CALGARY — After 29 years of waiting, after 348 months of heartbreak, after 1,513 weeks of despair and after 10,591 days of doubt, this sentence can finally be written: the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are Grey Cup champions.
Alas, the almost three-decades-long championship drought is no more and the Bombers are finally at the top of the Canadian Football League castle. And there they were Sunday night, celebrating like kings near the south end zone of McMahon Stadium, crying and cheering after a dominating 33-12 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the 107th Grey Cup.
"It’s unreal. It’s amazing. It’s a dream come true and you set out to set goals and do things and, when your hard work is rewarded, it’s an amazing feeling," Bombers running back Andrew Harris said after the game, while blue and gold confetti rained down from the sky. "We just wanted to win this game. We’ve been underdogs all year, counted out all year and any year, for myself, I’ve been counted out and disrespected and this is just a dream come true."
Few could have predicted such a convincing end to what had been an up-and-down 2019 season for the Bombers. They started the year with five straight wins and then puttered down the stretch, losing seven of their next 12 games to drop from first to third in the West Division.
Because they limped into the playoffs, Winnipeg had to take the most difficult route to glory. But then something special happened, something clicked.
The Bombers went into Calgary and defeated the defending Grey Cup champion Stampeders and their confidence only grew the following week when they gutted out a 20-13 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in a hostile Mosaic Stadium.
Suddenly, they seemed for real.
"We’ve been a family in that locker room all year. Guys who were in that locker room last year, we knew we were so close and we knew we had unfinished business," Bombers middle linebacker Adam Bighill said.
"Sharing this with them means everything because it’s all about the journey getting to this moment and we will remember this, and each other, these moments forever."
Still, the Bombers entered Sunday as underdogs to the Tiger-Cats — a team that had lost just three games all season and were riding an eight-game win streak into the championship game — even if they didn’t view themselves that way. Hamilton had also swept the two-game season-series with Winnipeg, including a 33-13 home loss in their most recent meeting back on Sept. 27.
But in the days leading up to kickoff, neither team seemed all that interested in putting stock in the past, especially the Bombers, who were a much different-looking club this time around.
The biggest change from then and now, of course, was the arrival of quarterback Zach Collaros.
When the Bombers had dropped that game to Hamilton, Collaros was still 12 days away from being acquired by the Bombers in a last-minute deal with the Toronto Argonauts. Had it not been for some savvy negotiating by general manager Kyle Walters — and the firing of Argonauts GM Jim Popp, who was ready to extend Collaros before receiving his walking papers — nothing would have been completed by the Oct. 9 trade deadline.
And if not for a string of back luck earlier in the season, when Collaros, still the quarterback of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, suffered a concussion following a head shot by Hamilton linebacker Simoni Lawrence, the 31-year-old pivot would never have been shipped to Toronto in the first place.
And had Chris Streveler not injured his ankle late in the season, opening up an opportunity for Collaros to start the final regular-season game against Calgary, and had he not led them to a fourth-quarter victory, he might not have seen the field again. Instead, he led the Bombers to four straight victories, ending an unbelievable tale wearing blue and gold and being crowned a champion.
"We’re so thankful we got him. He’s such a competitive guy and he’s so smart and he fit in so well, so quickly," said Bombers coach Mike O’Shea. "I don’t know that there’s many other guys who can do that. I look around the league and I just don’t know that would happen. That story should be written and told over and over again for a lot of years because it’s a fantastic story. It really is."
"What were they calling it, the Revenge story?" Collaros, who finished the game 17-for-25 passing for 170 yards, asked. "Well, we finished it. It’s over. It was the last show tonight."
As good as Collaros has been for the Bombers, the star on offence this night was Harris. The Winnipeg native was relentless throughout game, registering 169 yards from scrimmage. His 134 rushing yards was the highest total in franchise history for a Grey Cup game, and he became the first Canadian player in league history to earn both the game’s most outstanding player and most outstanding Canadian awards.
It was certainly vindication for Harris, who had been snubbed for league awards after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance in July that earned him a two-game suspension. Fuelled by his critics, he dominated from beginning to end. He scored a 15-yard touchdown just 3:41 into the game to give the Bombers an early 7-0 lead and then reeled in an 18-yard catch in double-coverage to help earn the Bombers a 21-6 edge by halftime.
"I knew he wanted to have a big game. He’s been waiting patiently and he went crazy today, man, and hats off to him," receiver Nic Demski, another hometown champion, said. "This really all started off with him, this whole Grey Cup run. He was the one who changed the culture around here and the organization did a great job adding bits and pieces in and we just made it work."
The Bombers wouldn’t find the end zone the rest of the way, relying instead on the sure foot of kicker Justin Medlock. Medlock connected on six-of-seven field goals, which tied the CFL Grey Cup record.
The Bombers could afford to settle for field goals with the way their defence was playing. After stellar playoff performance against Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell and Saskatchewan’s Cody Fajardo, Winnipeg’s defensive dozen saved their best for last.
By the end they would force seven turnovers, including three on the first four drives by Hamilton. Tiger-Cats quarterback Dane Evans had taken the league by storm after replacing an injured Jeremiah Masoli earlier in the year, but he was swarmed all night, including being sacked six times, three by defensive end Willie Jefferson.
Since 1988, teams that had a better turnover ratio had won 23 of 24 games.
"There’s a pile of adjectives: resilience, character. They became a good team. That’s really important, is that by the end of the year they were laying it on a line, because football is a tough sport, for someone else," O’Shea said. "They were doing it together. There was a lot of raw emotion this week, a lot of guys just so thankful, and gratitude is really important. And for guys, professional athletes, to be grateful for their teammates, grateful for coaches, grateful for their opportunities…it can do a lot for a team."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
Updated on Sunday, November 24, 2019 at 8:55 PM CST: Adds additional image
9:02 PM: Updates story images
November 25, 2019 at 2:22 PM: Video added.