OTTAWA — So it comes down to this: The Calgary Stampeders, annually the Canadian Football League’s premier program from June through the second week of November, versus Ricky (Frito) Ray, the consummate hard-luck story turned CFL Hall of Famer.
A Calgary team that, somehow, never wins enough of the big games, stuck at seven Grey Cups despite riding that horse through 14 Grey Cup hotel lobbies, and still stinging from having choked in the big game just 12 months ago. Against Ray’s Argos: that forgotten, forsaken orphan of the Toronto sports landscape that has somehow won the last five Grey Cups it has played in — twice beating the Stampeders with heroes ranging from the beer-can dodging Raghib (Rocket) Ismail to ham ‘n’ egger Chad Kackert.
The Argos were a 9-9 team this season, and just 3-7 versus the West. The Stamps? They eat those Eastern clubs for breakfast all season every season — then they get to the big game and a team like the Ottawa Redblacks walks away with the silverware.
“We walked in (to the dressing room), and people were physically sick – people were throwing up. You could hear grown men crying. You don’t forget that,” Alex Singleton, a Stampeders linebacker, recalled of last year’s overtime loss. “They set up both locker rooms to win because it was in overtime, so I still remember the plastic and the tape getting ripped off our lockers. The champagne and beer were sitting in the middle of the room. It was the worst feeling ever.”
In a league as transient as this one, it seems impossible for a personality trait to carry over from one season to the next. But somehow, the John Hufnagel-Dave Dickenson Stampeders have the same Achilles heel as the Wally Bouno-Doug Flutie teams suffered from.
Honestly, the Stamps have been the CFL’s flagship franchise for more seasons than the Edmonton Eskimos since about 1983. Yet, Edmonton has won the same five Cups as Calgary’s in that time, while the oft-broke Argos have won six.
Sunday, the underdog Argonauts will rally behind a quarterback who embodies what makes the CFL a storytellers trove of football survival stories.
In 2002, the quarterback for the Fresno Frenzy Arena League Team, at the behest of his QB coach and former CFLer Rick Worman, pulled into Commonwealth Stadium to try out for some team called the Eskimos. He hailed from Happy Camp, Calif., and had walked away from his job delivering Frito-Lay potato chips in Sacramento to give pro football one last shot.
Sunday, we will watch Ricky Ray’s unflappable poise and Tom Brady-like delivery and wonder if the Argos win: will he pull a Henry Burris and retire on a Grey Cup ring?
“You talk to any of the guys on these teams, and everyone has a story,” Ray said here in Ottawa this week. “Something happened where they got an opportunity, or they overcame something. That’s what’s amazing about football … and mine’s no different.
“Hopefully you prepare yourself well enough so that when your opportunity comes, you can take advantage of it,” he said. “That’s been my story, getting an opportunity to come up (to Canada), and my first year when Jason Maas got hurt I got an opportunity to play, and was able to take advantage of it. That’s what life’s all about.”
Ray will step into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame with the same authority in which he conducted that game-deciding drive that buried the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ comeback in last week’s Eastern Final. He just operates, this quarterback. Fifteen CFL seasons, three Grey Cups and a career passer rating of 98.4.
All of that, without a morsel of ego, as far as we have seen.
“Well, Ricky Ray shows you that a leaders come in all different ways,” said his coach, Marc Trestman. “He never says anything. I mean, if we’re not in the quarterback meeting, he’s not saying anything, other than calling the plays.
“He is really the surgeon … who just does it. But the words are not there. When he gets in there he’ll be very specific and right on, but he’s not going to walk up and (speak) in front of the team. That’s just not who I’ve found him to be.”
In a season in which Maas was criticized for taking the ball out of his quarterback’s hands in Edmonton, and a year after Dickenson took the ball from his QB with a chance to win the 2016 Grey Cup, you can rest assured that Trestman has already made the decision on what he will do if that call becomes his Sunday.
“As a coach, you’re defined by who your quarterback is,” he said. “The defence can play great, and you can have a great running game, you can have all that, but the quarterback’s not functioning at an efficient level and he’s not taking care of the football, he’s not doing the right things with it, none of that stuff matters.”
His quarterback may be about to give us another legendary Grey Cup game at the expense of the Stamps, but the last thing Ray would do is talk about that during Grey Cup week.
“I’m getting so many questions, like, ‘Is this your last year?’ Or, ‘Henry (Burris) did it…’ ‘What if you do this?’ ‘What if you do that?’” Ray said. “I’m just tryin’ to win a game. To go out there with my team and win a Grey Cup. There is no other motivation, or grand thing that I’m thinking about.
“Other than just tryin’ to win a game.”
Aren’t they all, Ricky. Aren’t they all.