Whenever the mood hits, usually when he needs his "CFL fix," big Mike Walker will pop in the videotape of the greatest Grey Cup game ever played and watch it. He's one of the few former Hamilton Tiger-Cats who will. Many of his teammates can't bring themselves to sit through the entire three hours.
"I get halfway through it or near the end and I can't watch it any more," Paul Osbaldiston said. "In no way, shape or form is it okay to lose that game."
Mike McCarthy's scars are doubly deep.
"I think about that game every time I look at my 1986 Grey Cup ring," he said. "I have a dent in it that came from punching the wall after we lost the '89 Cup. I'm still sick about that game."
Eighteen years have passed since Dave Ridgway kicked, the Roughriders roared and all of Saskatchewan went wild in celebration of the finest, most remarkably played Grey Cup of this or any era. On that November afternoon, in the first CFL championship game played in the freshly christened SkyDome (now the Rogers Centre) in Toronto, the 'Riders capped an acid trip of a football game with a mind-blowing finish.
Those who took in the game cannot shake its memories - the excitement of the 54,088 in attendance and the ebb and flow of the on-field battling. To this day, the 43-40 final remains the highest-scoring affair in 94 years of Grey Cup play. Fifteen single-game records were either set or tied and six players (four from Saskatchewan and two from Hamilton) went on to become members of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
For the victors, the spoils were especially rewarding. Ridgway's 35-yard, last-second, game-winning freak-out of a field goal became known as the Kick. It was made into a poster and has sold more copies than a Saskatchewan road map. People in Regina still talk about what it was like when the team returned home and how downtown streets were jammed with cars and revellers.
But what about the losers? What was it like to play so well, to run along the edge of greatness only to slip and carry the memory of that defeat for almost two decades?
For some Ticats, it has been an exercise not in bitterness, but in what ifs and how comes. What if they had made good on this play or that? What if there had been one fewer penalty against, or one better tackle giving up one fewer yard?
All those questions prompt familiar feelings of emptiness for those who sat in the losers' dressing room at the SkyDome, unable to comprehend just how long their disappointment would last.
"So many things about that game bother me, like our cornerback Lance Shields going down," said McCarthy, who left the Ticats soon after to serve as the general manager of the Toronto Argonauts and has since returned to Hamilton.
"He had rolled an ankle earlier in the season and I wanted the coaches to dress [import defensive back]David Brandon. [Head coach]Al Bruno wanted Earl Winfield dressed, even though he had a bad ankle, too. When Shields got hurt, we had to juggle our secondary."
When the Ticats finished juggling their secondary, Winfield, a receiver, was forced to line up at cornerback with backup Canadian Donnohue Grant at halfback.
"As soon as [Saskatchewan quarterback]Kent Austin saw that, they ran a slant [pass pattern to slotback Jeff Fairholm]and scored," assistant coach John Salavantis said. "We were up [20-8] but that got them back into the game."
And what about the greased uprights on both of the SkyDome's goal posts? Before the game, McCarthy watched field workers slathering the uprights with Vaseline. The idea was to keep fans from rushing onto the field after the game and trying to tear down the goalposts. McCarthy argued, "What if a ball hits it and slides in or out?" In the second half, he could hardly believe his eyes. A Ridgway field goal hit an upright and skidded in to count.
"I'd complained to the refs and son of a bitch if the ball doesn't hit the upright and slip in. I couldn't believe it," McCarthy said.
Then there was the almost interception by Hamilton defensive back Will Lewis in what would be his final game in the CFL. Now the Seattle Seahawks' director of pro personnel, Lewis made an end-zone interception that would have snuffed a Saskatchewan scoring drive. Instead, the referees ruled he was out of bounds.
"The receiver I was covering ran a crossing route at the back of the end zone," Lewis said. "There was a collision and I caught the ball and did a roll and got up. The ref said I bobbled it out of bounds. I felt I had it."
In the end, with the score tied 40-40, the 'Riders got the ball with enough time to move downfield and attempt the winning field goal. To add to the tension, the Ticats called a timeout to rattle Ridgway. The Hamilton players yelled and hissed at the man known as Robokicker. It was, Mike Walker said, the only thing left they could do.
"[Ridgway]was so focused," said Walker, a defensive lineman who now coaches at Washington State University. "He was one of the best clutch kickers in the league. "I watched the ball go over my head - and it broke my heart."
Osbaldiston had the best-worst view of the Kick. As Hamilton's kicker, he was positioned behind the uprights with implicit instructions: if the ball sails wide, catch it and kick it back out. He never got the chance.
"It was such a helpless feeling," said Osbaldiston, who was in the same position nine years later when Mark McLoughlin of the Calgary Stampeders hoofed a Cup-winning field goal on the final play of that game. "You're numb. You get a tiny, little feeling it was nice to be a part of it, then you're overwhelmed by the fact you lost the game."
The star of the 77th Grey Cup game for Hamilton was a lithe receiver named Tony Champion. He scored two touchdowns, including one known simply as the Catch. On that fourth-quarter play, Champion hurled himself backward and, with his arms reaching back over his head, made a dramatic catch while suffering from a broken rib.
Champion was never again as dominating as he was that season and in that Grey Cup. Within three years, he was out of Hamilton and out of football. Some say he lives in Humboldt, Tenn., where he starred in high school, and may be working in a tobacco factory. All efforts to contact him were rebuffed or ignored. Even his teammates have had little luck reconnecting with Champion and it bothers some because it's another loss on top of the one they suffered together.
"Everyone's trying to find him," said Osbaldiston, who noted Champion didn't attend the 20th anniversary of the Ticats' 1986 Grey Cup win. "I think he was somewhat bitter when he left the organization. When he left, he wasn't picked up by anyone else in the league and that surprised me."
Champion's catch is the Ticats' fondest memory of the greatest Grey Cup game in history. For them, it was their shining moment, the one thing they can look back to and say, "That was us at our best, and it counted."
"I remember that the most - Champ's catch," Walker said. "I know Tony's back in Tennessee. I'll try to reach him for you."
You wait. You wait some more. The call never comes.