VANCOUVER — Nothing ever comes down to one play until it does, until there are no other roads left that haven’t been washed away. The 102nd Grey Cup was a long climb, and for a long time the Calgary Stampeders were the better team, the best team, and Hamilton teetered on the edge. It was going to be another blowout. You could feel it.
And then with 55 seconds left Calgary’s backup punter was told to kick the damned ball out of bounds, because little Brandon Banks was back there and he had been getting closer all day, like water searching out the cracks. The Tiger-Cats were down two touchdowns early, down 20-7 to begin the fourth quarter, a team that started the season 1-6, way back when.
And they clawed their way back play by play, minute by minute, and they were down four points, now. The five-foot-seven, 153-pound Banks took three punts to the house the week before against Montreal, though one was called back for a penalty. They call him Speedy. One play.
“I’ve been told by my head coach not to comment on the call, but when they kicked to him I was excited,” said Hamilton offensive lineman Brian Simmons, who played against Banks in high school in North Carolina, and again in university. “I was like, this is a hell of an ending. What other guy could end this like that?
“And once I saw the flag, that dream died.”
The punt missed and Banks caught the ball at his own 20, not two yards from the left sideline, and he shot to his right. Calgary linebacker Karl McCartney overpursued and the play turned to a tumbling chaotic race and Banks blazed across the wide field and 52,056 fans went up like dry corn in a wildfire and he crossed the goal line with his arms wide and 35 seconds left and he collapsed. Lord above.
And 90 yards before Hamilton linebacker Taylor Reed, a 23-year-old rookie from Beaumont, Texas, had pushed McCartney in the back, two hands, right at the 20, and an orange flag sat on the turf. Obvious call. Banks fell to the turf and pounded it with his hand. Calgary, a great team that deserves everything it got, won the 102nd Grey Cup 20-16 in front of 52,056. You could hear them celebrating in the Tiger-Cats locker room, a dull roar. The men in the Hamilton room stared at nothing, yelled angrily, sat with their faces in their hands.
“I made it too close for the referee,” said Reed, sombre. “I’m taking full responsibility on that, man.
“We fought back. That fight is not only in this team, man, but that fight speaks to the city of Hamilton itself. It’s a rough city, and just a resilient town, man, a gritty city. And unfortunately, I let the city down, man. Let this team down.
“What ifs, you know? Knowing Speedy, he probably didn’t much need it.”
He didn’t. He was already gone. In the room one Tiger-Cat yelled out, “It was definitely no yards, man. 100 per cent, no f------ yards,” and he was right; McCartney was three or four yards away when Banks made the catch. You might have been able to call holding somewhere, too. None of that mattered.
“Speedy, he thought he was walking across the goal line with the Grey Cup-winning ball in his hands,” said Hamilton guard Peter Dyakowski.
“He’s furious, he’s livid,” said Simmons. “I really don’t think nobody should interview him right now.”
“We need to get better (at officiating) as a league,” said Hamilton head coach Kent Austin. “It changes lives. It’s important.”
Calgary deserved this Grey Cup. They went 15-3 in a year where the league was otherwise a mess, and quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell was surgical for most of the night, throwing for 334 yards and giving Calgary a lead they never gave all the way back.
But a 45-yard Banks touchdown catch closed the gap to 17-7 at halftime, and Hamilton quarterback Zach Collaros was gutty and terrific. There were other plays, other hinges that the game could have swung on. A blocked field goal in the second quarter. A terribly conservative Tiger-Cats play call on second-and-goal from the three-yard line, down 20-10 with 6:17 left.
Everywhere you went during this Grey Cup week, most everyone you talked to said the same thing: we need a game. After this season where offence-only scoring plummeted 23 per cent and the officiating was wretched and the games were hard to watch, we need a game. In some corners, it sounded like a prayer.
They got a game, and nearly got the greatest ending any Grey Cup could ever ask for. But that flag sat there burning on the turf, and next thing you knew there were 313-pound Stampeders linemen riding Calgary’s big beautiful white horse and brandishing a Stampeders flag, and they deserved it.
Hamilton, meanwhile, just hurt. As the Tiger-Cats locker room was opened Banks shot out fully dressed, his faux-gold headphones around his skinny neck, hat pulled low, sunglasses hiding his eyes. He cut through the crowd and he never stopped, saying, “I ain’t talking to nobody.” He left the building, people said, into the freezing Vancouver night. Brandon Banks was gone, and this time nobody could pull him back.