Very blue, no gold Powerhouse Bombers roster was CFL's best — and it wasn't even close — in 2001, but things got ugly in the championship game, a gruesome end to a glorious season

How did it come down to this?

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/11/2021 (308 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

How did it come down to this?

The 2001 Winnipeg Blue Bombers — a team that tied a CFL record for consecutive wins in a single season, a team that had four Most Outstanding Player award winners, the coach of the year and eight league all-stars — needed a miracle.

Down 27-19 as the final seconds of the 89th Grey Cup ran off the clock, the Bombers had to find the end zone from 36 yards away to have a shot at taking the Calgary Stampeders to overtime.

Quarterback Khari Jones, earlier that week named the league’s most outstanding player, took the snap from the shotgun and, almost instantly, felt the heat from Calgary’s pass rush. He quickly stepped up in the pocket to avoid the pressure and prepared to throw a desperate heave to his go-to target, Milt Stegall. Before the ball could leave his hand, Jones was hit from behind and driven into the turf by the CFL’s sack leader, Stampeders defensive end Joe Fleming.

Shaun Best/ Reuters Calgary Stampeders defensive tackle Joe Fleming sacks quarterback Winnipeg Blue Bombers Khari Jones in the final play of the 89th Grey Cup in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium in 2001.

Fleming immediately jumped up and raised both of his arms in the air as he was swarmed by teammates. A couple of feet behind him, Jones was on his hands and knees, struggling to get up.

It wasn’t supposed to end this way.

Twenty years ago this week, the Stampeders — a team that had given up the most points in the CFL, a team that had to win three of its last four games to squeak into the playoffs at 8-10, a team that nobody gave a chance to win — ripped the Grey Cup away from one of the most talented teams to ever don blue and gold.

● ● ●

The Bombers started the 2000 season 0-4 before making a change at quarterback.

Khari Jones came off the bench to replace a struggling Kerwin Bell midway through a Week 5 matchup against the B.C. Lions — the same team that had traded Jones to Winnipeg in February of that year. Jones threw a pair of touchdowns to Robert Gordon in the second half to give the Bombers a 31-16 victory.

Three weeks later, Bell was released. With the help of Jones, Winnipeg was able to salvage the season and finish 7-10-1, securing a playoff spot for the first time since 1996. The Bombers went on to lose the East Final 35-24 to Montreal, but the future looked bright heading into the next season.

Momentarily, at least.

“The funny thing is after the 2000 season, I had surgery on my shoulder. I banged up my shoulder way back in college and then it kind of sprouted up again,” Jones said in a recent interview with the Free Press.

“So, I had surgery, I think, in January of 2001. My wife and I had just gotten married so we kind of spent our honeymoon in Winnipeg in January getting the surgery. So, all of my time in that pre-season was just getting my arm right and just hoping that my arm came back the way I hoped it would.”

Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press files Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Khari Jones rolls out under pressure during second half action at the 89th Grey Cup at the Olympic Stadium Sunday, Nov. 25, 2001 in Montreal.

Jones would later make it up to Justine and take her to Mexico for a slightly warmer honeymoon.

But never mind his shoulder. The bigger question heading into 2001 was who was Jones going to throw the ball to?

A 25-year-old Geroy Simon, who went on to become the most prolific receiver in CFL history, was coming off a promising season in Winnipeg where he had more than 700 receiving yards and caught seven touchdowns, but he left town to sign with the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and later ended up joining the Lions for six games in 2001.

The Bombers also lost a young stud in Albert Johnson III, the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie and Special Teams Player in 2000. The dynamic kick returner and receiver from Houston, who broke the record for most combined yards by a rookie (3,241), went south to the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.

Gordon, the veteran of the receiving core, was also gone. Coming off a career-year with 89 catches for 1,395 receiving yards and seven scores, he opted to play in his hometown for the Detroit Fury of the Arena Football League. Gordon, 33 at the time, would eventually rejoin the Bombers midway through the 2001 campaign.

And then, there was Milt Stegall. Training camp had begun and the team’s best weapon of all was nowhere in sight. He was holding out for a new contract and missed the first week.

To offset those losses the Bombers, headed by assistant GM Brendan Taman and club president Lyle Bauer, needed to discover some hidden gems. Luckily for them, two of the fresh faces that they brought in were future all-time greats: Sacramento State running back Charles Roberts and receiver Arland Bruce III who was heading up north after a year with the Chiefs.

