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Mission impossible?

Bombers past and present feeling a deep shade of Blue after yet another failure to capture the Grey Cup

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The scene could be staged, but it isn't: Winnipeg Blue Bombers massive defensive tackle Doug Brown standing at centre field in the cavernous and domed BC Place, on the eve of his final game, cracking wise when asked about the impressive stage of his final curtain call.

"I'd like to see this thing get opened up," Brown says, casting his gaze straight up at the stadium's newly constructed retractable roof.

"Us Winnipeggers, we get claustrophobic when we're caught inside. We need some fresh air and some snow in here. But other than that, it's a beautiful place."

No doubt, it's a beautiful sight; enough, perhaps, to make those old Brown eyes Blue. After all, the towering 37-year-old is on the verge of capping a hall-of-fame career in his old hometown, at the precipice of a Grey Cup championship that has eluded him for 11 long seasons in a Bombers uniform.

And then, four days later, another scene. Not staged.

Doug Brown slumped in his locker, in a sombre Bombers room quiet enough to hear a tear drop.

The final score: B.C. Lions 34, Bombers 23.

Just like that, Brown's dream of a perfect farewell is dashed. Just like that, the Bombers have suffered their fifth straight Grey Cup defeat, a drought now spanning 21 years and counting, the longest ever for the venerable 81-year-old franchise.

CONTINUED J4,5

 

At first, the big man puts up a brave front as the cameras and reporters converge on his locker stall.

"Just kind of numb right now, man," he begins. "Just trying to come to terms with the finality of the situation, so... it doesn't seem real."

Then comes the innocent question: "Is it too soon for reflection, Doug? Or is it going to take time to sink in?"

Brown looks up.

"It's just too fast," he tries. "Like I said, I'm really..."

The voice of the most well-spoken, even-keeled Winnipeg Blue Bombers player of the last decade trails off. He drops his head. Deep breaths. The cameras and tape recorders keep rolling.

Brown is searching for composure. But the words won't come.

Bombers media director Darren Cameron comes to the rescue. "Guys, could we give him a second please?"

The crowd disperses. No longer able to hold back the flood of emotions, Brown begins to sob, almost silently, his head buried in his hands.

One camera man continues to film Brown's very personal, very lonely, very poignant moment.

Cameron has had enough.

"I'm not saying it again," he barks. "Please get away from here."

Looking around, this place isn't so beautiful anymore.

 

-- -- --

 

Here's a reasonable question: Why can't the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have their own happy ending? Why can't their tortured fans?

Isn't 21 years enough? Do the mercurial football gods not have their pound of flesh already -- for whatever sin the Bombers organization must have committed to deserve these repeated kicks in the teeth?

On Sunday, it is Doug Brown in the bowels of BC Place.

In 1993, it was Bombers legend Chris Walby, storming around the dressing room after a 33-23 loss to the Edmonton Eskimos at McMahon Stadium, searching in vain for his false teeth in anticipation of the incoming media hordes.

"Great!" Walby fumed. "First we lose the Grey Cup, now I lose my f--king teeth!"

In 2001, it was placekicker Troy Westwood, who missed three field goals in a 27-19 loss to Calgary at Olympic Stadium, laying bare his soul in a barely audible display of self-capitulation. Months after that bitter defeat to the heavy underdog Stampeders, Westwood still muttered, "Every time I looked in a mirror, I wanted to punch my face."

In 2007, it was hall-of-famer Milt Stegall refusing to speak to the media following the Bombers' 23-19 loss to arch-nemesis Saskatchewan Roughriders at Toronto's SkyDome.

And injured quarterback Kevin Glenn snapping at one media scribe: "What do you want to talk to me for? I didn't play."

You see, it's not just that the Bombers haven't won a Grey Cup in 21 years. They have become a football team where happy endings go to die.

When you're 0-for-5 in the big game since 1990, nobody leaves a winner. Not the players. Not even the legends. And, most certainly, not the fans, who by now must be wondering what they've done to deserve such prolonged emotional abuse.

Even as the smoulder settles on the Bombers' most recent Grey Cup demise, the webosphere is filling with lament.

"I was eight years old the last time the Bombers won the cup," writes one poster, fittingly titled Only the Lonely.

"Will this team ever be good? Or will I have to be a granddad before this team wins a cup in an eight-team league?"

"The Buffalo Bills of the CFL," adds another.

Concludes one more disconsolate poster: "Welcome to Swaggerville. Pop 0."

Indeed, all around Manitoba on Sunday, there were more long faces than found in the world's largest herd of horses.

But few, if any, can feel the weight of the Bombers' unfortunate fate more than Brown. And few can feel his pain more than Westwood, whose 17 years in a Bombers uniform are tempered with the scars of four Grey Cup losses.

"He had a chance to pursue a storybook ending... It was right there for Doug," notes Westwood, now a sports radio host on Winnipeg's TSN 1290.

