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Trevor Harris and Dane Evans. Greg Ellingson and Brandon Banks. Larry Dean and Simoni Lawrence.
The Eastern Final has all the star power and marquee matchups you could ever wish for but lost in the early week discussion has been special teams.
Hugh O’Neill and Sean Whyte have had exceptional seasons for the Green and Gold in punting and kicking respectively while the Tiger-Cats’ one man show Lirim Hajrullahu has set new standards for himself in a variety of statistical categories.
What about the return game though? These are the guys who can so often change a game in a moments notice through one cut and a burst of speed. In the year of the return touchdown, wouldn’t it make sense for a Grey Cup ticket for Edmonton, Hamilton, Saskatchewan or Winnipeg to be punched through a jaw dropping change of momentum return touchdown?
These returns are the stuff of history. You remember them because, unlike a big running play or long pass, they come out of absolutely nowhere. Somehow over time the return touchdown has been able to remain one of the more stunning plays in sports and should Sunday’s Eastern Final come down to one man to send the Ticats onto the Grey Cup, it might just be Frankie Williams.
He has collected 1,071 kickoff return yards, 949 punt return yards and two return touchdowns in 2019. He’s the man who also served as the only full-time corner to take the vast majority of returns for his team.
So what return was Williams’ favourite?
“To be honest, I haven’t taken a look back yet but one would be the Sask game to start the year off right,” Williams said. “That was just a lot of hard work coming into camp and it paid off immediately it gave us that trust, foundation and belief that we could go out and execute.”
Back in Week 1, I wrote about that return for CFL.ca and how it set a tone for the season. I had no idea how productive returners across the league would be this season but Frankie has been crowned King amongst them as the East nominee for Most Outstanding Special Teams player against Winnipeg tackling machine Mike Miller.
This is a much different Ticats team from that Week 1 return touchdown against the Riders, however, and Williams credits the journey to the Eastern Final for helping Hamilton’s special teams units get prepared for Sunday’s showcase.
“I think with the guys we have in the locker room there are a lot of leaders,” he said. “We don’t look back but we learn from our mistakes, we build upon them and everyday we come in wanting to work hard because there’s no substitute for those things.”
Earlier this season in Week 4, the CFL on TSN had a shot of Frankie standing by himself awaiting a punt to drop out of the Montreal sky into his waiting arms. I put myself in his shoes.
I felt tension. I felt anticipation. He felt the need to dance.
Cool as could be, at least on the outside. So what is the mentality of an elite return man as he waits for his chance to change the game?
“Each and every rep I get I look down the field and think about the effort they (blockers) put in every play,” he said. “All I have to do is secure the ball, follow my blocks and we’re gone. It’s hard to explain what the guys in front of me mean. They’re selfless, relentless, they play with passion and heart. That allows us to play as one.”
One. That might be all the Ticats need from Frankie Williams on Sunday in a sold out Tim Hortons Field, sure to be supercharged by the playoff atmosphere and collective spirit of the now annual ‘blackout.’
“When you step in between the white lines and you’re in all black all you have to do is look into your teammates eyes,” Williams said. “We know that all black sets the tempo of the game before we ever kickoff. When somebody is wearing that all black you already know what it means, they mean business.”
Frankie Williams means business this season. When he steps into his office against the Eskimos Sunday he just might be the man to break open the Eastern Final and send Hamilton to their first Grey Cup appearance since 2014.