“I think what made that such a great team was we had so many guys that truly knew the CFL game,” said Roberts, who now works in scheduling at the University of California at Los Angeles medical centre.

“We had guys on that team that allowed the younger guys like me and Arland Bruce to take our time and learn and not have to be thrown in to be saviours. We had guys that took care of that in terms of being the leaders on the team.”

JEFF DE BOOY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files Charles Roberts

Roberts and Bruce III were eager to make names for themselves in the Canadian game right away.

“The first time I got to Winnipeg, people didn’t know, but there were nights where I’d stay late in the stadium till, like, one or two in the morning. I would sit in the bleachers and just visualize being a Blue Bomber and being a great receiver for this team and in this league,” said Bruce III, who grew up in Kansas but now lives in Edmonton.

“When I first got to the hotel, I walked to Khari Jones’s door and asked him… what I needed to do to make plays for this team.”

The Bombers weren’t pegged as a Grey Cup favourite heading into that season, but they gained a lot of confidence in the first week.

Winnipeg started the season at McMahon Stadium in a showdown with the Stampeders. Prior to that meeting, Stegall, who signed with the Bombers in 1995, had a 1-11 career record against Calgary. The lone win came at home in a 38-36 nail-biter back in 1996.

But Stegall and the Bombers got the King Kong-sized monkey off their back on that day. For the first time since Aug. 22, 1991, the Big Blue beat the Stamps on the road.

Final score: Winnipeg 48, Calgary 20.

“After we did that, that’s when I started to think, ‘OK, we finally got over the hump in Calgary. We may have something special here,’” Stegall said.

● ● ●

The Stampeders hadn’t had a losing season since 1988, but all signs pointed to that streak ending in 2001.

Star quarterback Dave Dickenson, the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player in 2000, left to go play for the San Diego Chargers and legendary receiver Allen Pitts hung up the cleats after 11 seasons. Pitts retired as the CFL’s all-time leader in receiving yards (14,487) and touchdown catches (117).

Calgary head coach and general manager Wally Buono struggled mightily to fill Dickenson’s shoes. Buono tried to bring in Scott Milanovich — who had spent the previous season with the Berlin Thunder in NFL Europe after three years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — but he opted to continue his career in the upstart XFL instead.

It took until May 31, five weeks before the start of the season, for Buono to land an experienced pivot, and his name was Marcus Crandell.

The previous decade saw the Stampeders led by some of the best quarterbacks in the history of three-down football: Doug Flutie, Jeff Garcia and Dickenson. Crandell, by comparison, was a massive downgrade to what Cowtown was used to seeing.

Crandell was coming off a season where he was the No. 2 quarterback for NFL Europe’s Scottish Claymores. Before his time overseas, the East Carolina University product was a backup in Edmonton for three seasons.

But even with an unproven quarterback, defensive end Joe Fleming wasn’t pressing the panic button. Fleming played for the Bombers for two seasons, with the team going 9-27 during that time, before signing a deal with Calgary in 2000 in hopes of having a better chance at winning a championship.

“I think at least Marcus had a CFL pedigree, so that was helpful. It wasn’t like you were bringing in a guy from the NFL that never played a CFL game,” said Fleming. The former quarterback chaser now owns a real estate company in his hometown of Wellesley, Mass.

“I think at least Marcus had a CFL pedigree, so that was helpful. It wasn’t like you were bringing in a guy from the NFL that never played a CFL game.” – former Stampeder Joe Fleming

“Calgary was one of those teams where you felt if you went there, the opportunity to win was there, regardless of the situation. I had complete confidence in Wally, the organization and the infrastructure that was there. You didn’t feel like it was being ripped apart for a rebuild, you felt like it was more like retooling.”

Ben Sankey, a second-year player out of Wake Forest, won the Stampeders’ starting quarterback job out of training camp, but left the opening week’s matchup against the Bombers with a thumb injury and was replaced by Crandell.

Calgary started the season 0-3 and were 3-6 at the midway point.

“We had a very young secondary and we changed some key players, so through nine games, I don’t think we were a very good team at all,” said Buono, 71, who came out of retirement this week to become the interim general manager of the Edmonton Elks.

