When it ended, there was veteran Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback Henry Burris, collapsed in an emotional heap on the Rogers Centre turf, pounding his fists in the pure joy of victory. He's going back to the Grey Cup.
Many had touted Toronto Argonauts quarterback Ricky Ray as the unbeatable veteran pivot in the CFL's Eastern final. Instead it was 38-year-old fleet-footed Burris and his Ticats knocking off the reigning champion Toronto Argonauts, 36-24 and now head to their first Grey Cup since 1999.
Burris, in his 15th CFL season, completed 27 of 40 passes for 371 yards and three touchdowns, while Andy Fantuz led the way with 11 catches for 114 yards and two majors. The Hamilton defence held the Grey Cup defending champs and their MOP candidate quarterback Ricky Ray without a point in the second half.
Hamilton seemed the most unlikely team to be appearing in next Sunday's title game in Regina. The Ticats played in a temporary stadium this season, with a brand new coach. They got off to a 1-4 start to the season, had countless injuries and struggled to string together more than one victory early on.
"Somebody pinch me, I still think I'm dreaming here," said a red-eyed Burris, who hasn't been to the Grey Cup since he won it with the Calgary Stampeders in 2008. "For the past four years. I've been through a lot. One organization told me I basically wasn't good enough and traded me here to Hamilton. During the course of this year, people doubted what I could do, but to be able to come out here and play a big role in accomplishing this, it's huge."
A loud crowd pushing over 35,000, that sounded at times to have far more Hamilton supporterswithin it, was electric. Even the Rogers Centre's usually empty 500-level was alive with fans.
The Ticats struck first with a field goal by Luca Congi on the game's first drive after they recovered a fumble by Toronto's Andre Durie on the opening kickoff return.
The Argos quickly answered, as Ray completed six successive passes, finishing with an eight-yard touchdown strike to receiver Spencer Watt.
In the closing seconds of the first quarter, Burris launched a jump-ball deep into the end zone, and Fantuz hauled it in.
Ray and Watt connected for another touchdown, this time for 29 yards. Then a 59-yard by Durie set up a one-yard rush into the end zone by backup quarterback Zach Collaros. The Argos also added a field goal by Swayze Waters But a determined Burris then carried the Ticats down the field, often strong-arming multiple defenders while scrambling, and delivered a four-yard touchdown pass to Fantuz.
Ray started the game completing 17 of 20 passes for 279 yards in the first half. But then Hamilton stole the momentum. Burris hit Greg Ellingson with a 14-yard touchdown pass to open the half. Congi then added a field goal for the lead.
The Ticats' defence forced Toronto to a few two and outs. Ray was kept off the field a lot and struggled to find open receivers. He finished the day with 22 of 32 for 329 yards.
Congi added another field goal and Mark Beswick ran in a fumbled punt return by Toronto's Chad Owens to put the game out of reach.
"Preparing them for the second half, I looked at the group, and it seemed to me that we had a bunch of guys who wouldn't flinch," said Ticats coach Kent Austin. "They believe in each other, and we just had a second half where we really executed against a good football team."
Austin referred to Burris as the most unselfish player he has ever coached. He said it was the right call to go with the traditional Burris-lead offence for this game rather than a heavier use of backup quarterback Dan LeFevour that has also succeeded in recent weeks.
"Nobody gave us a chance due to all the factors we had to deal with – going to Guelph, having so many changes, new players, losing a lot of games to start out," said Burris. "Our guys aren't focused on a championship, rings or money. All you hear guys saying here is we just want to spend another week together."
TAKING IT TO THE HOUSE
For a third successive year, the host city of the Grey Cup has its own CFL team in the game. The Argonauts beat Calgary last year in Toronto to hoist the Cup and the B.C. Lions won it in Vancouver in 2011.
Calgary boasted the best regular-season record in the CFL at 14-4, but fell short of a return trip to the Grey Cup by losing the division final at home. The Argos were 4-5 at Rogers Centre during the regular season, the first time in CFL history a team had finished first in a division with a losing home record and lost the division final at home, too.
The 101st Grey Cup will be a homecoming for Hamilton quarterback Henry Burris and coach Kent Austin. Burris is a former Riders' starter while Austin led Saskatchewan to Grey Cup wins as a quarterback ('89) and head coach ('07).