Nik Lewis, the old lion, ruminated on his Calgary Stampeders, a team that had before Sunday night won only a single Grey Cup in his decade as a star in the Canadian Football League.
In an otherwise buoyant midweek session with reporters at BC Place, full of smiles and laughs, Lewis was frank: "We have been underachievers."
It almost happened again. The Stampeders on Sunday led the Hamilton Tiger-Cats wire-to-wire – a 20-16 victory for Calgary's seventh Grey Cup – but an incredible punt return in the last minute by Hamilton's Brandon Banks, a 5-foot-7, 153-pound miracle of a football player, was quashed by an illegal block penalty.
Banks had taken the football 90 yards, to what would have been an extraordinary, come-from-behind victory. The illegal block didn't aid his scamper – he had already been on his way – and when his work was negated, Banks slammed his fists into the field, on his knees, in anguish.
The game ended with more than 50,000 people roaring on their feet, as Tiger-Cats quarterback Zach Collaros struggled in vain to find an open receiver, and came up short.
In the Stampeders locker room after the presentation of the trophy on the field, the MVP, Calgary's 24-year-old quarterback, the Texan Bo Levi Mitchell, had a smile a mile wide. "I can't even describe it right now," said Mitchell. He chomped on a cigar – smoke heavy in the air, the floor wet with Champagne – and embraced one of his linemen. "That's the first one!" Mitchell declared of the Grey Cup.
The Ticats locker room was morose. "Just disappointing," said receiver Andy Fantuz. He had won the most outstanding Canadian award. His lip quivered, verge of tears. "The way we fought our way here."
Calgary's work to conjure football redemption began early, led by Mitchell, and was infused with a we-will-get-this-done fire from Lewis. The slotback is built like a tank, 5-foot-10 and 240 pounds. Midway through the first quarter, deep in Hamilton territory, Lewis corralled a pass from Mitchell.
Lewis, faced down by two Hamilton defenders at the goal line, did not try to dance. He careened right into them. Lewis didn't quite manage to barrel through but Calgary scored on the next play, 7-0. The tone was set. The Stampeders, the best team in the CFL this year, would not bobble this one, would not cede to a lesser opponent – even if they almost did, scoring just three points in the second half.
Hamilton first squeezed some hope out near the end of the first half with a Collaros bomb of a touchdown pass and the Tiger-Cats scratched to within four points, with two minutes left in the game. The called-back punt return is emblematic of the CFL season, one marred by low scoring, falling attendance, TV ratings sliding, and tonnes of penalties.
Hamilton had a losing record all year until they won in the final week of the regular season to slip into the playoffs at 9-9 in the woeful East Division. The Ticats were outmatched by the Stamps – 15-3 in the regular season – though not by much.
"Very stressful," said Stampeders lineman Demonte Bolden on the field amid the celebration after the game. He had blocked a low field goal kick with his raised left hand in the second quarter. "We came out and prevailed. We got it done, baby."
Civic pride resonated, too. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi hoisted the Grey Cup on the stage near midfield. Nenshi is a long-time Stamps fan. He remembered a playoff game in Calgary as a teenager when it was so cold his thermos shattered. "It's community," said Nenshi. "It's building community. That's what sports are about. Plus, I love football."
Mitchell was, until the fourth quarter, near perfect, calm and certain as he orchestrated successful drives. When Hamilton defenders managed to pin some pressure on Mitchell, a rarity until the fourth quarter, he'd wheel away, direct his blockers and receivers, and blast a long completion.
His main miscue was an interception early in the fourth quarter, which kept Hamilton in it. Asked about what happened after the game, when it didn't matter anymore, Mitchell said: "INT. That's what happened. Threw it to the wrong team." The smile did not leave his face.
Team co-owner Murray Edwards credited continuity in team management, starting with head coach John Hufnagel, who won in his first season in Calgary in 2008 but suffered several playoff upsets thereafter.
"This victory is a confirmation of what we believe in Calgary," said Edwards, who also owns the Calgary Flames and is chairman of Canada's biggest energy company, Canadian Natural Resources, which he co-founded as a tiny upstart in the late 1980s.
"Pro sports are tough. This is a victory for all Calgarians."
On Friday, middle linebacker Juwan Simpson, a pillar of the team, sketched the situation in black-and-white. "You play to get a ring on your finger," said Simpson. "I feel like we're supposed to have three."
Two has to feel good enough, given the near disaster. Calgary in 2012 in Toronto lost the 100th Grey Cup to an Argonauts team that was 9-9, like Hamilton. Simpson was overjoyed after the game Sunday, and half-dislodged the bowl atop the Grey Cup from its primary base. "Juwan Simpson shook it so hard it broke!" said Stampeders running back Jon Cornish, who played a quieter, secondary role on Sunday.
Cornish was a potential hometown hero, having grown up in the Vancouver suburbs. In the first half he was a non-entity, more a decoy as Calgary rode Mitchell's arm, who completed almost every single pass. Cornish's second half wasn't much better – he finished with nine carries and 25 yards – but he considered his second championship a career capstone at age 30.
"It's pretty hard to win a Grey Cup," he said on the field after the game, after embracing Nenshi. "I can retire tomorrow. I won't – but I could." Like his teammates, he was nothing but smiles, his brown eyes electric with victory.
Lewis on Wednesday had forecast that the sting of all the playoff miscues of the recent past, key games they had botched, would evaporate with a win. "Once the game's over and you win it," Lewis said Wednesday, "all the wrongs, all the mistakes, are all corrected, for at least one night."
Spirit at BC Place, which was not sold out, 1,400 short of capacity, was electric in the early going, as the more than 52,056 fans in an array of colours stomped, cheered and banged their thundersticks. It ended electric, too.
Beforehand, two celebrity attendees joined British Columbia Premier Christy Clark for a chat in the bowels of the stadium. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and left tackle Russell Okung decided on Saturday to make the trip north, on an off day after defeating the 49ers in San Francisco on Thursday. "Love the people, love the city," said Wilson.
Clark, dressed in orange, a B.C. Lions jersey, predicted a Calgary victory. "I am," declared the smiling premier, "a Westerner."