WINNIPEG -- It started as a defensive affair; a fitting tribute for a beloved coach.
It ended with concern about the starting quarterback.
The first game for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers since the sudden, shocking death of defensive line and assistant head coach Richard Harris was, as expected, difficult to digest, given all the emotion involved.
The Bombers got through the teary affair, as professional sport forces you to do at times, and beat the visiting B.C. Lions 25-20 before a sellout crowd of 29,533 at Canad Inns Stadium Thursday night. The game story, however, evolved into a different anxiety for the football club as it pertains to the product on the field.
Quarterback Buck Pierce was forced to leave the game in the fourth quarter with what the club is calling a strained calf muscle, an injury he suffered early in the game. Pierce took a number of shots all game — the Lions four sacks were not indicative of the beating he actually received — but his prognosis was positive afterwards.
"I tried to keep on moving it, keep moving on it," Pierce said of his leg injury. "On that last run, it just really tightened up and pulled on me."
Pierce figures to be OK to play a week from today, when the Bombers — check that, the 4-1 Bombers — host the unbeaten Edmonton Eskimos.
The Lions dropped to 0-5.
Head coach Paul LaPolice, who like all of the players looked completely exhausted after the game, didn’t hesitate on yanking Pierce, given how the Winnipeg offence was firing.
While the 82-yard strike to Clarence Denmark to open the second half erased a poor initial 30 minutes and got the crowd back into the game, Pierce wasn’t finding he same success he had in Toronto.
His final numbers: 11-of-18 for 206 yards and one touchdown, but the offence seemingly couldn’t get out of second gear all evening.
As he walked off towards he lockerroom in the fourth, second-year QB Alex Brink, the man who was booed off the field the last time these clubs met at the Polo Park stadium, turned in a small slice of redemption.
His numbers, 4-of-8 for 52 yards and a touchdown, were good enough to pass, but it was that one passing touchdown (a 22-yard strike to SB Terrence Edwards with 3:41 left in the game) that gave the Bombers the final lead in the seesaw battle.
The other offensive hero for the Blue and Gold: Winnipeg kicker Justin Palardy, who went 4-for-4 from field goal range. Lions kicker Paul McCallum also had a 4-for-4 night, as the offences sputtered to find a rhythm.
Lions QB Travis Lulay was 16-of-31 for 195 yards. He also rushed for 37 yards. B.C.’s only major was when RB Jamal Robertson scored on a five-yard run in the first half, as the Lions carried a 13-6 lead into the break.
Despite the Winnipeg victory and loss of Pierce from the game, Thursday night wasn’t about wins or losses.
"Just relief," DT Doug Brown said on how he felt after the game, the emotional drain of the past two days after Harris’ death showing on his tired face. "That was probably the most difficult game most guys in this dressing-room ever had to play.
"Hopefully it’s going to get easier."
The game started with an emotional tribute to Harris, a moment of silence with both club sharing condolences in the middle of the field.
Brown, who fought back the tears before the game, said that moving moment — not to mention this whole shocking week of events — left the players with half a tank of gas before the kickoff.
"We weren’t going to ride a wave of anything heading into this one," he said. "It was a wave of sorrow, and we had to dig so deep… we were so drained. We were spent. At halftime, we just looked each other in the eye and we knew what we had to do."
The Bombers as a team put six sacks on Lulay, an apt tribute for a defensive front that has thrived under Harris’ leadership.
After the game, the Bombers as a team gave the game ball to Harris’ widow, Tami, a fitting gesture to cap an emotional night.