“But something happened. I think it was Freddie Childress and Thomas Rayam, two of our offensive linemen. They were fed up with losing and they gathered the team for a meeting.”

Fleming points to that meeting as the turning point in their season.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been on a team that hasn’t had a team meeting. It’s funny, they either go one way or the other. You’re either having it and guys are buying in, or guys are trying to jump off the ship and grab their own life-jackets,” said Fleming.

“That group of guys bought in.”

They fell to 5-9 before rattling off back-to-back wins. The Stamps then lost in Week 17 to the Lions, meaning they had to close out the regular season with a win over the Bombers at Canad Inns Stadium to make the playoffs.

● ● ●

The pivotal moment in the Bombers’ season came after a Week 4 loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats that dropped their record to 2-2.

“Dave Ritchie read us the riot act,” said defensive tackle Doug Brown, a CFL newcomer that year. “He had the whole team together and was like, ‘We shouldn’t be a .500 football team. We’re not a .500 football team. We’re underperforming in areas that I thought were strengths.’”

Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press Winnipeg Blue Bombers Doug Brown (97) and Brian Clark (48) sandwich Calgary Stampeders Kelvin Anderson (32) as Blue Bombers Inoke Breckterfield (95) looks on during first quarter CFL action in Calgary in 2001.

Ritchie’s message was heard loud and clear. The Bombers proceeded to win 12 straight games, tying the 1948 Stampeders for the CFL record for most consecutive wins in one season (the record now belongs to the 2016 Stampeders, who won 14).

Eight of those victories were by seven points or less.

“I think other than the 1984 team, that was the best team I ever played on,” said punter Bob Cameron, who booted the ball for Winnipeg for 23 seasons.

“We had the most talent and everything.”

Brown was a big reason for that. Originally drafted by Calgary in 1997, the New Westminister, B.C., native never suited up for the Stamps, as he went on to play 20 games, starting eight of them, for the NFL team in Washington in 1998 and 1999.

Brown’s career took a step back in 2000 when he missed the entire season with a fracture in his foot. Washington, which replaced head coach Norv Turner with Marty Schottenheimer, invited Brown to mini-camp in 2001, but they didn’t offer the Canadian a contract. Soon after, Calgary traded Brown’s rights to Winnipeg in what was one of the best trades in the Blue Bombers’ history.

A month into his first professional season of rouge football, Brown received a voicemail from Washington inviting him to training camp, but it was too late — he was all-in on being a Bomber.

“The first game I ever played in Winnipeg was a pre-season game against Toronto…. We won that pre-season game and I knew I had a lot of fun and thought, ‘This is cool’… and then all the fans ran onto the field and I was like, ‘What the hell?’” Brown recalled.

“I wasn’t sure if I should run for the security tower, or what. But the fans were just celebrating that win with us and that was my first experience playing in Winnipeg, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m not playing anywhere else.’”

“I wasn’t sure if I should run for the security tower, or what. But the fans were just celebrating that win with us and that was my first experience playing in Winnipeg, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m not playing anywhere else.’” – Doug Brown, former Bomber

Brown, who played on a defence that gave up the fewest points in the CFL that season, finished 2001 with seven sacks and was named a league all-star. There were high expectations for Brown that year and he delivered, so did fellow CFL all-stars in defensive backs Juran Bolden and Harold Nash, guard Brett MacNeil, tackle Dave Mudge, Khari Jones, Milt Stegall and Charles Roberts.

“To be on a team like that in my first season, which was kind of magical, it’s one of those situations where you kind of get used to the success and think it’s gonna be an every year thing, but professional sports, professional football just doesn’t work like that,” said Roberts, who was named an all-star as a returner.

“You can have good players, great players, but the ball doesn’t always bounce your way. Definitely, that first year was one of those years that just doesn’t happen every year.”

With all that talent, and with the ball bouncing their way, the Bombers clinched the East Division in Week 15 with a 24-17 win over Hamilton.

But their dominance created a problem: they had three regular season games left and nothing to play for.

● ● ●

It’s one of the first things that Ritchie, now 83 and residing in Rhode Island, brings up when you mention the 2001 season to him.

It isn’t the winning streak or anything that happened in the Grey Cup, it’s how he approached the meaningless games at the end of their regular season.

