Sports

Heroes big and small combine to lead Argonauts to Grey Cup glory

REGINA — As cigar smoke wafted through the air, celebratory beverages were being consumed and pictures were being taken to capture the moment forever, Robbie Smith did his best to break down what others thought would have been a roller coaster of emotions for most people during the waning moments of the 109th Grey Cup.

Smith initially would have felt jubilation, sacking Zach Collaros on third and 13 for what would have been a turnover on downs late in the fourth quarter, were it not for him being flagged 15 yards for facemasking the Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback to keep that drive alive.

“It was the next play. It hurt, I didn’t think that I got the flag and I ended up getting the flag,” said Smith, who could only chuckle before delivering his answer. “Honestly, it was just (having a) short memory and thinking about what I have to do to win the next play. There was similar adversity that we dealt with throughout the season that I had, where I got a penalty and made a play after. Everything from the season prepared me for this moment.”

Instead of potentially being remembered for a costly penalty, Smith ensured his name would be part of history when he blocked a 47-yard field goal attempt that would have put the Blue Bombers up with 54 seconds to go in the fourth quarter.

But only after Blue Bombers defensive back Nick Hallett blocked a 42-yard field goal attempt from Boris Bede with two minutes to play.

“I just sold out for it. I just figured this is the last chance we’re going to have to make a play,” said Smith, whose Toronto Argonauts pulled off the 24-23 upset and dethroned a Blue Bombers squad that had won consecutive Grey Cups. “This is the game-winner, so let me do everything I can to block this ball. I think it was my fingertip. I just felt the ball hit the hell out of my hand. I didn’t know how much of it that I got until I turned around and I saw it fell on the ground.”

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Smith — who also had four tackles and a fourth-quarter sack — was one of a number of heroes, at least one of which was of the unsung variety.

When Most Outstanding Player finalist McLeod Bethel-Thompson was forced to exit the game early in the fourth quarter because of a dislocated right thumb, backup Chad Kelly entered and engineered a couple of impressive drives, using both his arms and his legs to extend plays and ultimately move the chains.

“I couldn’t believe that I had the chance right then and there to prove myself,” said Kelly, who got emotional when speaking about his grandfather, who he lost to a heart attack earlier this season. “Down six (points), here we go.”

That Kelly was able to get the job done in relief wasn’t a surprise to his teammates.

“He’s been making plays in practice and he’s hungry to get out there and do more damage,” said Argonauts running back Andrew Harris, who won a third consecutive Grey Cup, and fourth of his illustrious career, on Sunday. “When he got in there, we had full confidence in him. He’s a baller and he’s got a bright future ahead of him.”

Bethel-Thompson didn’t provide any advice to Kelly as he went in, since he was too busy trying to get his right thumb back into place.

“He did an awesome job,” said Bethel-Thompson. “He had ice in his veins. He came in and delivered expertly. It was beautiful to watch.”

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Harris hinted earlier this week that this could be his final game, but he wasn’t interested in weighing in on his future just yet, preferring to soak in the moment, which was extra special with a number of friends and family members in the building to share the experience with him.

As for knocking off his former team, Harris wasn’t interested in delving into the disappointment of his departure, focusing instead on the accomplishment itself.

“Ah man. Amazing. Amazing. Another Grey Cup. It’s an amazing feeling. Three Grey Cups in a row is special. It’s just a rush of all different types of emotions. There’s a lot of things that went into this, into getting here. Ups and downs,” said Harris, who also won a title with the B.C. Lions in 2011. “I’m going to take some time to enjoy this one and reflect on my journey to get here and just take it all in. I’m not thinking about (the future) right now. I’m going to get through Christmas and go from there.

“Playing the guys was fun. It was an emotional game. At the end of the day, it’s about the guys in this Argo locker room. It’s not about anything else. I left that chapter behind me and it is what it is. It’s my hometown. I love Winnipeg, I love every single one of those guys on that other team. But when you’re against another team, you’ve got to go to battle. Tons of respect for them, but I’m so excited for my teammates and how we performed.”

Harris had 10 carries for 55 yards and added a 14-yard reception to give him 69 all-purpose yards — which were all the more impressive when you consider he played in just two games since August after suffering a torn pectoral muscle.

Fellow Argonauts running back AJ Ouellette had six carries for 24 yards, with two of those touches resulting in majors — including the Grey Cup clincher.

