FRIESEN: Time for Bombers to rise to the occasion
Welcome to November in the CFL, when players are all looking for a dose of that legal performance enhancing drug: the playoffs.
It’s not something in the air, although the cold stinging their lungs is a good reminder.
The reason postseason football is like an injection of the world’s most effective steroid is simply the realization the season is over with a loss.
That bleak finality lingering just around the corner can make people do things they didn’t know they could do.
“When you think you’re playing all-out, somehow you find more,” is how Blue Bomber linebacker Adam Bighill put it. “Those things always come through in playoffs. There is no tomorrow if, if…”
Bighill could barely get himself to say it.
“If we lose,” he finally managed. “And you feel that energy flowing through you. It just seems to give you more energy, more power, more ability.”
The Bombers will need all of that, and maybe a little more, to dethrone the defending Grey Cup champion Stampeders in Calgary, Sunday.
The Stamps, of course, are feeling the same thing, getting the same boost from the fear of losing, something they’re not nearly as used to as the Bombers.
The prospect of six months to ponder the what-ifs can produce moments of did-you-just-see-that?
“That’s a great point,” Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said. “Guys certainly have the ability to rise to the occasion, and players that do inspire their teammates, too. Overall it’s a great time of year. It’s just great to be a part of that. To witness those types of performances, where guys reach new levels – it’s fun to be around.”
O’Shea experienced it as a player and assistant coach in Toronto, although claimed to not remember anything specific about a player doing extraordinary things.
Some in the Bomber locker-room do.
Quarterback Zach Collaros and kicker Justin Medlock remember Brandon Banks almost single-handedly carrying Hamilton to the Grey Cup game in 2014, with two punt-return touchdowns in the East Final.
“That was his moment,” Medlock said.
Medlock believes current teammate Janarion Grant has the same potential.
Bighill says it’s not just about big plays, though.
“It’s the physicality and grit on every single play,” he said. “Letting your opponent feel that little bit extra. You don’t want to try to go out of your character and be someone you’re not or do something you shouldn’t be doing. It’s playing within yourself, but playing with that super-human effort.”
The super-human effort in sudden-death games also comes with highly-charged emotions.
Bombers running back Andrew Harris, who was in tears after losing last year’s West Final to these same Stamps, in the same place, says emotion can make these games a blur.
“When I think back on playoff games, it’s almost hard to remember them,” Harris said. “Because they’re so intense… even watching the West Final last year, I forgot a lot of that game. Because there’s so many emotions after. There’s just a different feel, a different vibe about the whole game.”
That vibe produces indelible memories. Of sure touchdowns tipped away by fingertips, or clanging off the goal posts. Of roughing penalties that needn’t have been called. Of 61-yard field goals that shouldn’t have been tried.
Those lose-and-you-go-home lapses are all part of Blue Bomber lore. Depending how old you are, one or more are clanging around in your brain, try as you might to forget ’em.
You could say it’s been a while since a Bomber captured lightning in a bottle and ended up guzzling champagne from it.
Well, Harris did. Only he was wearing mostly orange at the time, scoring a touchdown and being named the top Canadian in the 2011 Grey Cup.
Against the Bombers.
“You see players doing things they don’t usually do,” Harris said. “You see a different speed, you see a different gear. It brings the best out of players. It’s the best time of year.”
We’ll measure Harris’s performance on Sunday in yards.
But as Bighill said, “that little bit extra” can be more subtle, more gritty.
“The inches in football really matter right now,” O-lineman Jermarcus Hardrick said. “You don’t want to look back. It’s a long six months. You don’t want to look back and say I should-a, would-a, could-a.
“Just let it hang out. Earn it.”
There’s nothing quite like it.
Harris still has something to prove
He won a Grey Cup against the Blue Bombers as a member of the B.C. Lions.
But Andew Harris has a hard time finding the words to describe what it would be like to bring the Cup back to his hometown, after a 28-year absence.
“I can’t. It’s indescribable,” Harris said. “It’s definitely something I dreamed of. I’m excited for the opportunity. Why not this year?”
The 11-7 Bombers completed a fourth straight regular season with a winning record, but finished third and will have to take a page from The Beatles’ White Album in 1968, and “do it on the road” – beginning in the West semifinal in Calgary, Sunday.
The winner gets a coveted trip to Regina for the division final, with the championship game back in Calgary a week after that
Harris’s dash to a third straight CFL rushing crown (1,380 yards) was interrupted by a positive drug test and two-game suspension.
Although he claimed it was accidental, from a contaminated supplement, it cost him a legitimate shot at not only his second Most Outstanding Canadian Award, but also the league’s Most Outstanding Player Award.
“I’ve always got something to prove,” he said. “For whatever reason there’s always something I need to overcome. The biggest thing is getting to that Grey Cup and winning consecutive games in the playoffs. The ultimate goal is to raise that Cup.”