VANCOUVER — Everywhere you went, most everyone you talked to, said the same things, more or less. They talked about how beautiful Vancouver had become when the rain clouds heaved and raced away. They talked about which of the Grey Cup’s traveling carnival of superfans they had seen. Ideally, they got a picture.
But most of all they said one thing: we need a game. A great one, or even a good one. After this season, we need a game. In some corners, it sounded like a prayer.
Prayers often go unanswered, and for a long time that’s what it looked like, but at the end, they had a chance. Hamilton, the underdog, had a chance. The Calgary Stampeders couldn’t run far enough away. With 4:12 left the Tiger-Cats were down 20-13, with the ball. It was 20-16 with 2:05 left. They stopped Calgary with 1:12 left. Hamilton had been climbing a hill all day, and they could almost see the top.
And then Brandon Banks, the genius kick returner who scored twice in the East final, took the ball at the 20 and went right, further, further. He turned the corner. He streaked to the end zone. B.C. Place went crazy.
And one lonely flag sat at the 20, a holding call on linebacker Taylor Reed that Banks didn’t need. The tiny man collapsed on the sideline, pounding the turf. Calgary held on for a 20-16 win in the 102nd Grey Cup.
It was almost the greatest end to the game you could imagine, after a tough year. Scoring by offences dropped 23 per cent this season, a messy tangle of young quarterbacks, quarterback injuries, expansion, officiating, the Canadian-import ratio, you name it, and so many games were hard to watch. And once the playoffs started, the average margin of victory in the first four playoff games had been more than three touchdowns. Attendance was announced at 52,056 — 53,479 below capacity — the result of a second Grey Cup here in a four-year span.
Beforehand the whole production was mounted, piece by piece. Outside, fans streamed through downtown, and the Hamilton men in yellow-and-black plaid kilts marched to B.C. Place alongside the Albertans in their bright red, topped by white or black cowboy hats. The stadium ovens fired, and the cheerleaders ate their box lunches and curled their hair using makeshift mirrors, and the Stampeders horse, a great white stallion of a thing, was kept in its long steel trailer, waiting to be let out. Two Calgary kids, a boy in a black cowboy hat and a girl, a little older, lay down mats so the horse wouldn’t slip on the concrete.
The stadium filled up and the whole thing was assembled and televised, and then it started, and it looked like Calgary was going to commit a murder. Hamilton lost a pile of field position on a Nic Grigsby fumble, and the Tiger-Cats were lucky that Calgary’s Brandon Smith and Juwan Simpson handled the loose ball like it had been greased.
But Bo Levi Mitchell, who threw for 334 yards, had all day to work. Calgary drove smoothly for a 7-0 lead at the 9:32 mark, and then drove smoothly for a second touchdown, 34 seconds into the second quarter. MOP Jon Cornish was mostly being used as a decoy, but Mitchell got almost anything he wanted.
The Tiger-Cats drove, and got a kick blocked. They returned a second-quarter kick for field position, and got called for an unnecessary block. Hamilton, which trailed 31-6 at halftime in Regina last season, was teetering on the brink against a team that was 15-3 for a reason.
And then Zach Collaros just bombed a 45-yarder to Brandon Banks with 1:47 left in the half, and wait, it was a 10-point game at halftime. Could that be right? Huh. Maybe this thing wasn’t over, after all.
But Mitchell rolled off 10 straight completions en route to a field goal to make it 20-7, and it sat there headed into the fourth quarter. Hamilton had four total yards in the first quarter, 181 in the second, and only 21 in the third. They managed a field goal three minutes into the fourth quarter.
Then Mitchell made a mistake, throwing a bad interception to Delvin Breaux at Calgary’s 50 with 11:09 left, and Collaros started stringing together passes, helped by a taunting penalty taken by Calgary’s Buddy Jackson. Hamilton screwed up the end of their drive with some unfortunate conservatism, but pulled to within 20-13 with 5:35 left. One-possession game.
Calgary was without their punter, Rob Maver, whose abdomen was injured on a seismic block from Justin Hickman in the third quarter, leaving Rene Paredes to punt. Hamilton wasn’t dead. The blocked field goal was still hanging around like a ghost, and time was bleeding away. But they got a chance. It was the CFL’s last chance to deliver something, and it took most of the game for it to develop. Finally.
And then it was taken away. The miserable season is over now, if festooned with a bow, and the CFL will have to turn over its game under bright lights in the off-season, to find out why it stopped working so well. But for one day, the biggest day, it was something worth watching. We got a game, all right. But not every prayer was heard.