November 25, 2012

Players dismiss notion of pressure heading into big game

Adam Gagnon/

After a week of graciously answering questions focused on how significant the 100th Grey Cup is for him personally, Kevin Glenn was asked about pressure. Does it exist, underneath the pads? Calgary’s quarterback screwed his face like someone had just told him he was too skittish to start Sunday night.

“This is a football game,” Glenn said after Calgary’s final walk-through Saturday. “I’ve been doing this for what? Eighteen regular season games, two playoff games. And now this is the last one.

“Pressure means you’re sweating and worried about, ‘Oh I don’t know if I really want to go out and play this game’ — that’s pressure…Those 18 regular season games was pressure enough, and you have to win those games to get to this point. But we’ve made it; now we just got to go out and play.”

Glenn was completely incredulous. Stampeders slotback Nik Lewis, defensive lineman Charleston Hughes, and Argonauts centre Jeff Keeping, and defensive back Ahmad Carroll were also disbelieving — Pressure is just a fear of failure perpetuated by the media, they said.

100th Grey Cup Centre

The 100th Grey Cup Championship matchup is set, as the Calgary Stampeders will duel the host Toronto Argonauts. Here is everything you need to know ahead of Sunday’s game.

Click here to view page

“[Calgary and Toronto] weren’t supposed to be here. We’re the No. 2s in both divisions,” Carroll said.

“When you think about it, the pressure was on Montreal and B.C. [in the division finals]. This is going to be a good game because you’ve got two teams that really have nothing to lose. We’re expecting fake field goals, on-side kicks, double moves by receivers, [Calgary] taking a shot on his first play.

 “No pressure.”

Anwar Stewart disagrees. Ahead of his ninth Grey Cup appearance, Calgary’s 36-year-old defensive end chuckled and said pressure exists in that deep place inside a player’s stomach. It feels like you have gas.

“It is almost like having gas — there is just something inside, and you just don’t feel right… and it is a good thing,” Stewart said.

“I was telling some of the guys when they come [into the Rogers Centre Sunday], the lights are going to be five times brighter and there is going to be so much stuff going on, and sometimes you’re not going to be able to breath,” Stewart said.

“I’ve told them ‘You guys are just going to have to relax, take it all in, and take it as a normal game,’ Right?”

It is almost impossible to view the 100th Grey Cup as just another game, ignoring the taglines and headlines. Saturday — with players snapping photos and laughing loud in front of the media — was the final untroubled hours. Sunday is the tremendous test, over 60 minutes on an 110-yard field.

Maybe pressure is the wrong emotion. Maybe each superhero-sized player, on his own, is feeling worry or nervousness or excitement. Maybe it is all of them. Packed into the middle of the heavy energy of 50,000 people Sunday will be 84 (42 players on each team) shades of tension.

“It is more about looking around the locker room and seeing guys you’ve played with for eight years, and as much as I want to win for me, I want those guys to celebrate victory so bad,” Keeping said.

“The emotion…right now I’m just anxious, I just want to play so bad.”

As always, the most composed athletes harness momentum — the  transference of pressure. The Argos led the league in turnovers, and the takeaway/ giveaway ratio (+10). And one of the league’s stingiest pass defences — with a league best 58.8% pass completion percentage allowed — nabbed 24 interceptions.

But Toronto was also outscored 445 to 491 in the first half (-46) throughout the season, second worst in the league, and slow starts have bled into the playoffs. Glenn and the Stampeders stretched the field immediately against B.C. in the West Final, and long touchdown passes to receivers Marquay McDaniel and Maurice Price gave Calgary a lead it never relinquished.

“Being a part of the team [Toronto defensive coordinator Chris Jones ] has been a part of for the last four years, except this year, you kind of understand how he operates,” Lewis said. “We believe we have the answers for his questions.”

Toronto, however, has shown the ability to adjust and adapt. Against Edmonton, in the East semi-final, and Montreal, in the division final, head coach Scott Milanovich made little adjustments to his pass plays, and Jones did the same with his man-to-man pressure schemes. “We really want to trust the process,” Keeping said.

The Stampeders’ defence believe stopping Toronto naturally means stopping quarterback Ricky Ray. Montreal hit Ray hard last Sunday, rushing sometimes five defenders into his chest; but the Alouettes never not rattled him. Calgary has been stubborn in its execution all season long, persisting through injuries and off field distractions. Hughes sees no reason to change the approach.

“Yeah, I doubt if Ricky Ray will make it through this game without getting hit, at least five times,” he said. “That’s my own number… I see a lot of opportunity.”

“I highly doubt it,” Keeping said.

Expectation is the most overpowering manifestation of tension; but neither team will blink yet, because no player withers before kickoff.
But someone, or several players, will break, because one team has to lose. Ray knows it. But he is not feeling gassy.

“I mean there is pressure. I mean, pressure to just perform well, and do your best to help your team,” Ray said.

“Even though there is going to be more people watching, more people in the stadium — it is a life-changing game if you can win the game —  with all that said, when you’re out there playing you’re not really thinking about that while you’re running a play. I mean, you just focus in on what you’ve got to do, and just play the game.

“As simple, yet as hard as it is, you just focus on what you’ve got in front of you.”