“The Bombers are going to win the Grey Cup.”
I was ten years old. It was a chilly Winnipeg morning in late November; the cool wind foreshadowed what would be another long, frigid Manitoba winter.
My friends and I were huddled near the goalposts at one end of our elementary school’s soccer field. Morning recess, which was typically reserved for soccer or football (touch during the fall and spring, tackle during the winter), was different on this day. This day was November 23, 2001 – two days before the Winnipeg Blue Bombers were set to meet the Calgary Stampeders in the 89th Grey Cup.
My friends and I all loved the Bombers. Born in 1991, my friends and I were part of a new generation of Winnipeg sports fans who were too young to have grown up with the Winnipeg Jets prior to their 1996 move to Phoenix. Some of my friends were hockey fans, sure – Winnipeg has always been and will always be a hockey-mad market – but they cheered for teams in Detroit, Boston or Toronto. Cities they’d never been to; cities they’d struggle to point out on a map. Cheering for the Bombers was different – the Bombers were our team.
“The Bombers are going to win the Grey Cup.”
This was the focal point of our conversation that morning – the impending championship of our favorite team. None of us remembered the Bombers ever playing in a Grey Cup game (Winnipeg had last played for a championship in 1993, losing to the Edmonton Eskimos 33-23) and none of us had been alive for the Bombers’ most recent Grey Cup victory in 1990.
The Bombers were simply the best team in the CFL. They had to win the Grey Cup. Winnipeg finished the 2001 regular season first-place in the East Division with a 14-4 record, three wins better than the second-place Hamilton Tiger-Cats. This margin would have been wider had the Bombers not lost their final two contests of the season while resting many of the starters with whom they’d won the previous twelve consecutive games.
The Bombers’ roster boasted four league award winners (quarterback Khari Jones, Most Outstanding Player; defensive tackle Doug Brown, Most Outstanding Canadian; right tackle Dave Mudge, Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman; and running back Charles Roberts, Most Outstanding Special Teams Player) and eight CFL all-stars (Jones; slotback Milt Stegall; left guard Brett MacNeil; Mudge; Roberts; Brown; cornerback Juran Bolden; and halfback Harold Nash).
And we were going to watch them win the Grey Cup on Sunday. The players we idolized – not Selanne, Hawerchuk or Tkachuk, but Stegall, Jones, and Roberts – were about to win Winnipeg’s first Grey Cup in eleven years. The first of our lifetimes.
Until they didn’t.
When asked if his club expected to win the 2001 Grey Cup, retired defensive tackle Doug Brown doesn’t mince words.
“Without question,” he says. “We were supremely confident – not overly arrogant or optimistic – but we’d earned the right to be confident going into that football game.”
Certainly they had. Winnipeg’s season-long dominance aside, the 2001 Calgary Stampeders were a mediocre football team through most of the regular season. Finishing the year with an 8-10 record, the Stamps allowed a league-worst 476 points en route to becoming the first sub-.500 Stampeder team Wally Buono coached during in his thirteen-year stint in Calgary (1990-2002).
With the CFL’s reigning Most Outstanding Player Dave Dickenson leaving Calgary for the NFL’s San Diego Chargers in March of 2001, Buono had two candidates for his club’s starting quarterback spot in training camp that season: second-year man Ben Sankey and free agent signee Marcus Crandell.
Crandell, a back-up with the Edmonton Eskimos from 1997-1999, had recently spent time with the NFL Europe’s Scottish Claymores and XFL’s Memphis Maniax. Crandell came to Calgary with just 134 career CFL pass attempts and a less-than-spectacular 5:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Despite Sankey’s success in five starts that season (Sankey threw for 1,255 yards, fourteen touchdowns, and four interceptions at just 24 year of age in 2001), Crandell eventually cemented himself as the starter, tossing fourteen touchdowns and eleven interceptions in twelve starts.
Ironically, it was the Stampeders’ 22-15 victory in the final week of the regular season against Winnipeg that clinched them a playoff spot. The starting quarterback for the Bombers in that contest? Hawaii native and Montana product Brian Ah Yat.
“That gave them confidence,” says Brown of Calgary’s late-season win over the depleted Bombers. “They were able to convince themselves that they beat us regardless of who we sat and that they could do it again.”Confidence was a hot topic of conversation during Grey Cup week as some people — many Stampeder players included — felt the Bombers were too cocky heading into the game.
“These guys wanted to talk s— all week,” said Stampeder receiver Ibrahim Tounkara during CBC’s broadcast of the game’s final minute (expletive included), “we just came and took care of business today.”
Still, Brown makes no mistake as to the identity of the team he believes should have hoisted Earl Grey’s mug in 2001.
“Nine times out of ten I think we win that game — maybe fourteen out of fifteen,” says the 2016 Canadian Hall of Fame inductee. “We did uncharacteristic things – things we hadn’t done even in losses that year. For the eighteen games we played – nineteen if you count the Eastern Final – we did things on championship game day that were uncharacteristic for [us]. A lot of things had to go right for Calgary and they did. Full credit to them. Everyone says we were too cocky going into that game, but [Calgary] had a belief [in themselves]. You have to be good to be lucky and [the Stampeders] were on that day.”
For better or worse, teams are most-often remembered for what they accomplish in championship games. For the 2001 Winnipeg Blue Bombers, a lack of a Grey Cup victory substantially diminishes its legacy in the eyes of some.
“There were some unbelievable, super-talented players on that team that never really got the credit and acknowledgement they deserved because of that failure in the final game of the year,” laments Brown. “The one thing I remember in the post-game locker room was (linebacker) Lamar McGriggs after the game saying (to head coach Dave Ritchie), ‘Hey coach – just keep the group together for one more year. Give us one more shot.’”
