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One day it might be seen as the starting point in a long run of league dominance. For now it’s an uncomfortable topic.
Many Calgary Stampeders remain haunted by last November’s historic upset in the 104th Grey Cup Championship, a 39-33 loss to the Ottawa REDBLACKS in overtime.
“I haven’t even watched it yet,” sophomore receiver DaVaris Daniels told CFL.ca in an interview during Mark’s CFL Week last month in Regina. “I’ve been trying to get to it. I actually tried to get to it last week but my iPad was dead. So I was just like, it’s not meant to be, I’m not supposed to watch it.
“It’s been tough. Knowing how it ended and everything was tough.”
This, of course, is the Canadian Football League, where no lead is safe and any team can win on any given day. But when the 15-2-1 Calgary Stampeders took on the sub .500 Ottawa REDBLACKS that Sunday night in November, the Stamps simply expected to win.
The Stampeders were the heavy favourite that night in Toronto. And maybe, as their star quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell concedes, a little over-confident.
“I think the cockiness and the big-headedness came from being very, very respectful of BC and knowing who they were and how explosive they were and the way we handled them,” said Mitchell.
“I think we got very, very confident in that fact. It was like, ‘oh man, this is it. We did it. We got past BC’.
The Stamps had handled their closest regular season competition in convincing fashion, defeating the Lions 42-15 in the Western Final in a game that was over by halftime.
One more win would seal one of the single greatest seasons the CFL has ever seen for a team, and it was against a REDBLACKS squad Calgary had beaten 48-23 back in September.
“In your head you’re like, ‘hey, Edmonton’s going to make it’, and then you see Ottawa and you’re almost like, ‘oh nice. Henry’s been a bit hurt, they’ve had some quarterback controversy. It’s going to be a good thing for us’,” said Mitchell.
“Then seeing Henry get hurt in pre-game, you’re like, ‘oh man, we have this. They’re not going to be locked in the right way’.”
Of the five sub-.500 teams that had made the Grey Cup previously, two had come out on top. And before last November, the biggest upset by win differential in a Grey Cup was in 2001 when the 8-10 Stamps took down the 14-4 Bombers, 27-19.
On this occasion, Burris overcame that pre-game knee injury before etching his name in the CFL history book with 461 passing yards, the fourth-highest ever in a Grey Cup, to go with five combined touchdowns. He was the Grey Cup MVP on a wonky knee at age 41.
Mitchell, the league’s Most Outstanding Player after throwing for 5,385 yards, 32 touchdowns and only eight interceptions during the regular season, threw three interceptions in the loss.
Looking back, Mitchell says he would have played the game differently. The Stamps’ quarterback admits he tried to force some things.
“One thing [Head Coach Dave Dickenson and General Manager John Hufnagel] said to me was ‘you had one of the best seasons in CFL history but did you try and put a stamp on it at the end of the year?’ And I was like, ‘yeah’.
“I wanted to make all the big plays and the big throws and almost engineer things to happen instead of letting my athletes make plays,” he continued. “I changed that up in the second half and we came back and made things happen but just fell short at the very end.”
History’s greatest dynasties are often traced to a single altering event. Last November’s upset may just have created a monster.
The Stampeders were one of the CFL’s best regular season teams ever in 2016 and now they have something to stew over. And that, no one’s uncomfortable talking about.
“It hurts. To make it that far and make it deep and barely lose a game,” said Stamps defensive end Charleston Hughes, the CFL’s sack leader last season with 16 quarterback takedowns. “To have a winning season like that and to lose in the championship, it’s bittersweet and it hurts. But at the same time you have to find a way to learn upon the mistakes that were made in that game and come back even better.”
A nine-year CFL veteran, Hughes could have tested free agency coming off the second-best season of his career. But on top of the desire to finish his career in red and white was also the unfinished business.
“I think other teams should be scared,” said Hughes. “We’re going to come back and we’re going to be a better team and we’re not going to make the same mistakes twice.
“We’re going to make better decisions this season. We’re gunning for nothing but a championship.”
It’s resonated with Jerome Messam, too. The Stamps’ power running back led the CFL with 1,198 rushing yards last season and infamously didn’t get the football on a second-and-short with the chance to win the Grey Cup in regulation.
Nothing has changed Messam’s world more than the birth of his daughter but what happened last November will motivate him.
“It’s definitely a motivating factor to come so far and have the season we did for it to come down to the last two seconds of the game,” said Messam. “We know the game could have had a different outcome but we also know we fell short.
“We can’t put any blame or point the finger at anyone besides us as individuals. We’ll see what we can do to change things and be better and bounce back this year.”
“I’ll be bottling that feeling and taking a drink out of it before every single game. It’s like that spinach for Popeye.”
Bo Levi Mitchell on Grey Cup heartbreak
For Mitchell, meanwhile, it’s a feeling he never wants to experience again. That always wondering what could have — or maybe what should have been.
The Katy, Texas native has felt it multiple times now. He was on the sidelines and even took on mop up duty when the 14-4 Stampeders fell to the 9-9 Argos in the 100th Grey Cup Championship in Toronto back in 2012.
“That feeling, it teaches the young guys and it humbles the old guys,” said Mitchell. “In the CFL, anybody can win any given day.”
The Stamps’ quarterback also welcomed a baby daughter to the world this off-season, putting some of these things into perspective.
Mitchell will bear that on his shoulders come June, but that’s not all.
“The one thing I remember, looking back at the game, is staring at the scoreboard and being in such disbelief like ‘there’s no way. There’s no way this is real. Something’s going to happen and I’m going to wake up and the game’s going to be tomorrow and we’re going to play and we’re going to beat them’,” said Mitchell.
“I’ll be bottling that feeling and taking a drink out of it before every single game. It’s like that spinach for Popeye. Every single time I go into a game, that’s the feeling I’m going to think about and you’re not going to want to be up against me next year.”