“I did something that if I had a chance again to do, I wouldn’t,” Ritchie said.

“I rested a few key starters for the last two games. I was thinking I’d get some (backups) some experience. I did it at quarterback, I believe I did it at running back and with a receiver or so, and maybe on defence a little bit. I figured I’d get us into the playoffs at top health, but in hindsight, I should’ve played them all.”

JOE BRYKSA/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Coach Dave Richie of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, center celebrates Eastern CFL win with Byron Capers, left.

Week 17 in Toronto felt like a pre-season game as Jones played only five possessions, completing four-of-nine passes for 17 yards. With a back injury ending stud left tackle Moe Elewonibi’s season in Week 12, the Bombers felt the need to be extra careful with Jones. Backup quarterbacks Brian Ah Yat and Jose Davis played out the rest of the Toronto game, a forgettable 12-7 loss, resulting in the Bombers ending the tilt with an underwhelming 181 yards of offence. Roberts, who led the team in rushing yards that season with 620 while sharing the backfield with Troy Mills and Eric Blount, sat out the game.

It also didn’t help that in a 26-18 win in B.C. the week before, Stegall strained his MCL, sidelining him for the final two contests. That was nothing compared to what happened to linebacker Ryland Wickman in that game as he tore three ligaments, the cartilage and ripped the hamstring off the bone in his right knee to end his season.

When Calgary came to town to close out the season in Week 18, the Bombers kept Jones out there in hopes of getting the team back on track.

But Calgary played with an edge that night as they were fighting to stay alive.

“I remember those two weeks probably more than the 12-game winning streak because we let the foot off the gas and that was the tough thing…. We knew we had first place already, so we were just trying to get them over with almost, rather than play to win the game, and that’s a tough way to play,” Jones said.

Frank Gunn/ The Canadian Press Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Khari Jones is consoled by teammate Dave Mudge after the Bombers lost 27-19 to the calgary Stampeders in the 89th Grey Cup.

“I remember being out there and thinking, ‘OK, make sure you’re OK for the playoffs,’ and I’ve never really done that before. It’s all about when you get on that roll, to just try and stay on that roll. I never thought we got it back from that 12-game streak.”

Calgary won 22-15 despite Crandell tossing four interceptions. Jones wasn’t much better, going 18-of-36 for 219, a touchdown toss and an interception in the loss. The two-game losing skid resulted in the Bombers finishing the season at 14-4.

To be fair to both quarterbacks, the game was played in bizarre ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­― and that’s putting it lightly­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ ― conditions. A power outage knocked out half of the stadium’s lights. To make matters worse, the field was frozen and felt like a skating rink.

Only in the CFL.

“Wally and I chatted and decided that we might as well play,” said Ritchie. “We did it when we were youngsters. We’d go out to the street to play, and every one of those kids had probably played in the dark.

“You could see a little bit, but I don’t know. Maybe the lights turning off was a sign.”

● ● ●

For the first time in eight years, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers were heading to the Grey Cup.

Protecting a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter of the East Division final, the Bombers stuffed Hamilton quarterback Danny McManus on the one-yard line twice and capped off the 28-13 victory on the Maroons Road field with Bolden returning an interception 54 yards for a touchdown.

The defence saved the day, and it’s a good thing that they did because the Bombers didn’t look right on offence. Outside of hitting Stegall for a 70-yard touchdown in the second quarter, Jones had a tough day at the office, connecting on just nine of 28 passes for 154 yards and a pick. Even though he made a big play, Stegall didn’t feel at his best, as it was his first game back from injury.

“Offensively, we definitely weren’t in sync,” Stegall said. “We weren’t where we were in the regular season and that comes with time off…. So, we were fortunate to win the game, but in my opinion, we weren’t where we needed to be going into the Grey Cup.”

Jones agreed: “Even when we won the playoff game against Hamilton, it still wasn’t who we were.”

Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press Winnipeg Blue Bombers Milt Stegall does a run around Calgary’s Anthony Prior.

Over in the West Division final, Crandell threw four first-half touchdowns to lead the Calgary Stampeders to a 34-16 over Edmonton.

Unlike Jones, Crandell was heading into the Grey Cup at the top of his game.

