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O’Leary: Stallions only waved the CFL flag

It was 25 years ago this month that history was made on a number of fronts in the CFL.

Twenty-five years ago, the Baltimore Stallions won their first and only Grey Cup, marking the first and only time that the trophy was claimed by an American team. They accomplished that feat in front of an enormous crowd of 52,064 people at Mosaic Stadium. It seems a little crazy to think back to that day and remember that it was the first time in the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ long history that they’d hosted a Grey Cup.

On Nov. 19, 1995, the Stallions avenged their Grey Cup loss from the year before and downed the Calgary Stampeders 37-20. Tracy Ham was named the game’s MVP, passing for 213 yards and dancing through Calgary’s defence for a rushing touchdown. In a losing effort, Calgary receiver Dave Sapunjis was the game’s top Canadian (eight catches for 113 yards).

In another shocking first, many of the green-clad fans at Mosaic that day, arguably the most die hard and loyal of all fans in the CFL, cheered for the Stampeders. Short of needing a Stampeders’ win to help the Riders’ playoff chances, can you ever think of a time this would happen?

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Such was the extent of the emotion that the prospect of an American team winning the Grey Cup drew from fans. It was a theme in the 1994 Grey Cup game, where BC Lions’ kicker Lui Passaglia’s field goal with zeros on the clock gave the Lions (and Canada, some would argue) the win. As the Stallions marched through the 1995 season — they won their final 13 games en route to the Cup — the sentiment grew.

When it was over and the Stallions hoisted the Cup and a celebration erupted on the field, it wasn’t a unanimous feeling.

“I’m really disappointed. I feel like we let down Canada,” Calgary linebacker Matt Finlay told the Regina Leader-Post after the game.

“I’ve been a Canadian supporter of the CFL my whole life. We wanted to keep the Grey Cup in Canada, but we lost. It’s going to the States and we don’t even know where.”

The anti-American portion of the CFL fan base only had to endure its worst case scenario the one time. The U.S. expansion era came to its end before the 1996 season would start. Ultimately, the Stallions would end up taking their entire operation, Grey Cup and all, to Montreal to become the version of the Alouettes that we know today.

In their haste to leave — the Cleveland Browns moved overnight onto their turf, casting a long shadow over them on their way out of town — the Stallions didn’t really get a chance to celebrate the win in the city the way they wanted to. That wouldn’t take place in Baltimore until 2015, on the team’s 20th anniversary.

It may not be surprising to hear this, but the U.S.-Canada rivalry was mostly a one-sided affair. The Stallions were made up of American CFL players that knew the league and Canada well. They didn’t feel the need to take up a Hacksaw Jim Duggan-style flag waving approach to their time playing out of the States.

“It’s going to take some time to reflect on this thing and let it set in,” receiver Gerald Alphin told CBC Sports in the post-game.

“Everyone’s elated with the win, it’s been a long time coming personally, for myself. I’m happy to be here with this association. We’re bringing it home to Baltimore.”

Speaking with the Canadian Press over the summer, running back Mike Pringle said that players “found (it) hurtful that (fans) would make that distinction.”

“We were all CFL players going after a CFL championship and I hope that’s what people remember,” he said.

Stallion’s d-lineman Demetrious Maxie echoed that sentiment.

“We never talked about Canadian or American,” Maxie, now the d-line coach with the Edmonton Football Team said.

“It was never an American-Canadian rival, it was a CFL rival. Who had the best team? Baltimore, I believe they had to redeem themselves after that loss in ’94 to BC. It was Canadian players that played on Calgary and BC that played American football. None of that stuff never was in our thought process. Our thought process was just beating a solid, good football team, not beating a Canadian football team; beating a solid good pro football team in the CFL.”

A quarter of a century later, the Baltimore win is an interesting footnote in the league’s history. Pringle, a 2008 Canadian Football Hall of Famer, should have his wish today. The Stallions were an anomaly and a great team. Time should heal any other bitter wounds.

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