Saturday, December 19, 2009

If your team has ever lost the "big game"

A couple of weeks ago, was a real "down" week for me, football-wise speaking. First, the Saskatchewan Roughriders lost a heartbreaker in the Grey Cup to Montreal, then the following Thursday, the Oregon State Beavers lost the Civil War to the Oregon Ducks, denying them their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1965. Soon after that, an article appeared on my friend Rod Pedersen's blog. Rod is the radio voice of the Riders, as well as the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League, whom I had the great pleasure to work with on occasion when the Pats visited Portland. Here, with his permission, is a guest column that appeared on his blog, during that week.

From Hall of Fame writer Bob Hughes. Nobody can write better than this in my opinion:

Oh no! Not again!
By Bob Hughes

In the suffocating moments right after the Saskatchewan Roughriders had crash-landed on McMahon Stadium’s cruel turf, knocked out for the count as it were, and the Montreal Alouettes had flown off into the night with the Grey Cup, the phone rang in our house.

“Dad,” my oldest son said from Calgary, “why does this always happen to us?”

Like the little kid with his face pressed flat against the candy store window, the Roughriders just couldn’t get in. They were close enough that the nearly 50,000 people in McMahon Stadium and the millions more in bars and house parties across the nation were rising to their feet in exhilarating joy as the final seconds ticked down in what would turn out to be a Grey Cup for the ages. Only trouble is, the Loyal Disorder of Rider Priders aged so rapidly, it was astounding.

The Big Green Machine had done what it has done too many times in past Grey Cups. It had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. It had tripped at the finish line. It had missed a six-inch putt. It flew a shot over the empty net. It had struck out with the bases loaded. You never saw so many parties come to a crashing halt as you saw on that treacherous Sunday night at the end of November in the year 2009 in a place called Calgary.

Son, let me tell you why “this always happens to us.”

It happens because it happens.

It happened in 1967 because a usually sure-handed receiver named Eddie Buchanan dropped a sure touchdown pass from Ron Lancaster that turned the game around and saw the Riders lose 24-1 in the Grey Cup.

It happened in 1972 because for most of the game the Rider defence had kept Hamilton tight end Tony Gabriel in check. Then, in a moment of obscure coaching genius, the Riders pulled linebacker Wayne Shaw and put in rookie Bill Manchuk, figuring that the younger, faster, taller Manchuk could stay with Gabriel better than Shaw.

“The reason Gabriel didn’t hurt us,” said Shaw, “was because he spent most of the game on his ass. That’s where I put him.”

With Manchuk in the game, Gabriel caught three clutch passes, Ian Sunter kicked a field goal, and Hamilton won the Grey Cup, 13-10. Shaw was so mad that he left Ivor Wynne Stadium, drove to Toronto, and caught the first flight home.

It happened in 1976 because the Riders were unable to move the ball, and eat up the clock. They had to punt. And on a play that everybody in the world knew was coming, including the Rider defence, Tony Gabriel broke free down the middle, caught a pass from Tom Clements, and scored the winning touchdown in a 23-20 Ottawa victory.

It happens. And, it’s never fair.

But, never has anything like this happened to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. It’s one for the books, maybe the next book on the history of the Riders, which should come out in about 100 years or so.

If there is anything that so sadly displayed the cruel and sinister irony of this year’s Grey Cup game, it came in Saturday’s Grey Cup parade. Marching alone was a fan dressed in the garb of the Riders and carrying a sing which boldly declared,

“The 13th Man. Your Worst Nightmare!”

Indeed, it was. Because it was the inability of the players, the coaching staff and everybody outside of the officials to realize that Saskatchewan has 13 men on the field for what would have been the final play of the game. Either the Montreal kicker made it for the win, or missed it. When he missed it, the Rider Nation went nuts. So, did the players and the coaches. They figured the game was over, and they had won.

“The 13th Man. Your Worst Nightmare!”

Indeed, it was. Because the Riders were called for having 13 men on the field. The penalty gave Montreal another shot at winning the game, and they did, and it was like somebody had come out of nowhere and landed a body blow that knocked the air out of the whole province. If you wanted to know what the Riders mean in this province, you needed only to go the corner of Victoria and Albert in downtown Regina.

The police were ready for the fans who would surely flow to the corner when the game ended, knotting traffic, celebrating. They had barricades ready to be set up, and they would close down the streets to handle the biggest party this province had ever seen. Instead, in the hours after the game, only one lonely soldier of the Loyal Disorder of Riders was there. He stood at the intersection, arms raised to the sky, his green and white uniform glowing in the night, wondering sadly, “Where is everybody?”

You could hear Don Meredith singing, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over.”

This will be a loss that will be harder for the Riders to get over than anybody can imagine. It’s one thing to lose in a Grey Cup, it’s another thing to lose the way the Riders did.

One play. One lousy play. One lousy mistake. On what should have been the last play of the game. Too many men on the field. How, everybody wondered, could all the coaches and some of the players not take the responsibility of counting how many players were on the field? The officials did it, so it couldn’t have been that tough. But they blew it, and the fallout is far from over.

But, was it that one misguided, ill-fated moment that cost the Riders the Grey Cup?

Of course not. The Riders played a brilliant game offensively and defensively for three quarters. They corralled the Montreal offence, moved the ball, and got field position from their specialty teams. Sitting on a 16-point lead with just 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, it’s as if the Riders drifted inexplicably and quietly into some sort of a never-never land. Their defence stopped attacking, and started watching. The offence played as if walking on egg shells. And, rapidly, Montreal took over, and before you knew it, it came down to the final play of the game. A 16-point lead had evaporated as quickly as Saskatchewan’s dream of winning the Grey Cup.

The Riders are a young team, on average five years younger than the Als. They made great strides this year. And, if anything good comes out of this Grey Cup loss, it is they learned a valuable lesson.

As the great New York Yankee Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over until it’s over.”

Or, as Ron Lancaster once said after a Grey Cup loss, “Every guy in this dressing room should remember the sick feeling he has in his gut right now, and vow never to have that feeling again.”

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