● ● ●

It was Friday, 48 hours away before the Grey Cup game at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, and the Stampeders were forced to sit and watch Bomber after Bomber step onto a stage to accept a trophy at the CFL awards banquet.

Most Outstanding Special Teams Player: Charles Roberts.

Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman: Dave Mudge.

Most Outstanding Canadian: Doug Brown.

Most Outstanding Player: Khari Jones.

Jones, who grew up in California and played college ball at UC Davis, was an obvious choice, as he led the league with 4,545 passing yards and 30 touchdown passes in a season where he also threw 23 interceptions. Crandell owned a 14-11 TD-INT ratio and had 3,407 yards in 12 starts.

“The psychology of championship games is you have to be careful that you don’t start believing your (own hype),” Buono said.

“Think about it, it’s easy. You go to the award ceremony on Friday and see the other team getting all the awards. You’re sitting there and you’re pissed because you’re not getting anything, and you don’t deserve anything. But all of a sudden, when you play the game, you’re revved up to go.”

Fleming left the Bombers to increase his chances at getting a ring and two years later on that night, his decision didn’t look too good.

“Winnipeg was a place where I desperately wanted to win a Grey Cup because the way the city was, the passion for football, and the amount of time that had gone between winning,” said Fleming, who rejoined the Bombers in 2004.

“So, it was kind of a very strange emotion looking at the team that I had left. They were the best team in the CFL, and I was on one that had barely made it to the playoffs.”

● ● ●

In what was the third-largest attendance in Grey Cup history, 65,255 fans packed Olympic Stadium to watch the Blue Bombers and Stampeders battle it out for the silver mug.

There were no early jitters for the Bombers as they looked like their old selves on the opening drive. They spread the ball around to Roberts, Stegall, Gordon and Mills — marching down the field with ease. But they end up settling for a field goal as Jones overthrew a wide-open Bruce III for what would’ve been a touchdown. Kicker Troy Westwood ran out and drilled a 29-yard field goal right down the middle to open the scoring.

On Calgary’s first play, Brown sacked Crandell for a big loss, leading to a punt.

A dropped pass by Stegall on Winnipeg’s second drive led to Westwood’s second field goal attempt, a 38-yarder.

Wide right.

The Bombers got a rouge off the miss and had to settle for a 4-0 lead.

“I don’t know if I ever talked about this publicly, but on that first kick, I was on the right hash and the flags on the uprights were parallel to the ground. There was the weirdest breeze in that dome,” said Westwood, who made 31 of 51 field goals for what was the second-worst season of his 17-year career.

“I looked at (referee) Jake Ireland who was to my left and said, ‘Jake, what’s going on with this wind?’ And he just shrugged his shoulders. I kicked it and the sucker took off to the right, the way it would if we were outdoors. It was just bizarre.”

A few possessions later, Calgary running back Kelvin Anderson fumbled the ball. The best Winnipeg could do with the turnover was send Westwood out for a third time in the first quarter, this time from 40 yards away.

Doink.

The opening quarter also saw Stampeders kicker Mark McLoughlin, a Winnipegger, miss a 45-yarder. Westwood finished the day one-for-four. His final miss was a 54-yard prayer in the third.

“On the second kick, I was on the left hash going in the same direction,” said Westwood. “The wind was still evident on the uprights and you could feel something down there so I played it a little bit outside the uprights and I ended up hitting the left upright dead-on like that.”

The Bombers continued to stumble on offence after Westwood’s second miss, whereas the Stamps found their stroke. Crandell threw a 68-yard bomb to receiver Marc Boerigter in the second quarter to give the Stamps a 10-4 lead. Calgary got the ball back with two minutes left in the half and Crandell made the Bombers pay again as he hit Travis Moore for a nine-yard TD.

At halftime it was Calgary 17, Winnipeg 4.

Buono credited the surprising score to knocking the Bombers off their game with “illusions.”

“We knew they were a better football team as far as their regular-season record. And probably when you measured player by player, they were the better team,” Buono said.

“But we isolated what we felt to be certain things that we thought we could take advantage of.”

