Saturday, November 25, 2017
ABOU-MECHREK: GREY CUP MEMORIES
OTTAWA - I had hoped to have some juicy stories from Grey Cup Week 2017 to relay back to you folks this week however that plan was severely hampered by flight cancellations, delays, missed connecting flights, more delays, but I managed to make it to the nation's capital just in time for the Ottawa Renegade Reunion dinner Friday evening.
I played with the Renegades for three seasons (2002-04), signing with the new team shortly after playing in the 2001 Grey Cup as a member of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Even though I had signed with an expansion team I was sure that the trip to the Cup would be a regular occurrence thorough out my career … guess again!
If we had won that game my memory may be otherwise- but the game was a disaster.
After starting all season on the Bombers offensive line, after being introduced as the starter in the Grey Cup. and having the thrill of running through that tunnel in front of 68,000 people, our O-Line coach Mike Gibson came up to me after the national anthem and let me know that I wasn’t starting the biggest game of my life.
Instead the team was “going with Matty”- Matt Sheridan, a rookie who had yet to make a start in the CFL. I was livid.
There is a picture that hangs in my house that was taken shortly after this tidbit of information was shared with me and you can almost see the horns protruding from my forehead in the picture.
The game went along, as games tend to do, and shortly after halftime Matt, unfortunately broke his leg and I was back in!
I will never forget the song playing over the Big O P.A. system because it was the same some I woke up with in my head - and one of my mom’s all time favorites - “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor. A great memory, but not THEE one I associate with that Cup.
That came on the last play of the game (cue the dramatic NFL films music). We were at midfield and down by 8. Khari Jones was behind center. Milt Stegal, Arland Bruce III. Marcus Howell, Bobby Gordon, Albert Johnson III and Jamie Stoddard were our receivers who would run down to the endzone in anticipation of the imminent Hail Mary pass, AND running back Charles Roberts was set up in the back field to help protect.
I was lined up against my arch nemesis Joe Fleming. Joe had gotten me benched a few weeks prior, and he knew I struggled with his jump swim pass rush manoeuvre. I am sure that is why on this last play of the game Joe decided not to line up at his regular defensive tackle position, instead electing to line up at defensive end and have a crack against me. Hall of Famer, linebacker Alondra Johnson, lined up on our left guard Brett MacNeil to occupy his attention and not allow him to help me on Joe.
The ball was snapped …. the clock ticked down to 0:00 as the hall of fame receivers sprinted to the end zone. I am not a betting man, but at the time I would have bet the kids I didn’t have on Joe coming inside with his jump swim….why else would he be lined up outside here on me? And why else would Alondra be mugged up and harassing Brett when we all knew he needed to retreat to help play the Hail Mary??
Well, Joe beat me with an outside speed rip and 4 seconds later he was laying on top of our quarterback celebrating their Grey Cup championship.
Me? I was flat on my face with tears streaming down my face. I had just let down one of the greatest teams in CFL history - a statement few would disagree with had we won this last game….but I digress…
2007 was much different. I was in my 9th season and was well aware that my shelf life was becoming an issue. I knew how hard it was to get back to the Grey Cup and I was fully aware of the limited opportunity that was presented to us.
The 2001 week helped me to prep for 2007. In 2001 I was ‘happy to be there'. In 2007 I wasn't interested in sightseeing. In 2001 I was excited about the trip and visiting Montreal, in 2007 I didn’t visit one old stomping ground or visit with friends or family in my hometown of Toronto. All that could wait for the off season. As an O-line we tried to keep things consistent and even had chicken wings flown in from Moose Jaw for our regular Thursday evening group meal.
When the week was over and it was game time, the sight as we emerged from the locker room to be introduced was overwhelming. Rider Nation had taken over ‘my stadium’- the one I had won a Vanier Cup and High School City championship in. The sea of blue (seats) had turned green. (I still get shivers reminiscing)
Accelerated heartbeat, butterflies, shaky-leg syndrome, shortness of breath…all of that stuff was going on as we were ‘brought out’ of the tunnel with an eruption. I don’t think we could have been contained any longer. It was time.
After Oh Canada I went over to our o-line coach Mike Gibson and said to him “if you bench me this time, I will kill you.” I had a smile on my face but I was serious.
The game kicked off and the game went as games do. We were running a ball-controlled offence to limit the Bombers scoring opportunities, and Bomber QB Ryan Dinwiddie couldn’t stop throwing the ball to our James Johnson.
With minutes left on the clock James Johnson collected his third interception and our offence came out on the gridiron needing only one first down to be crowned champs.
Kerry Joseph barely needed to call the play in the huddle. Everyone in the building knew we would
be running our bread and butter zone run play- “2 Zorro.”
The next few minutes are bit of a blurr, but in those moments everything came back me. All the 5:00 AM off season workouts, all the injuries, all the rehab, all the teammates, all the sacrifices my parents made and taking second and third jobs just so I could play the game I loved - everything, and everyone who helped me get to this moment - and how none of it mattered. The only thing that mattered was the double team block that center Jeremy O’Day and I had to make.
Folks talk about how important communication is on the o-line and J.O. and I had played the entire season next to each other. He and I locked eyes and without a word being spoken we knew what we were going to stay on the double team and drive the defensive tackle into the linebacker - neither one of us would leave the double team to chip block the linebacker like the playbook suggested. I gave our Right tackle Jermese Jones a wink to lethim know I had his inside with my eyes, but J.O. and I were driving the DT back to Winnipeg.
J.O. snapped the ball to Kerry who turned and handed off to Wes Cates. When I saw the back of his #20 jersey cut back and squirt past Jeremy and I, I knew we had won. I crumpled down onto my haunches and for the second time in my life I was down at mid field on the Grey Cup turf with tears rolling down my cheeks….but these teams were different.
We had to line up for one more play- a kneel down- and after a few hugs and hand shakes for my former teammates and then I raced into the Sky Dome crowd to celebrate with the large Lebanese contingency on hand to support me.
Like I said, this period is a bit of a blurr, but there are tons of pictures to remind me of the greatest moment in my professional career.
As for this year’s Grey Cup … Calgary or Toronto … can’t it be a tie so no one wins? I am more concerned with the Western Mustangs winning their first Vanier Cup since we did it in 1994. Go Stangs!
(Mike played 10 seasons in the CFL winning the Grey Cup in 2007 with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. An Economist, Certified Financial Planner and Charter Life Underwriter, Mike runs his practice through IG Wealth Management with offices in Moose Jaw and Regina and values your feedback at Mike.Abou-Mechrek@igprivatewealth.com)