Just before the kickoff of the CFL’s East Division final in Winnipeg, Blue Bomber running back Chris Garrett didn’t feel right as he ran across the field during warm-up. The -22C wind chill had left the turf frozen and he couldn’t get a decent grip.
“So I was asking for some shoes that had extra grip and they found these for me,” Garrett recalled later with a smile, holding up a pair of old Nike “Prime Time Deion Sanders” cleats.
He’d better hang on to them. The nifty shoes carried Garrett for 190 yards rushing and helped lead the Bombers to a 19-3 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and a berth in next week’s Grey Cup.
It was the best game yet for Garrett, a 5-foot-8 running back who had been on Winnipeg’s practice roster for much of the season and only got the starting job in late September when Fred Reid went down. “You can’t write a better script,” Garrett said afterward as he clutched the game ball. “I didn’t really feel like I got 190 yards, but I guess it is what it is.”
As for the cold? “It was perfect,” said Garrett, 24, who grew up in Utica, N.Y. “I grew up playing in cold weather all my life.”
Garrett and the Bombers did more than just run all over the Tiger-Cats, the Bomber defence shut down Hamilton’s offence so effectively the Ticats managed just 44 yards in total offence in the second half and only 176 yards for the whole game. Garrett alone got more yardage and scored more points – six on a touchdown on the last play of the game – than Hamilton’s entire offence.
“It was tough for us getting positive yards running the football,” Hamilton coach Marcel Bellefeuille said afterward. The Bombers “just played really well. Nothing new, what they’ve been doing all year.”
Going into the game, the Tiger-Cats planned to rely on their running game and the speed of Avon Cobourne and Marcus Thigpen. And while quarterback Kevin Glenn turned to them often, neither had much room to run. Hamilton had just 39 yards rushing in the game with Cobourne accounting for 28. Glenn completed a respectable 13 of 18 passes, but his receivers were tackled almost immediately after every catch and rarely got any extra yards. Glenn left the game in the in the third quarter with a right knee injury and his replacement, Quinton Porter, fared worse. His first drive nearly went backward and he completed just three of 11 passes, with one picked off late in the game.
“To hold the Tiger-Cats to three points after they scored 52 last week [in the East semi-final]that was quite a feeling inside,” said Bomber defensive lineman Doug Brown, an 11-year veteran who is playing his final season and has yet to win the Grey Cup after two tries. “It’s just a tremendous day for everybody. And hopefully in my case when it comes to the Grey Cup hopefully it’s the third time lucky, right?”
By contrast Bomber quarterback Buck Pierce looked poised, after fending off questions all week about his health. Pierce injured his left knee in the Bombers’ second-last game and he hadn’t played since. He completed 16 of 28 passes and guided the team to two touchdowns. He also ran for 66 yards, withstanding several hard tackles. His only miscues were fumbling twice, recovering both, and tossing one interception.
“It feels sore, but I think the brace helps,” Pierce said after the game about his knee. When asked if he’d be fine for the Grey Cup, Pierce laughed and said: “Don’t ask me that. No, I feel great. I feel fine.”
Bomber coach Paul LaPolice said he knew his players were ready. “I expected them to play great and they did,” he said. “I’m so proud of the men to go from 4-14, from last [place]last year, to the Grey Cup is a tremendous accomplishment.”
LaPolice noted that the game was the last event to be held in the 30,000-seat Canad Inns Stadium, which was sold out. The Bombers are moving to a $190-million stadium at the University of Manitoba and the 58-year-old venue will be torn down. “It’s really neat for the last game ever in this stadium ... we won the East final, go to the Grey Cup and we scored on the last play ever played in the building. That’s pretty amazing,” he said.
But that was all the sentimentality and celebration LaPolice had to offer Sunday. He said the team will be back to work Monday before heading to Vancouver on Tuesday. The challenge ahead won’t be easy. The Bombers haven’t won the Grey Cup in 21 years, the longest drought in the CFL. So it wasn’t surprising LaPolice had one uncomfortable message for his players Sunday: “They didn’t like that we have a 9 o’clock meeting tomorrow.”