“We knew they were a better football team as far as their regular-season record. And probably when you measured player by player, they were the better team.” – Wally Buono, former Stampeders coach

Buono remembers the strategy like it was yesterday: line up their best pass rusher in Fleming on Winnipeg’s weakest pass blocker; tell Moore that his targets were getting slashed and that his job was to occupy Juran Bolden, one of the best corners in the league, so Calgary’s big receivers, Boerigter and Vince Danielsen, could go to work against Winnipeg’s smaller defensive backs; and don’t kick the ball directly to Roberts. McLoughlin and punter Duncan O’Mahony were instructed to kick it along the ground, kick it to the sideline or kick it short to someone else.

The Bombers woke up in the third quarter and Jones threw a 23-yard TD pass to Bruce III to cut the lead to 17-11. Calgary put up a hell of a fight, but it seemed it was only a matter of time before Winnipeg would run away with the game.

If it wasn’t for two devastating plays in the fourth quarter, that likely would’ve happened.

● ● ●

It used to be a common occurrence in football, but watching it now is extremely uncomfortable.

The score was 17-12 and the Bombers had the ball with just under 10 minutes left. Calgary’s James Cotton grabbed Jones’ waist from behind and forced him to the ground and the quarterback’s head slammed against the playing surface. Jones, clearly concussed, needed to be helped off the field by a pair of teammates.

Now, as the head coach of the Montreal Alouettes ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­― who still have their practice facility, dressing room, coaches offices and meeting rooms at Olympic Stadium (the old home of the Montreal Expos)­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ ― Jones has a better idea of what caused the damage on that hit.

“They have these little compartment doors under the stadium. They’re metal doors for baseball, but I’m not sure what they’re for. When you hit the ground, you feel this metal sound that’s coming. I’m pretty sure what happened,” he said.

“When I fell down, I hit with my head and I hit one of the little corners of one of these doors. I think I still have the helmet and there’s a piece that’s basically broken off out of my helmet that I think came from that door.”

Seconds after Jones was helped to the bench, Calgary made the biggest play of the game.

Bob Cameron’s punt was blocked by Calgary defensive back Aldi Henry, a Montreal native, and scooped up by Willie Fells for a touchdown.

Jacques Boissinot / The Canadian Press files Winnipeg Blue Bombers punter Bob Cameron (left) strains to tackle Calgary Stampeders Willie Fells, who ran it in for a touchdown after a blocked punt, during third quarter action at the 89th Grey Cup at the Olympic Stadium.

Cameron hadn’t had a punt blocked all season. He refers to it as the worst play of his career.

“Aldi Henry had blocked two punts that year. I found that out afterwards. Those are things that we overlooked, obviously. I overlooked, our team overlooked,” Cameron said.

“He got a good jump on it and I slightly bobbled the snap. I looked up real quick and I thought we had it covered… (but) he dove from five yards away and he got it. That’s how games are won and lost right there. It’s sad looking back at it, but I blame myself for not seeing him.”

Only a few minutes removed from barely being able to stand, Jones led Winnipeg’s offence back out onto the field after a 43-yard kick return by Roberts. Seven plays later, Jones got the seven points from the blocked punt right back with a 23-yard strike to Stegall in double coverage with less than six minutes left in the ball game.

Calgary 24, Winnipeg 19.

“It’s pretty crazy to look at afterward because of what we know now about head injuries,” Jones said.

“I think the care we place on players today is a great thing. But a part of me is still a player and a part of me is still proud that I could still help the team.”

That’s as close as the Bombers would get. Crandell and the Stamps ran into a wall, punting seven straight times in the second half until Anderson took a dump pass 44 yards down the sideline to set up a field goal to make it an eight-point game. It didn’t matter how many times Calgary punted; Jones and Co. failed to take advantage, going two-and-out at the worst possible times.

The clock hit zero and it was over. The story was supposed to be about one of the best teams in CFL history. Instead, the story ends with one of the greatest teams that failed to win the big one.

“Obviously, that’s a new level of dejection…. I remember (linebacker) LaMarr McGriggs in the middle of that disappointment in such a flat, quiet locker room. I remember he made a pitch, he made a plea, to keep the team together,” Brown said.

“He made a passionate pitch to management and the coaching staff: ‘Just give this group one more year and we’ll get this done.’ That kind of summed it up in a nutshell, because we all believed it shouldn’t have happened this way.”

● ● ●

Westwood knows there’s a lot of people out there who blame him for the loss. It was obvious the day after the game when the Bombers returned to town and made an appearance at the Winnipeg Arena in front of 4,100 fans. Westwood, a proud Manitoban, was booed.

