Drew Tate was just a 10-year-old Texan in 1994 when the Calgary Stampeders last defeated the Saskatchewan Roughriders in a postseason game. Starting his first CFL playoff game for the Stamps, against Saskatchewan Sunday, he refused to be haunted by the ghost of Riders past in the West Division semi-final.
Perhaps that's how the six-year quarterback exorcised 18 years of Calgary demons swirling round McMahon Stadium in an improbable final minute of a 36-30 Calgary win. Tate's 68-yard bomb to Romby Bryant with 40 seconds left in the fourth quarter gave Calgary an entertaining win and sends it to Vancouver next Sunday for the West final against the B.C. Lions. It was breathtaking, shocking, even, for Stamps fans conditioned to losing.
The winning play came just 32 seconds after the Roughriders had taken a dramatic 30-29 lead on a 24-yard pass to Greg Carr from Darian Durant, a play that stunned the Stampeders' fans in the bipartisan crowd of 30,027.
The hookup with Bryant came after trying the same sideline route two plays earlier in the winning drive.
"I thought we had him the first time," Tate said. "Romby's as solid as they come. You just have to keep feeding the guy. He might miss one, but he's not going to miss another."
Or maybe Tate was simply operating on instinct after being clobbered by Tearrius George early in the game. "I don't even remember the first half," Tate said. "All I remember is the second half. I just got my bell rung, that's all."
Which came as news to Calgary head coach John Hufnagel. When asked if he knew anything about a concussion, Hufnagel replied: "No, no."
Tate had a lot riding on the game. His grandmother had passed away in Florence, Ala., and he was unable to attend her funeral on Saturday. He also had the pressure of being tabbed by Hufnagel to start the game over veteran Kevin Glenn, who'd led Calgary most of the year.
"It was the most emotional game I can ever remember being a part of," Tate said, eyes watering in the dressing room.
"I don't think you could write a better script than that, to be honest with you."
The Stampeders' near-death experience in the final minute is typical of a franchise that had suffered so many postseason disappointments under Henry Burris at quarterback the past decade. The 12-6 Stamps were a juicy target for the 8-10 Riders. But Tate, who was once thought lost for the 2012 season with a shoulder injury, would not let it happen.
"For some reason, none of us were flustered on that last drive," Tate said. "It was just complete some passes and see if we can get a miracle. We sure did."
It wasn't pretty. Tate started slowly, missing receivers and looking too amped. But a bizarre sequence at the end of the first half in which the teams combined for 11 points in 12 seconds (a TD, a blocked convert returned 98 yards by Calgary and a 50-yard field goal by Calgary kicker Rene Paredes on the last play of the half) seemed to propel him and his team.
He finished with 363 yards passing and two touchdown passes. "Drew's a tough sucker, man," Durant said. "You've got to give him a lot of credit. He stood in there. To not play most of the year and then lead his team to a win like that today, that's what being a quarterback is all about."
Saskatchewan kicker Sandro DeAngelis knows Tate from his Calgary days. "What can you say about Drew? He could've folded like a cheap tent after that last touchdown, but he didn't."
Stampeders linebacker Juwan Simpson saw the difference Tate makes in a team thought to have a fatal flaw. "He started off a little rough, but he kept his composure. That's the kind of quarterback he is. And he made the big play when we needed to make it."
Hufnagel was a little more restrained in his comments about Tate. "He managed the game well. You saw the things he can do, making plays out of nothing. We all have to play better next week and Drew's one of them."
Tate will have to be better against the Lions, who've owned Calgary in Vancouver the last while. So will all the Stamps. But for a team haunted by failure, there seems a fighting chance under Little Man Tate.