It’s an elusive quality, hard to describe, but whatever it is he has it.
And ever since the Montreal Alouettes parted company with running back Avon Cobourne prior to the 2011 season, they’ve been searching to recapture it.
Their fans will hope that maybe, just maybe, they have.
In a game rich in sub-plots, Cobourne and the man who made him expendable, Brandon Whitaker, went nose-to-nose Thursday night in a contest both teams wanted badly.
Though Whitaker, a Baylor product, is by far the quicker man, it was Cobourne who got the better of their last head-to-head meeting in last year’s Eastern Final.
Now Whitaker has his revenge - although it’s not a term he favours.
“Avon’s still a great back, a lot of guys doubt him, but to me he’s the best running back in the league . . . he knows how it goes, little brother’s got to get him at home, I can’t let him score one and not score one myself,” Whitaker said with a smile.
After Cobourne gave the Tiger-Cats a late lead in the fourth quarter on a 15-yard swing pass from Henry Burris - moments earlier he had ripped off a 37-yard run - it was the man who made him expendable, Whitaker, who struck back with a rushing TD of his own on the next drive.
And when Montreal was driving for a winning field goal in the dying moments, it was Whitaker who took the ball into the centre of the field to set it up - Sean Whyte hit a 37-yarder with time expiring, giving the Als a 31-29 victory.
Cobourne is the sort of irascible, cocky, anything-to-win player that all teams need to win championships, and despite a strong showing in his first start of the season, the result was what mattered.
“I’m too old for moral victories,” he said.
That Cobourne was suited up at all against his old team was entirely due to the thigh injury suffered by rookie sensation Chevon Walker. The 33-year-old former Grey Cup MVP, who was cut by Hamilton in pre-season, was candid on Wednesday that he wouldn’t have returned had he known he would be a back-up.
Whitaker led the CFL in rushing last year, and on his return from a one-game injury absence scorched the league’s worst run defence for 102 yards on the ground (he earned 57 more through the air).
He’ll never be the brash, hard-edged character his mentor Cobourne is, but this last-gasp victory showed he can deliver when it counts.
“I love Brandon, he is,” Cobourne said, “one of the best backs in the league, if not the best. I just hate it when he shows it against us.”
The Alouettes have now won three in a row, the Ticats, who were seen as a pre-season contender to win the CFL’s eastern conference have now dropped three straight.
It needn’t have ended that way - Hamilton’s sideline inexplicably declined to challenge an S.J. Green reception earlier in the fourth quarter that gave the Alouettes a go-ahead field goal.
Replays showed the ball touched the ground.
“As I looked down the field it, looked like he caught it. It never crossed my mind to challenge,” said Ticats coach George Cortez.
Hypotheticals are immaterial to the standings, but he may wish he’d asked someone in the coaching booth to study the replay more carefully.
The main story-line going into this one was the 40th birthday of Montreal’s peerless quarterback Anthony Calvillo.
Though he wasn’t the focal point of this game, he quietly passed for 329 yards - to the extent that’s possible - and bolted for 17 yards in the late-going to lay the ground-work for Whyte’s winning kick.
“It just opened up, I tried to get as many yards as I can and just went down, you don’t plan for that stuff,” said Calvillo, elated at posting a birthday victory.
It was the seventh straight game pro football’s all-time leading passer has connected for at least 300 yards - his longest personal streak.
“We’re surrounded by great talent, my job’s to get the ball to the open guys . . . 300 yards plus, great, but I’m just happy we walked out with that victory,” he said.
Calvillo talked about how the Als are exhibiting a newfound sense of belief, and coming from behind to beat a tough foe is an ominous signal for teams who thought Montreal’s best days might be behind them.
That Calvillo was able to do it despite the loss of receiver Brandon London midway through the game due to an injury was made possible by Green, who was more than able to make up for it with 168 yards receiving.
He also presented a birthday gift of sorts to Calvillo: a 10-yard grab in the second quarter that eased his quarterback into sole possession of second-place on the all-time touchdown pass list for pro football.
Calvillo entered the game tied with former CFL and NFL great Warren Moon at 435, he now trails only Brett Favre’s 508.
This was also a game of bone-rattling hits - Als safety Kyries Hebert lowered the boom on Hamilton’s Onrae Jones during an interception return with a savage block.
Earlier, with the Ticats and hometown Als locked in a tight first-half defensive battle, Als kicker Sean Whyte lofted a punt that former Laval Rouge-et Or fullback Patrick Lavoie was the first to chase down.
As he neared ace return man Chris Williams, rookie Hamilton defensive lineman Marc-Antoine Fortin - who won several CIS championships with Lavoie at Laval - turned up and did the only sporting thing.
He drilled his buddy right in the ear hole.
It was all the opening Williams - who covers enormous swaths of ground for a comparatively small man - needed to flash his electric speed.
After a 70-yard scamper Williams ensured his place in the team record-book with his fifth kick return touchdown of the season - which also ties the CFL mark.
You won’t find any decent odds on him breaking it.
No less an authority than Alouette head coach Marc Trestman has called Williams the most dangerous player in the CFL, and it’s clear the Montreal game-plan was to keep him bottled up.
Other than the punt return - which once again exposed Montreal’s frailties on special teams - they mostly did.Report Typo/Error