFL as a virtual unknown but gradually worked his way into becoming a starter and won the Grey Cup fairly early into his career. He is more of gunslinger than Ray and visibly shows emotion.
Last year, it was Burris who won the Cup for the Ottawa Redblacks and ended his career in storybook fashion. Maybe that will be the case with Ray. Who knows? Anything can happen.
This is what makes sports so uniquely different from life. Careers and legends are built yard by yard and captured in television frame by frame.
For some players, the Grey Cup will new and for some who are more fortunate it will be one of many, yet each game is different. Like a snowflake, no Grey Cup is the same.
After the West Division Final, I watched the interview with Calgary running back Roy Finch, who is in his second season with the Stamps and third overall in the CFL. He talked about what it means to be a CFL player, sacrificing time away from families to pursue a career. Many of these players come from the U.S. and leave their families for six months to play a brand of three-down football they may not have been totally familiar with growing up, nor for that matter Canada or its history. The CFL has allowed them to learn about both. They will return home in the off-season, either savouring the sweet taste of victory or the bitter taste of defeat. For some, this may be their one and only Grey Cup.
Finch and many other members of the Stamps would love nothing more than to return a year later and rewrite the script.
The Stampeders are largely a group of players that has been compared to the New England Patriots in terms of their numerous trips to the Grey Cup. This will be their fourth trip in six years and fifth in 10 years. It is one thing to get to the Cup; it is quite another to win it.
This will be Toronto’s second Grey Cup game in six years. They played and defeated the Stamps in 2012 in the 100th edition of the Cup, played in Toronto, with Ray as quarterback in his first season with the Argos. If you believe in football gods and fantasy, that was surely something that had been scripted ahead of time. But if the Argos win this year, it will give new meaning to the expression fantasy football. The 2017 team is only a shade of that 2012 team in terms of the same personnel. The Argos began free agency in February without a general manager or a head coach, so who could have possibly conceived they would make it to the Grey Cup? Yes, you can pinpoint to the magnificent backgrounds of GM Jim Popp and head coach Marc Trestman, but they basically cobbled together a group of players on the fly. The only certainty was that Ray would begin training camp as the starting quarterback because Trestman talked to him before taking the job and felt confident by what he had heard. Trestman and Popp have won Grey Cups together in Montreal. This is a new chapter in their careers.
Dave Dickenson has won a Grey Cup as player with Calgary, but is looking to add to that as a Head coach with the Stamps in only his second season. The torch was handed to him by John Hufnagel, who stepped into the GM role because he felt confident in Dickenson. Consistency has been a theme of the Stamps, which has made them such an outstanding organization.
This all comes down to one game and anything can happen – and then it all starts anew next June.
GENE, GENE THE DANCING MACHINE: Does anyone remember Gene, Gene The Dancing Machine, a character on that crazy ‘70s TV show The Gong Show? Well, let me tell you about another Gene, who can dance up a storm, too.
Gene Mack is a onetime linebacker from the ‘70s with the Toronto Argonauts, and we have become friends over the years. He’s been wanting to go to an Argos game with me, so last Sunday I went with Gene and two friends, Bill Kahansky and Jaime Macdonald, to watch the East Division final at BMO Field. The Argos were hosting the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and though I wanted to get there early to introduce Gene to some current players, it just didn’t work out. We couldn’t get close enough to the field.
Last December, Gene had a foot amputated only three weeks after he was diagnosed with diabetes. But he is still rocking and rolling and wants to do some motivational speaking to talk about his life and his career, both as an athlete and as an actor. He’s appeared in various films, TV shows and commercials.
He was a regular on the former TSN show Off The Record and became quite popular for speaking his mind and getting into his some heated discussions with some of the other guests. I never knew if Gene was being real or simply acting. He has a lot of opinions, but he’s a great guy to get to know and talk about sports or any other subject matter.
Before the game, we had a chance to chat with Peter Martin, a onetime Argo player and team broadcaster. He used to jokingly call me Poison Pen because of my articles.
Pete played with Gene in 1971 when the Argos won the East Division in a two-game series against Hamilton. The second game was almost 46 years to the exact date of this year’s final.
The Argos went on to play Calgary in the Grey Cup and lost. Gene and Pete never made it back to the Grey Cup as players. That was their moment and it didn’t end as they had hoped. But they love the CFL and are great ambassadors.
“Win or lose the Grey Cup, the memories of participating and of being there is what all players will remember,” Gene said. “Being in the Grey Cup game, you never forget that. But, man, you’ve got to win because you may never get back again.”
That’s Gene, still bringing it.