"It was his third Grey Cup. He'd been there twice and lost ('01 and '07). Then you heap on the emotion of the entire city, organization, province and the hopefulness to end that long drought. I would think he just felt a lot of weight on his shoulders for the possibility of an incredible ending, an absolutely perfect ending to a brilliant career.

"Those 11 years of Doug's career come down to that moment in the locker room after another unfortunate loss," Westwood adds.

"And that moment is sandwiched by everything he's experienced as a player. And then there's the relative unknown of life after football. That's an immense amount of emotion for any human being to deal with and rationalize. I would suspect that would be why you would see that much emotion from a fellow typically as immune to that as Doug Brown.

"The almost Hollywood aspect of what the ending could have been for him... That's a movie script. Knowing it's his last game (as Brown has publicly indicated). His body is sore and beaten down. So for every dream he's had since a little kid to hoist that Grey Cup, if he's truly committed to retiring, that dream is dead and buried somewhere inside of him and can't ever be approached again."

 

-- -- --

 

Little wonder Brown needs some space. Eleven long years of striving for his profession's Holy Grail. All those weights lifted, all those battles in the trenches and punches to the face, all those nagging injuries, and, poof, the clock strikes midnight and BC Place, brimming with a sea of orange-clad Lions fans, suddenly looks like a $500-million pumpkin.

And while Brown's heartbreak might cut the deepest, if misery loves company, the lineman is in the right place.

Just across the room, Winnipeg quarterback Buck Pierce is solemnly fielding questions, too, even though the answers don't really matter anymore.

Like Brown, Pierce entered Sunday's final hoping to author his own storybook ending: recovering from a devastating elbow dislocation last September to not just capture the cup, but end the drought in a community where the 30-year-old native of Crescent City, Calif., had spent the entire winter off-season rehabilitating his damaged wing.

Of course, Pierce's journey, like every Bombers player in the room, began long before the 99th Grey Cup. Ironically, it began about the time Chris Walby was looking for his teeth in 1993.

"Growing up, he was always different, even for a really young kid," notes Pierce's older brother, Dylan.

"We'd be playing G.I. Joes and Buck would set up a tire in the backyard and throw a football all day. Incredible focus and determination to achieving his goal."

True story: In grade school, a teacher asked all the students what they wanted to be when they grew up. Pierce wrote: "Professional athlete."

The teacher balked. "No, you have to make it a career. You can't be a rock star or a football star. You have to be realistic."

Said the young Buck: "I don't see why that's not."

Pierce believed a Grey Cup victory over the favoured Lions was realistic, too. Yet there he is, slumped in his locker saying, "I didn't do my part. That's hard to handle right now."

 

-- -- --

 

But at least Pierce might get another rare chance to fulfil a childhood dream. Barring a drastic change of heart, Brown won't.

Neither will Richard Harris, the beloved Winnipeg defensive line coach whose sudden death of a heart attack last July -- right in his chair at the Bombers headquarters -- rocked the franchise to its foundation.

Only two days before his death, Harris had called the Bombers' young, third-string quarterback Alex Brink into his office. Pierce had just been sidelined with a knee injury and Brink had been promoted to back up starter Joey Elliott for a game against the Lions.

"He (Harris) said he believed in me more than anybody out there," Brink recalls.

Four days later, when Elliott suffered a season-ending knee injury late in a regular-season game against B.C., Brink entered the game in relief and engineered an 80-yard drive late in the fourth quarter, throwing the winning touchdown pass.

"For those words to come true, I couldn't help but think I had him on my shoulder, looking down on me from heaven," Brink says.

"It's something I'll hold onto for the rest of my career."

You really want a gut-wrenching loss?

"Not many people know this," says Bombers president Jim Bell. "But the day that Richard passed away he was making plans that afternoon to go visit a young fan in the hospital battling a horrible disease. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be."

Undoubtedly, the death of Harris puts a Grey Cup loss -- or five in a row -- in the proper perspective. Yet at the same time, the emotional investment, the passage of time and lost opportunity can only compound the disappointment in the moment.

Case in point: Equipment manager Brad Fotty has been with the Bombers 22 years, and he's literally cleaned up the mess of every Bombers Grey Cup loss over those two-plus decades.

Fotty is the guy who toils in the shadows, yet sees everything. And on the eve of Sunday's championship, he is talking about the growth of a Bombers team, almost entirely consisting of 20-something youngsters, that has matured before his eyes.

"Because some of these guys have been through a lot this year with Richard Harris," Fotty says. "I don't think people understand how tough it was on them, how deeply they hurt. It still hurts. It hurts every day still."

Twenty-two years is a long time. So long that it's reached the point where Fotty stops himself from envisioning a day when a Bombers post-game locker-room won't feel like tip-toeing through a funeral, picking up jerseys and packing the getaway truck.

And when you ask him what would be the most gratifying experience of his own happy ending, standing on the sidelines at BC Place on the Saturday before last Sunday's loss, the tears start to fall.

"These guys," Fotty says, looking out at the Bombers playfully exercising on the field, "people pay to come and see them. Them and the coaches. I'm just doing my job. But as long as I could say I was associated with the team that won, I'm cool with that."

