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Legend of Green Riders quarterback grows Add to ...

amaki@globeandmail.com

They like to tell the story in Regina how quarterback Darian Durant was so close to bolting the Saskatchewan Roughriders he had gone to the airport, checked his bags and passed through security - only to be yanked off the plane at the last possible moment by a pleading general manager, Eric Tillman.

It's a true story, although a few of the details have been dramatized over the years.

Still, it's a tale worth repeating given the guy who almost got away is now king of the flatlands, the guiding force for a Riders team about to face a most epic challenge - beating the Montreal Alouettes in the 97th Grey Cup.

If the Riders are to win their second CFL championship in three years, it will take a devoted effort from every man in green. And yet, if Durant plays poorly, the Riders will have no hope. They could be packing their bags by the time Blue Rodeo sings their first half-time number.

Fortunately for the Roughriders, Durant is on top of his game and brimming with enough confidence to stir a province. His belief in himself is one of his most compelling traits. The other is his ability to shrug off disappointment.

Check out the history: In 2006, Durant was cut by then-head coach Danny Barrett but agreed to return to the CFL team when offered another chance. In 2007, he used his third-string status to learn from Kerry Joseph, who led the Gang Green to a Grey Cup triumph over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Toronto. Durant watched the game from the sidelines and vowed he'd be back, as a starter.

The following year, after Joseph jumped to the Toronto Argonauts, veteran Marcus Crandell got hurt and backup Steven Jyles floundered, Durant got his shot. He beat Montreal in one game, then suffered cracked ribs. By the time he was healthy, the Riders had acquired Michael Bishop.

Ready to leave Regina again, Durant was lured back by a new contract and the team's decision to dump Bishop. From then on, Durant has been allowed to make mistakes and grow into the position, and thus far, the growing has been good.

"He believes in himself and he believes in his teammates," CFL all-star centre Jeremy O'Day said. "He's confident, but he's not afraid to voice his opinion when something's wrong. He won't sit back and go through the motions. He'll try to get it right."

Will he ever. This season, during the team's bye week, Durant stayed in Regina and worked on his throwing motion. The daily drills were aimed at improving his technique, his mechanics and footwork. Most of all, the coaching staff put a premium on Durant practising what to do when flushed out of the pocket and how best to get rid of the ball.

"His confidence grows when he gets a lot of reps and gets to see things," quarterbacks coach Jamie Barresi said. "I go back to what I've talked to him about, coach [Ken]Miller as well: When you see a shortstop like Derek Jeter [of the New York Yankees] he never gets to make a play clean. Jeter makes these unbelievable throws from all these awkward positions. That's really what this position is all about - making those types of throws."

As many have noted, Durant isn't tall (5 foot 11), doesn't possess a slingshot for a passing arm and isn't the fastest man on turf. What he does best is make plays. In the West Division final against the Calgary Stampeders, Durant made a bunch of them, but one was especially meaningful.

After Jason Armstead returned the second-half kickoff 75 yards, Durant took over. On a critical second-and-goal play from the nine, the Stampeders defence blitzed. Riders slotback Andy Fantuz recognized what was happening and broke inside as Durant delivered the ball for the touchdown. The Riders took the lead and never looked back.

"I've been saying it all year - it's Grey Cup or bust," Durant said. "People think we're the underdog [against Montreal] That's how we've been perceived all year. I'm pretty sure no one expected us to be here except the people in our locker room."

Durant took his lumps against the Als, losing both regular-season matchups. In the 33-point defeat at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, he didn't finish the game. In a nine-point loss, he tossed three interceptions. Both losses were on the books before the end of August.

That's okay, the Riders have said. They believe in Durant because he has faith supreme. If he didn't, he would have been gone a long time ago. Instead, he stayed, he won, he excelled.

Not a bad return, as the story goes.

******

CFL evolution of Darian Durant

2006

Passing: 1-for-1, 14 yards, 0 TD

Rushing: 1 carry for 20 yards

2007

No stats

2008

Passing: 77-for-129, 1,122 yards, 7 TD, 6 INT

Rushing: 27 for 204 yards, 1 TD

2009

Passing: 339-for-561, 4,348 yards, 24 TD, 21 INT

Rushing: 60 for 501 yards, 3 TD

Follow on Twitter: @AllanMaki

 

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