The 13th-man nightmare, 10 years later
Precisely 10 years after the “13th-man” unravelling, it can now be said (or written): I accept full responsibility.
The Vanstone Curse, always dangerous, was especially lethal on Nov. 29, 2009 at McMahon Stadium in Calgary.
Just 10:32 remained in the 97th Grey Cup when the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ Darian Durant ran for a touchdown that helped the CFL’s West Division champions assume a 27-11 lead over the heavily favoured Montreal Alouettes.
Moments after the Roughriders’ quarterback crossed the goal line, I turned toward Regina Leader-Post sports-department colleague Ian Hamilton, who was seated to my right, and said: “Darian Durant just made himself a lot of money.”
At that point, I got a head-start on writing the once-inconceivable “Roughriders win 2009 Grey Cup” column, pumping out a few hundred words in very short order about the miracle of it all — a 10-7-1 Saskatchewan team somehow upsetting a 15-3-0 edition of the Alouettes, etc., etc., etc., blah, blah, blah, yak, yak, yak …
Make the final: Montreal 28, Saskatchewan 27.
Dare I elaborate? (Gulp.)
For the uninitiated, Montreal scored back-to-back touchdowns to narrow the gap to 27-25. The Alouettes had a chance to tie the game with a two-point conversion, but an Anthony Calvillo pass fell incomplete (primarily because Saskatchewan should have been flagged for pass interference).
On the Alouettes’ final possession, they marched into field-goal range, whereupon Damon Duval was called upon to attempt a game-winning 43-yarder in the waning seconds.
When the kick sailed wide to the right, the Roughriders and their fans celebrated a Grey Cup victory, at least for a few seconds.
Then everyone saw the flags. So many flags.
The Roughriders had been penalized for too many men on the field.
Their slogan — The 13th Man Makes All The Difference — was all too true.
The clock showed 0:00 but, because a game cannot end on a penalty, Duval was given one more chance. From 10 yards closer, he split the uprights. Of course he did.
It seemed like only the Alouettes were celebrating.
Of the 46,020 people who were at McMahon Stadium that day, at least 40,000 (likely a low estimate) had to be cheering for Montreal.
My wife, Chryssoula, was among the mourners in the stands. Such was her introduction to a Grey Cup game, in person.
I remember sitting in the press box, wondering what to make of it all, with an inflexible and annoying deadline looming.
For some reason, I stared at Roughriders defensive end John Chick as he made the long, slow walk off the field and toward the dressing room.
Only then did I begin to assemble my thoughts for public consumption.
I flashed back to 33 years and one day earlier, when a 12-year-old me was at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto for what had been the most heartbreaking loss in Roughriders history.
On Nov. 28, 1976, I was in the stands alongside my sainted mother when Tony Gabriel made THAT catch — a 24-yarder with 20 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter — to give the Ottawa Rough Riders a 23-20 Grey Cup victory.
For that game, Saskatchewan had been the prohibitive favourite, with 38-year-old Ron Lancaster playing the role of Calvillo. Ottawa had the upstart quarterback, Tom Clements, playing the role of Darian Durant.
After so many seasons of post-season frustration, it seemed like 1976 would finally be the year in which Saskatchewan captured that elusive second Grey Cup title.
The Western Conference final, in which Saskatchewan finally defeated Edmonton after losing to the Eskimos for three consecutive years with a Grey Cup berth at stake, seemed like the final step.
Ottawa had other thoughts.
So, in 2009, I attempted to put myself in the shoes of the inconsolable fans who had just been Tony Gabriel’ed, not even knowing at the time that Gabriel himself was at the game.
The approximate hour in which the column was composed and filed remains a blur. I am ordinarily a stickler for details, but they elude me in this case.
What does stand out, though, is the trip back to downtown Calgary in a deluxe media bus. As the vehicle pulled out of the parking lot, I looked at a deserted McMahon Stadium — still fully illuminated — and thought: “What just happened here?”
Ten years later, I am still asking myself that question.
(Rob Vanstone is the Regina Leader-Post’s sports editor.)