 

-- -- --

 

For every losing team, there is a winner. For every Doug Brown, there is Lions defensive end Brent Johnson, another iconic Canadian who also played his last game Sunday. For every Pierce, there is B.C. pivot Travis Lulay, who trumped the Winnipeg quarterback in Vancouver, then lived out his dream in the bedlam of BC Place.

And in the Bombers' locker-room, there was a palpable sense that for every giddy Lions fan revelling in victory, there was a Bombers supporter grieving half a nation away.

"The fans are the heart and soul of this team," said Bombers centre Obby Kahn.

"They're probably taking this as hard as we are. I've lived in the city for six years, so I really feel for them. They want the cup bad. The city's been through a 21-year drought now, and it sucks."

All-star safety Ian Logan has been with the Bombers since 2006 and never played a CFL game for another team.

"We know what it means for Winnipeg to win," the 29-year-old said.

"That's what makes it so difficult. We're in a position where we keep losing and losing (championships). We've got to get that piano off our backs."

Sure, there's always next year. And the Bombers are young.

But if you're waiting for Troy Westwood to tell you that closes matters, better move along.

"You're right on the precipice of conquering that mountain that has become the Grey Cup for this organization, and it just slips through your hand," Westwood says.

"When you're in the position to win a championship, those are finite moments in time. There's only so many chances that are presented to you, and it's unknown what the number will be."

Even the notion of starting the long ascent, starting once again at the bottom in 2012, is already beginning to seep into Logan's thought process on Sunday. He's shaking his head.

"Wow. Just to get back to this point," he says.

"I mean, the things you go through in a season. To do all that again just to get back to this point is a daunting task. There's ups and downs in the season, and it hurts when you're so far down after this sort of game."

That could have been tens of thousands of beleaguered Bombers fans talking over the past two decades. Fathers whose sons are entering university who've never seen the Bombers win it all.

"But that's life, isn't it?" Westwood reasons.

"There's ebbs and flows, good times and rough patches. It's cyclical. Whatever comes your way, you just have to deal with it and move forward. We have no choice but to accept whatever outcomes are in front of us.

"All those guys who are returning next time, the only option you have is to get stronger from that experience. Anything other than that, you're done. Either you wilt or get stronger. It's one or the other."

My, how strong Bombers fans must be. Stronger, perhaps, than the players who've come and gone over the past two decades. After all, they carry the burden far more than the players, if only because their collective memories are longer.

"It's such an environment that whatever happens today doesn't matter tomorrow for the players," Westwood says.

"That's the way you're trained. You discard the past immediately. Maybe it's us, looking from the outside, the fans who carry those types of thoughts and emotions, the weightiness of it. The city and province and all the fans of the Bombers, the ghosts that haunt the team from '92, '93, '01 or '07... we all carry those burdens much more than the players do."

Does Westwood still feel that burden?

"Damn right I feel it," he replies without hesitation.

"It's something that's always flying around inside of me, that the cup was elusive. It's not often when it really rises to the surface, but it's something that lasts forever."

All that joking the media makes about the jinx or joy of touching the Grey Cup? Westwood doesn't think it's funny.

"I never touched it, over all those 17 freaking years," he says.

"And now I'll never get a chance to touch it. Along with the millions of other Canadians who have a dream of one day touching the cup or raising it or celebrating with it, I'm just part of that large segment of Canadians who dreams of it. And I'm going to have to go to my grave with that dream. That's the reality of the situation.

"But I feel remarkably fortunate to have been there four times. It doesn't really haunt you in a negative way. I don't know what to compare it to. Maybe it's like a young man or woman who had someone they loved dearly and adored but were never able to talk to them or go out on a date.

"That cup is something you've loved and yearned for, but it's the one what got away."

Or just wasn't meant to be.

On Sunday, Doug Brown can't find the words. Buck Pierce can't find solace, even after a comeback that defies the odds. Around the locker-room, if minds can be read, more than a few are thinking of Richard Harris.

And Brad Fotty picks up the jerseys and packs up the getaway truck in silence. Again.

 

-- -- --

 

"What will I think if the Bombers ever win a cup?" Troy Westwood says, repeating the question.

"I was trying to wonder all week what that might feel like. During the entire game, I was leaning forward on my couch in anticipation. The kids basically weren't allowed to talk to me. But if they pulled it out at the end, I think I would have just sat back on the couch and exhaled. I'm sure I would have had tears in my eyes, just seeing the organization and the guys that you know enjoy it. To finally climb that mountain and plant that Grey Cup flag.

"It doesn't matter who does it," the old kicker concludes.

"When that day finally comes, and the year is upon us where we are at the top of the Canadian Football League hierarchy again, in our rightful place, to see whoever it is raise that cup in a blue and gold jersey, it will take an immense amount of joy to watch that. It would make my heart glow and bring a big, warm smile to my face."

Every Winnipeg Blue Bomber has a story, you see. Every fan, too.

One day, perhaps, their happy ending will come.

A long-lost love found at last.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 5, 2011 J1

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