For both veteran quarterbacks in Sunday's 100th Grey Cup, there were times when they felt like they would never get back here.
For Toronto Argonauts pivot Ricky Ray, it's been seven years since his last appearance in the Grey Cup after playing in it as an Edmonton Eskimo in each of his first three seasons in the CFL, winning it twice. Then there's Kevin Glenn of the Calgary Stampeders, who broke his arm while leading the Winnipeg Blue Bombers into the 2007 Grey Cup and couldn't play in it. But here they are.
Both landed with new teams this season and say they have benefitted greatly from the methods of their head coaches, who were both quarterbacks themselves once and know what it's like to stand in the pocket, surveying defences and making split-second decisions, then executing passes downfield while eluding hard-charging defenders.
Never in the previous 99 Grey Cups has there been a matchup between two head coaches who were both pro quarterbacks.
Glenn says that now in his 12th season in the CFL, he's getting coaching that is impacting him much the way former CFL quarterback Danny Barrett had early in his career with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Hufnagel was an All-American quarterback at Penn State University in the early 70s before going on to play in the NFL and CFL.
"When [Hufnagel] is talking to you, sometimes you think he's reliving some of the days when he was playing, and he speaks to you in a quarterback's language that you really understand," said Glenn. "Sometimes a coach has to draw it up on a board to explain it, but he has a way of putting you right in the situation with his words."
Ray says the perspective of 39-year-old first-year head coach Scott Milanovich has been unique for him. Milanovich quarterbacked at The University of Maryland and as an NFL backup for four years, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers under Tony Dungy. Ray says he was intrigued to be part of the same offense Milanovich used with Anthony Calvillo as assistant with the Montreal Alouettes.
"The biggest thing is that he knows it's a hard position to play, but he has a great knack for making it as simple as possible," said Ray. "Someone who has never been a quarterback just doesn't understand and often thinks you can heap a lot on a quarterback's plate and he should be able to handle it...Scott gets us prepared better than I've ever been in my career."
Both quarterbacks reflected this week on their beginnings in quarterbacking, from little boys who idolized NFL players on TV.
Glenn was raised in Detroit, loving elusive Lions running backs like Billy Sims and Barry Sanders and liked the league's intriguing star quarterbacks of the time, like Dan Marino and Randall Cunningham. He would find CFL games on TV too, admiring Damon Allen's play. He was also a shortstop with a strong arm and the oldest of five kids, so since he was always telling everyone what to do, his dad convinced him quarterbacking was his calling.
Ray grew up in Happy Camp, California a die-hard the San Francisco 49ers fan, especially Joe Montana and Steve Young. The third-oldest of six kids, they would mimic the pros by throwing pillows around the house during Monday Night Football. During games in the yard, Ray could take a licking and get back up, learning work ethic from his dad. But he was also shy like his mom and led by example rather than with words.
As they have prepared under the guidance of their coaches, both quarterbacks look to answer questions on Sunday. For Glenn, he wants the answer – five years later – to that "why did this happen to me?" question he asked himself back in 2007, while forced to watch the Grey Cup with a broken arm. For Ray, it's something else.
"Early in my career, I got spoiled. The first three years, I got to the Grey Cup, and the last six or seven, it felt like I was never going to get back," said Ray. "I've been close a couple of times, so now to be back after such a long stretch is like 'yeah, I can still get back here', but now it's about seeing if I can win another one."
PRO QB TO GREY CUP COACH
Through 99 Grey Cups, there has never been a matchup of two former pro quarterbacks as the head coaches. The next closest thing was in 2008, when Hufnagel squared off against Montreal Alouettes coach Marc Trestman, who had played quarterback in at The University of Minnesota but then tried his hand in the NFL as a defensive back.
As a quarterback:
Starred at Penn State 1970-72, All-American quarterback at Penn State from 1970-72, where he went 26-3 over three seasons as starter and was once a Heisman finalist. He was the first Nittany Lion QB to pass for more than 2,000 yards in a season, in 1972. He then played in the NFL from 1973-75 (Denver) and the CFL 1973-87 (Calgary, Saskatchewan, Winnipeg).
As a coach:
Won a Grey Cup as head coach with Calgary in 2008. Has also coached star CFL quarterbacks Doug Flutie, Henry Burris and Damon Allen, and was an assistant coach in the NFL teaching Eli Manning, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, with whom he won a Super Bowl. He also won a Grey Cup as an assistant coach with the 1992 Stampeders.
As a quarterback:
Played at the University of Maryland where he set a record for the highest career pass completion rate, then went on to be a backup in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers under Tony Dungy (1996-99), the Los Angeles Xtreme of the XFL (2001) and in the CFL with Calgary in 2003.
As a coach:
Earned Grey Cup rings in 2009 and 2010 as an assistant coach with the Montreal Alouettes, where he coached star pivot Anthony Calvillo.