O'Leary: Healthy Gable just what the Esks need
In many ways, it was a perfectly typical early November morning in Edmonton.
The temperature dropped the previous night and with the wind chill, it was about -20 C as the city woke up and people began their days. Thin sheets of ice were becoming visible in the North Saskatchewan River, floating their way through downtown. Tensed faces lined the sidewalks as the wind cut through people trying to get to work.
At Commonwealth Stadium there were a few die hards, those players with exposed arms and legs that flirt with frostbite or worse while they practise for a playoff football game.
C.J. Gable isn’t quite that brave. The Edmonton Eskimos running back was adequately covered up on Wednesday, wearing a balaclava-type head covering under his helmet and a thick pair of sweats instead of shorts. When you’re 32 and in your eighth season in the CFL, you pick up survival tricks.
Or maybe Gable is saving his heroics for Sunday. He took first-team reps with his team on Wednesday and is on track to return to action for the first time since he hurt his knee on Oct. 17 against his former team, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
There was a bounce to his step in practice as he took handoffs to explode through holes and caught short passes and tried to dance around defenders as he moved upfield. These typical Edmonton mornings mean one thing to Gable. It’s playoff time, which means it’s time for him to get to work.
“I feel really good. I feel as healthy as I’ve been since I started (the season),” Gable said after practice. “I’m just ready to play.”
Gable has posted back-to-back 1,000 rushing yard seasons and was a boon to the team’s offence when he arrived via trade with the Ticats in the fall of 2017. At six-feet and 219 pounds, he’s a powerful running back that’s bulldozed his way through defences over the years, when healthy.
A healthy Gable is just what the Esks were hoping for as they head into Sunday’s Eastern Semi Final crossover in Montreal against the Alouettes.
“They lean on me this game, and I’m going to do what I do, like I did the year before when I first got here,” he said.
Gable was referencing the 2017 playoffs, where he played on a chilly IG Field in Winnipeg and took 16 carries for 107 yards and two touchdowns. Gable was relentless that night, powering his way into the end zone for his second touchdown with what looked like half of the Bombers’ defence trying to bring him to the ground. The Esks downed Winnipeg 39-32 that night to advance to the Western Final.
“It was cold and they leaned on me and I had to do what I had to do,” he said of that night.
“They do that this game and I’m ready for that.”
“He’s just a big, tough, physical running back. That’s what he is,” Esks head coach Jason Maas said of Gable.
“He brings it every (time). He don’t go down easy. He brings it on every carry. You don’t see him ripping off 50, 60-yard runs. When he accumulates yardage they’re after contact yards or they’re…five yards in a pile of dust yards. He’ll look for contact and be the the hammer and not the nail too often.”
It shouldn’t be as cold in Montreal this weekend as it’s been in Edmonton but we could be looking at a run-heavy game. The forecast is calling for a rainy, snowy day and a high of 5 C, where it’ll feel like 1 C.
Gable sounds like he’ll be ready for anything. It’s been a difficult season for the Esks, who started out 6-3 and finished 8-10 under the weight of injuries and simply coming up short in big games. The Esks haven’t beaten a winning team yet this season but with Trevor Harris returning to the lineup with Gable, he’s feeling confident.
“I feel great my team right now,” he said.
“I think everyone else thinks that Montreal’s just going to beat us and that’s it. It’s going to be a fight, it’s going to be a fight all the way down to the last minute. It’s going to be a great game.”
WHY NOT US?
With his team in a difficult spot — a crossover team has never made it past the Eastern Final — Jason Maas didn’t have to dig too far back in the history books to come up with a reason for optimism.
Maas was on the Esks’ 2008 team that crossed over to play Winnipeg (when it was still an Eastern team). They were the first team to win a crossover game.
“When something’s never been done before everyone thinks it’s impossible,” he said.
“When (crossover teams) are 0-11, (people) think it’s impossible. And you can’t argue with them, it’s never been done. But when I got in the league in 2000, there’d been four other teams that had tried to win a semi-final game and that had never been done.
“They all said it was impossible to do that, too. Then lo and behold in ’08 we went in and won a game and then all of a sudden a couple other teams won.
“There’s always going to be a first. Someone’s going to do it and why not us? That’s the way I look at it. We’ve worked hard all year. We know what kind of team we are and what team we can be. I think all of us believe and that’s where it starts.
“In order to do something that’s never been done, the impossible, you have to first believe it’s possible. And I can guarantee you everyone in the locker room believes it’s possible.”