“You want to pin it all on me? Feel free. As a kicker, I know missing those two first field goals in the first quarter hurt our momentum, undoubtedly,” Westwood said.

“There’s a lot of aspects and angles of that game where we still had the opportunity to win or make it close in the end and we failed to do so. I took full responsibility for my play after that game. That was the only time in my career, even as an amateur athlete, where I had a bad game in a big game. That really affected me profoundly and I think made me a lot stronger as an athlete and as a person going forward after that. It was just one of those days, man.”

It really was. In 18 CFL seasons, all in Blue and Gold, Westwood made 88 per cent of his field goals in the playoffs. That’s the fourth-best percentage in CFL history.

Chuck Stoody / The Canadian Press Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback Danny McManus is stopped at the one-yard line during fourth quarter CFL eastern final against the Blue Bombers

Not that it changes anything, but Buono knows there’s a lot of people out there, especially in the Keystone province, who believe his team had no business winning that game.

The Stampeders fell to the bottom of the West Division the following year and Crandell, the Grey Cup MVP, had an underwhelming career after the title run.

“Once the playoffs start, teams balance out. I’ve been on the right side of it and the wrong side of it,” said Buono, the all-time winningest coach in league history.

“To me, the thing you have to understand is the mentality of your team going into it. When our guys went into the playoffs in 2001, they were primed. They were building confidence. I wouldn’t disagree with the Winnipeg diehards in their minds, but unfortunately, when you play a game, there are two teams…. Our team, God bless them, they willed themselves to be a great team.”

Ritchie has the seventh-most victories as a head coach, but ultimately the loss cost him a place in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. He and Ray Jauch, who’s No. 6 on the list, are the only coaches in the top 10 that haven’t been called to the Hall.

“You know what, I stopped thinking about (the loss) one year after it was over with because I never wanted to drive myself crazy,” he said. “I knew what talent I had and I didn’t get the job done.”

Ritchie is, however, a member of the Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Fame. Ten of his players from the 2001 team have been inducted, as well.

“The overwhelming narrative out there is we took that game for granted, our heads got too big and we were overconfident and cocky, but we were the same team going into that game that we were in any other. To me, that’s just an excuse and an easy narrative,” said Brown.

“That game is the one that still puzzles guys. I still talk to guys on that team and if that ever comes up, nobody gets it. It was the Bermuda triangle of our football season.… Full credit to Calgary, as they had their best game in their entire season, but for the rest of us, that’s the enigma season. I don’t think you want to be known as the team that’s the best Winnipeg Blue Bombers team to not win a championship.”

● ● ●

The game would be a lot easier to accept if the Bombers won the ultimate prize in the following years, but they didn’t. Stegall was the league’s MOP in 2002, but a hip injury kept him out of that year’s West Division final, a 33-30 loss to Edmonton. Jones, Stegall, Roberts, Brown, Westwood, and countless others from that squad all retired without ever hoisting Canada’s most iconic trophy over their head.

“People joke with me all the time that I never won a Grey Cup, but I have no problem with that. It’s just the way things are,” Stegall said.

“It’s part of life. It’s part of football. Those things happen. You play long enough that you hope everything happens, but unfortunately for me and the guys I played with in my 14 years, everything but winning a Grey Cup happened.”

Marianne Helm / The Canadian Press files "People joke with me all the time that I never won a Grey Cup, but I have no problem with that. It’s just the way things are," Stegall said. (Marianne Helm / The Canadian Press files)

One by one, those guys all said they hardly think about that heartbreaking loss. They’d rather think about the special bond they had in the locker room and how many of them remain close friends today.

“I don’t have any regrets from 2001,” said Westwood. “I did everything possible to perform at the highest level as an individual. I would say our team would say the same. I would teach kids to look back at something like that and say unless you didn’t do everything possible to win, there’s nothing to regret.

“You put everything on the line every day of practice, every day of training, every game day, you’re doing everything possible to win. But sometimes, on some days, you’re going to have an off day like that. But on that specific day, you just weren’t able to get it done and you just have to be willing to accept that.”

taylor.allen@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @TaylorAllen31

Taylor Allen

Taylor Allen
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Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of...

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Updated on Saturday, November 27, 2021 10:10 AM CST: Corrects typo

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