It was late November 2009, and the second to last play of the 97th Grey Cup Championship between Saskatchewan and Montreal. With no time on the clock, the Riders were up by two points and the Als' Damon Duval was lining up for a game-winning field goal.
In a late commercial break, Chris Cuthbert and I, who were broadcasting our second Grey Cup together for TSN, had just talked about what a great game it had been, and that it was going to go right down to the wire, and then moments later, it happened. A finish that will be talked about for ever. A finish that is well-documented, but had a jam-packed stadium, including our broadcast booth stunned in disbelief. My thought then was, never in my years in sports had I been witness to a game where for a split second one team had won, and was celebrating, only to moments later see that same team mourn a loss.
Many times we have seen walk-off field goals in football, and in that scenario, the anticipation builds as both sidelines hold hands and say a little prayer; one side asking for a miss, and one for a successful kick. As the ball sails through the air, the emotion felt by both teams is immediate and lasts forever. The side that loses, while devastated, will in time start to accept the outcome as part of the game. Sometimes you are on the winning end of a close game, and sometimes you are on the wrong end, but it is part of the game.
The 97th Grey Cup, however, was different. One team thought they had won for a minute or two, one thought they had lost. Then everyone noticed the orange flag on the field and the exhilaration and devastation switched teams.
In the 2009 Grey Cup, it didn't matter if it was Montreal, Saskatchewan or any other team on the wrong end of that bizarre finish. The only people that will ever truly understand that roller coaster of emotions are the players and coaches for both teams that were on that field. The closest I could come to try and understand what the Riders were going through happened in a game against the B.C. Lions years ago. It pales in comparison because it was a regular season game, but with no time on the clock, I personally cost my team a game which had serious playoff implications.
The year was 1989 and I was the free safety for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in a game against a Lions team led by Matt Dunigan. We had the lead and the Lions had the ball in their own end with one play left in the game. I had been in a heated physical battle all night with David Williams, one of the Lions top receivers. The plan was to give him a shot every chance I could to divert his focus and, for the most part, it had worked. We were in a 60-minute brawl and with zeros on the clock, it looked like I had a chance to get the final shot on Williams, when Dunigan launched a Hail Mary on the game's final play. The Lions star receiver was standing under the ball like he was retrieving a punt and I had him lined up. As I launched myself into David Williams, I will never forget the silence at Taylor Field. I had hit the receiver way before the ball arrived and, after what was the easiest pass interference call in the history of football, the Lions ran two more plays with no time on the clock and won the game.
After Saskatchewan plays in Toronto Monday on the CFL on TSN, the first of an eight-film series called Engraved on a Nation will begin with "The 13th Man," which was produced by Larry Weinstein. It is a film that explores the unique relationship between the province of Saskatchewan and their football team, set against the backdrop of that amazing theatre that was the 2009 Grey Cup.
That year, a roster full of grown men where reduced to tears and to this day, it is impossible to imagine what they were going through the moment Damon Duval made good on his second attempt. Again, with the stakes nowhere near as high, I remember spending hours after that game in 1989 in my bathroom physically ill, not able to stop the flow of emotion that ranged from tears one moment to pure anger the next and that was just for a regular season game. I will never pretend, or think for a second, I can understand what the Riders were going through on that November night in Calgary. I don't think anyone, who wasn't on that roster or coaching staff can. However, while people across the country wondered aloud who the 13th man on the field was, the true meaning of the slogan was about to be revealed and that is the focus of this film. It is that fan devotion and passion that I remember well back in 1989 and it is what makes playing in Saskatchewan so unique.
For the province of Saskatchewan, the heartbreaking Grey Cup loss by the Riders in 2009 hit hard and yet thousands of fans met the team at Mosaic Stadium when they returned from Calgary to say thanks. They were hurting as well, but they were there to cheer on their team and stand beside them through this adversity.
In 1989, after feeling like I had let down an entire province and seriously damaged my teammates' chances at the post-season, I received a letter in the mail. I had prided myself throughout my career as a player that always put his teammates first, and yet I had made a selfish decision that had cost us an important game and many fans in the province let me know how unhappy they were, to a point of getting death threats. I even considered that it may be best to retire. And then I opened the letter.
Prior to the Lions game, I was going through my regular pre-game routine which included sitting in the stands in my football pants and t-shirt and looking out over the field hours before kick-off. On this day, a little redheaded boy that couldn't have been more that 10-12 years old saw me in the stands and, with great confidence, walked right up and sat beside me. He did all the talking, and I just smiled and listened to this young fan talk about his favorite team.
When the dust settled after the Lions game and the consequences of my bad decision on the field were really starting to settle in and I was at an all time low in my career, I read that letter from the mother of that redheaded boy.
In the letter, which I still have today, she talked about how excited her son was to actually get a chance to talk to a "real Rider." She mentioned that her family was also upset when I made my mistake, but went on to say that the 20 minutes that I had spent with her son before the game was in her words, "going to be a moment that he will never forget." As it turned out, her letter and that meeting with that young fan was something that I will never forget as well. It reminded me of why I played in the first place and it showed that, while occasionally the odd bad apple will go too far, Rider fans are behind their team through the good times and the bad.
"The 13th Man," in the Engraved on a Nation series is a look at that relationship. It will bring up some memories that have not been easy to bury for Rider fans, but it is the perfect backdrop to explore the relationship between a province and their football team. It is a look at the true meaning of the 13th Man, which as you will see by watching this film, has nothing to do with the extra guy that was on the field on the second to last play of the 2009 Grey Cup.