Forty-five minutes before kickoff, Wally Buono walked across the field to where his daughter Christie was standing, hugged her and took the note she had written him.
For more than a decade, Christie Buono has penned her dad inspirational messages, words to lead by. She did it Sunday for perhaps the last time. The note said many things, most importantly, “You have written the perfect script.”
In what might have been his last game as a CFL head coach, Buono guided his B.C. Lions to a 34-23 championship showing over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Considering how it all played out – from the 0-5 start to the regular season to becoming the first team since the 1994 Lions to win a Grey Cup at home – Buono kept his team together, stoked its confidence then turned it loose on the rest of the league.
If indeed he relinquishes his coaching duties to work solely as general manager next season, this season, the 99th Grey Cup game, was what his daughter had written: the perfect script for a great career.
“It was the players who did it,” Buono said Sunday night on a B.C. Place stadium turf field littered with celebratory confetti. “This is about them. I’ll decide (his situation) later.”
The Lions who won the Grey Cup were a far cry from the team that lost to Winnipeg and sat 1-6 in mid-August. In this game, they were tough and resilient, patient and poised. Backed by their coach, they rode the legs of running back Andrew Harris (voted the game’s top Canadian) and the arm of quarterback Travis Lulay (the game’s most outstanding player) to a dominant showing that was more one-sided than the final score indicated.
“There was no sense of panic,” Lulaly said when asked how the Lions felt early on after misfiring on offence and scoring field goals instead of touchdowns. “This is a combination of hard work, dedication and a lot of desire. We wouldn’t have done this without a belief system.”
The Lions’ players spoke about how they feed off Buono’s belief in them. Centre Angus Reid recalled how Buono would assure them they were a good team so just go out and play like one. They did enough of that in a game that, heading in, was billed as a showdown between the two best defensive units in the league.
The play that broke the Bombers’ heart came in the final seconds of the third quarter. Ahead 17-9, Lulay threw a deep pass to receiver Kierrie Johnson, who broke free behind Winnipeg’s Jonathan Hefney and ran untouched into the end zone. It was 66-yard completion that increased the Lions’ lead to 15 points and signaled the Lions ability to push back when challenged.
“I could feel their DB at my heels so I just took off,” said Johnson. “To score my first touchdown in the CFL in the Grey Cup, it’s so special.”
The Lions got special efforts from a number of players: Arland Bruce had five catches for 73 yards and a touchdown; Harris rushed for 67 yards and touchdown; Lulay passed for 320 yards and two touchdowns and earned his teammate’s lasting respect.
“He’s not just a great quarterback,” said Reid. “He’s a great leader.”
The game opened along expected lines with the vast majority of 54,313 fans cheering for the Lions. B.C. scored first, moving 45 yards on five plays when Harris rushed 19 yards through the middle of the Bombers’ defence to put his side ahead 7-0. Paul McCallum’s kicking points boosted the lead to 14-0.
To their credit, the Blue Bombers kept coming. Quarterback Buck Pierce passed for 250 yards and touchdowns to Greg Carr and Terence Edwards. It was, in the end, little more than window dressing.
“They’re a good team,” B.C. defensive lineman Khalif Mitchell said of Winnipeg. “But we’re the champions. We proved that with how we played all season, not just today.”
That they stuck together after their shaky start can be traced to the coach who has recorded the most career wins in league history and who learned that to teach faith you have to show it.
“There’s a lot of honesty, I believe, within the organization, addressing the issues and trying to move forward,” Buono said. “It wasn’t like we put our heads in the stands. We knew the issues … The players came back strong. It shows their unity was respect.”
It shows, too, they’re the Grey Cup winners, perhaps the last team Buono ever coaches.