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“We blocked out all of the noise — everyone counted us out and we stepped up and showed them who the better team was,” said Ouellette, noting it was special to knock off a team that was being touted as a potential dynasty. “We just ignored that. For some reason, everybody seemed to love them. I guess they didn’t see our first game that we played them and lost off a (missed) kick.”

That missed kick on July 4 in another 24-23 contest was a missed extra point for Bede that would have sent that game to overtime.

Ironically, a missed extra point for Blue Bombers kicker Marc Liegghio proved to be the difference in Sunday’s season finale.

While plenty of attention was given to Harris over the course of the week, given his connection to his opponent, it was another former Blue Bomber who ended up being named both Most Valuable Player and Most Outstanding Canadian in the 109th Grey Cup, linebacker Henoc Muamba.

Muamba, who played in his first Grey Cup as a rookie with the Blue Bombers in 2011 but hadn’t been back to one since, finished the game with three tackles and also intercepted Collaros with 2:54 left in the fourth quarter with his team clinging to a one-point lead.

“Is this real life?” Muamba said repeatedly as he ran off the field after conducting a series of interviews and sharing a few moments with family members.

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Yes, it is real life for an Argonauts team that endured plenty of challenges during the course of the season before building to this crescendo in the championship game.

As for the Blue Bombers, they didn’t reach the standard they’d worked so hard to set during the tenure of head coach Mike O’Shea.

“We had our chance. They made a big one at the end to win the game, to seal the game,” O’Shea told reporters at the podium. “There’s nothing I’m going to really say right then (in the locker room) that they’re even going to hear. They’re already into their own thoughts.

“I would imagine that pretty well everyone on the team would like to have one play back. That’s usually what happens when you lose. Everybody can think of the one big one they want back.”

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Both Collaros and Dakota Prukop threw interceptions that proved to be costly and the lone turnover created by the Blue Bombers was a strip sack and subsequent fumble recovery by defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat.

The right ankle injury to Collaros didn’t seem to limit his mobility too much, though he wasn’t overly sharp for a second consecutive week, finishing the game 14 of 23 (60.9 per cent efficiency) for 183 yards through the air with no touchdowns and two picks.

“I just don’t think that we got into a really good rhythm at any point offensively. We weren’t efficient enough on first down, running or passing the football,” Collaros told reporters at the podium after the game. “It starts with me. I’ve got to do a better job to help the team win.

“For it to end this way… this is just tough.”

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The discussions about the Blue Bombers’ pursuit of a third consecutive championship leading them to be a potential dynasty didn’t factor into the equation.

“I really don’t think so. I’m not sure that every truly puts pressure on any team,” said Collaros. “We have a very mature group and a veteran-laden team. We just care a lot, so we put pressure on ourselves, no matter what. Somebody’s got to win.”

Prukop had a pair of short-yardage rushing touchdowns, while the third major was provided on a 102-yard punt return from Janarion Grant — who reached the end zone for a second consecutive week.

The missed extra point by Liegghio in the fourth quarter also loomed large.

Instead of building a 10-point cushion, Liegghio’s miss to the right left the door open for a converted major and a field goal to propel the Argonauts to victory and that’s exactly what they were able to deliver during a frenetic finish.

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“This year has been so hard mentally for me, but there was no give up and everything worked out exactly the way I wanted it to,” said Kelly, who finished four for six for 46 yards and rushed twice for 21 yards, including a 20-yard gain on second and long. “Third and (13) and then they get the facemask. We thought the game was over. Especially blocking that kick, you couldn’t have had a better story at the end of the game.

“We did it. We did it. We’re champions. Grey Cup champions. Here we are — and we’re not done.”

Bethel-Thompson got emotional at the end of his press conference on Saturday afternoon when talking about what becoming a Grey Cup champion would mean for the group.

Seeing his team achieve that goal was even more thrilling than he’d envisioned.

“Are you kidding me? I didn’t even get on the stage (for the celebration) because I just wanted to watch them. I haven’t even held the trophy,” said Bethel-Thompson, who would be able to take care of that after he made his way from the field to the locker room. “We all bought into something special and we all bought into something bigger than ourselves. You can see that backbone as to why we won.

“We got crap all year for playing close games, but those close games built us the backbone that we needed to bounce right back from that.”

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