It was an amazing road trip.
The Toronto Argonauts became the first team in CFL history to play four consecutive games on the road and win them all. What makes the accomplishment even more amazing is that it came without the services of Ricky Ray and Chad Owens for all four games, with Chad Kackert and Jeff Johnson missing at least two full games each.
"It's not time off," Kackert told TSN.ca. "It's actually overdrive with the work. It's extra hours in the training room, and rehab isn't just sitting on a table and having someone attach electrodes to you and do ultrasound."
Kackert missed six games earlier this season with a knee injury. He returned to play in Saskatchewan, but left the game in the second quarter with a concussion and missed the next game. He also missed a lot more during his forced time off.
"It's really tough, and it's not just the part that you're not playing and doing what you love," said the native of Simi Valley, California. "It's that you're missing a serious bonding experience with your teammates."
Ricky Ray practised with his teammates this week for the first time since suffering a partially torn shoulder muscle on August 23rd. Unlike his teammates, Ray travelled with the team for every road game during his injury to act as a mentor to his replacement, Zach Collaros. That doesn't mean the time off was any easier.
"It's hard because every day you're dealing with ups and downs with your recovery," said the 11-year CFL veteran. "Sometimes you're not as positive as you want to be, but there's other guys here to keep you positive and keep you motivated.
"When you get hurt you feel like the world is going to stop for you and everybody is going to wait for you until you get back. It just keeps going, the team just keeps playing, life keeps going and you've got to go along with it and stay involved the best you can and help out in different areas, knowing that you can't help out on the field."
Chad Owens missed all four games of the record-setting road trip.
"It was tough. It sucked." said last year's CFL Most Outstanding Player. "I hate not playing. I've been injured before and it's not fun."
Some of the players who didn't make the trip gathered together and watched the game as a group, while Owens watched the games on TSN with his family. He said watching the games as a fan gave him a different perspective on the game and he also learned something about the character of the Argonauts.
"No matter how much it seems like we're out of the game, we're not."
Jeff Johnson has spent the last dozen seasons with the Argos and is one of the team's locker room leaders. He plays some fullback and is a key component of special teams. He's missed a total of four games this season.
"When you play at this level, the game courses through your veins" Johnson told TSN.ca "To be standing on the sidelines, it's very difficult, to the point of potentially depressing to deal with. The way you get out of that is to try and contribute from the mental side of the game and keep our teammates up."
Johnson's longest stretch of missed games was in 2007, when he suffered a broken leg in mid-September and missed essentially the second half of the season. This injury, however, comes with Johnson at 36 years of age, not in his early 20s. Does that mean that he can sense his own football mortality and appreciate every time he runs through the tunnel?
"I've always had the perspective that this could be my last game," said the York University product. "Even when I was 22, I always thought that I was going to get cut the next day."
Johnson used the leg injury to help motivate him to come back stronger than ever.
"That injury in '07, that was a reset button for me" said the Mimico, Ontario native. "Breaking my leg was a challenge. I said 'I'm going to come back from this and I'm going to be better than I ever was'. I was determined to not miss a single day of rehabilitation, stuck to the schedule, and going into the '08 season, I wasn't 100 percent, but I was able to be effective on the field. It was about halfway through that season that things started to come around and, as far as I was concerned, I felt that I was better."
Johnson, Ray, Kackert and Owens have not all been in the lineup at the same time since July 19th in Winnipeg, a game in which Kackert and Ray suffered knee injuries. There is a strong chance the four veterans, all of whom are considered leaders in the locker room, will be on the field in Guelph this Monday for a key game against the Tiger-Cats.