Khalif Mitchell will play the piano as he always does; Solomon Elimimian will say his prayers, and then the two will step onto the field and bodies will fly, bones may break and they’ll be in the thick of it, relishing the chaos.
It’s what they do best together.
As partners in devastation, Mitchell and Elimimian are the teeth and terror of the B.C. Lions’ defence. One is a 6-foot-5, 305-pound landslide of a lineman who plays a mean Chopin. The other is a Nigerian-born middle linebacker who could scare the feathers off a vulture with one look. In tandem, they have a simple plan for Sunday’s Grey Cup game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers: attack and crush; win a CFL championship by proving theirs is the best defence in three-down football.
All week at the 2011 Grey Cup it’s been a point of discussion and statistical debate: which side, B.C. or Winnipeg, has the better defence since both were so formidable during the regular season?
The Blue Bombers recorded the most sacks and interceptions while boasting the league’s top defensive player in cornerback Jovon Johnson. They’re not exactly cheesecloth when it comes to blanketing opposition offences.
Yet even the Bombers acknowledge that what B.C. does with Mitchell and his fellow linemen, backed by the ever-ready Elimimian, is beyond the CFL norm.
“We have a lot of different [defensive]sets where speed is paramount,” said veteran Bomber Doug Brown. “[The Lions’ defensive front]know they can take over a game. They’re more bash and bruise and that gives them confidence.”
Mitchell has been known to overpower his blockers to the point of driving them back into their own players. He had three sacks in a game against the Toronto Argonauts using what his coach Wally Buono has described as near-freakish skills.
“He’s not a normal CFL defensive lineman,” Buono said. “Usually there’s no one with that size and power. If there is, they get tired. He doesn’t tire. He keeps coming.”
Elimimian was the league’s top rookie in 2010 and voted the CFL’s hardest hitter by his peers this year. Even at this early stage in his career, he has been compared to Hall of Fame linebacker Alondra Johnson, who had the nasty ability of exploding into ball carriers, leaving them rattled and a little less enthused.
“Strength down the middle,” Winnipeg coach Paul LaPolice said of the Lions’ defence. “You need that to be a good defence and they have it.”
What the Lions have in Mitchell and Elimimian is a pair of demolition experts with contrasting personalities. Mitchell is a self-taught pianist who will play for hours before games to help relax. He’s also a stylized philosopher who speaks in flowing terms. Here’s his take on why the Lions’ defensive front needs to rule come Sunday: “The best analogy is if you’ve watched the movie Gladiator. Russell Crowe is the general and rides around on his horse and he makes a big deal of holding the line,” Mitchell said. “It makes sense. The line is where games are won or lost. We don’t want to lose that battle. It’s like a war.”
Elimimian is one of five sons raised in a religious family. All the boys are named after Biblical figures. Their father, Isaac, left Calabar, Nigeria with his brood and settled in Los Angeles knowing little English only to end up becoming an English teacher. Solomon, like Mitchell, played NCAA football, had a brief dance with the NFL then ended up in Vancouver.
Elimimian was an instant hit. Mitchell was left off the Lions’ roster this past July when the team played in Edmonton. Distraught, Mitchell said he cried all night. Then he got mad. His teammates didn’t like seeing him mad. They told Buono, “Put him in a game. He’s killing us in practice.”
Mitchell has been in the lineup ever since.
“We feel the game is on our back as a defence,” Mitchell said. “We feel we have to overwhelm them physically, emotionally.”
“It doesn’t matter what they do,” Elimimian said of the Bombers. “It’s about us. We’re a great defence. We’ve proven that. Defence wins championships. I don’t think it’ll be different this game, not at all.”
If that’s the case then look for the pile of shattered dreams and bruised egos at Sunday’s end. The Blue Bombers are sure to be under it, devastated.