The core of the 2001 Blue Bomber roster never made it back to the Grey Cup, but they did leave their respective marks on history. Winning more games from 2001 to 2003 than any other CFL team (36), the Bombers have already had four players from their 2001 Grey Cup roster inducted to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame: Bob Cameron, 2010; Stegall, 2012; Roberts, 2014; and Brown, 2016. More will follow.
“(Blue Bomber radio play-by-play man) Bob Irving said once that the 2001 Winnipeg Blue Bombers were the greatest team he ever saw that never won a championship,” says Brown. “Talk about a contradiction.”
A contradiction indeed.
There are fewer than ten minutes remaining on the clock and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers trail the Calgary Stampeders 17-12 in the 89th Grey Cup. Khari Jones drops back to pass from his own 34-yard line on second and seven. With no receivers available from the base of his five-step drop, Jones takes off to his left in an attempt to buy time. Defensive end James Cotton, having shrugged off a poorly-executed block from fullback Troy Mills, bear hugs Jones from behind and rips him to the turf. Jones gets the ball away just in time – a bullet that lands at the feet of wide receiver Arland Bruce III – before landing violently headfirst on Olympic Stadium’s paper-thin playing surface.
And he doesn’t get up.
Not right away, at least.
Resembling a baby struggling to learn to crawl, Jones clumsily squares his hands under his shoulders in a failed attempt to get upright. Left guard Brett MacNeil hunches over Jones and places a hand under his chest, lifting the pivot to his feet.
CBC cuts to the replay of the failed second down attempt. The replay shows the devastating contact Jones’ helmet makes with the turf, a brutal hit that was obstructed when shown live.
CBC cuts back to the live feed. Mills and MacNeil are now on either side of Jones, half-leading and half-carrying him to the sideline. Jones’ helmet is askew and his head is wobbling from side-to-side like an over-served patron leaving the Spirit of Edmonton on the Friday night of Grey Cup.
“He doesn’t even look like he’s right in the game right now. He’s woozy,” says CBC commentator and Blue Bomber legend Chris Walby, a former player who is no stranger to head injuries.
Blue Bomber head trainer Jeff Fisher receives Jones at the sideline. Being 2001, there is no concussion protocol for the team to follow — in fact, it’s unlikely the word ‘concussion’ would even have been used to reference Jones’ status. ‘Dinged’? Sure. ‘Nicked’? Okay. ‘Stung’? That works, too. ‘Concussed’? Never.
Unthinkably, Jones takes the field less than three minutes later. Bob Cameron’s third down punt was blocked by Calgary defensive back Aldi Henry, allowing linebacker Willie Fells to capitalize on the scoop and score.
It was now 24-12 with just 8:30 remaining in the game.
Jones needs just seven plays to get the major back. Though he takes more punishment on the drive – including a nasty head-shot from Stampeder safety Greg Frers – Jones delivers a 23-yard strike to Milt Stegall for the score on a long corner route. Stegall makes the acrobatic grab between Frers and halfback Ricky Bell – both all-stars that season – after turning his head to relocate the ball not once, but twice.
The Bomber offence doesn’t take the field again until there are just 48 seconds remaining in the contest. Calgary has kicked a field goal, increasing its lead to 27-19 – still a one-score game.
Jones gets the ball to the Stampeder 36-yard line on a six-play drive that includes a key third down toss to Arland Bruce III. For a man who was barely able to walk no more than twenty minutes earlier, Jones is remarkably poised in the pocket, delivering well-thrown balls with confidence.
With no time left on the clock, Jones snaps the ball for the game’s final play. The Montreal crowd of 65,000-plus is on its feet. The noise is overwhelming.
Jones completes his seven-step drop from the shotgun, calmly surveying his targets for a potential game-tying score. Jones steps up to deliver a pass when he is flattened from behind by stalwart Stampeder defensive tackle Joe Fleming. Jones is launched forward by the impact, his head being the first part of his body to make contact with the turf.
Jones sits up immediately after the sack with his head on a swivel, presumably looking for a flag. Seeing none, he collapses to his hands and knees. Jones’ helmet now bears a large red mark on its left side from where it made contact with the midfield Molson Export logo not ten seconds earlier.
Was it disappointment that brought the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player to his hands and knees after the final whistle? Frustration? Exhaustion? Perhaps it was the third instance of head trauma he’d suffered in under ten minutes of play, the final one bearing the entire weight of Fleming’s 285-pound frame.
In any case, Jones’ defeated post-game body language complete with the red mark obstructing the Bomber logo on the left side his helmet (how’s that for symbolism?) remains the iconic image of the 2001 Grey Cup for Bomber fans everywhere.
One can also not help but wonder if the punishment Jones received in the game played a role in limiting the length his career. After all, quarterbacks who sign their first CFL contracts at 27 and win their first Most Outstanding Player award at 30 are not often out of the league by 34.
Troy Westwood played for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for eighteen seasons. Born in rural Manitoba, Westwood joined his hometown club in 1991 — seven months after it dominated the Edmonton Eskimos to win the 1990 Grey Cup by a score of 50-11.
The list of Westwood’s career accolades is impressive. Ranked second all-time in consecutive games played (279), fifth in career field goals (617), and second in career kick-off singles (28), Westwood’s name is scrawled on several pages of the CFL record book. His career field goal percentage of 72.3 is on par with the best kickers of his generation (Lui Passaglia, 72.7; Paul Osbaldiston, 72.2; Mark McLoughlin, 74.0), while his career playoff kicking percentage (87.6) is outstanding.
Still, no career in professional sports is without blemishes. And in the case of Westwood, one blemish stands head and shoulders above the rest — a 1-for-4 kicking performance in the 2001 Grey Cup.
When asked for his initial reaction to the words ‘2001 Grey Cup,’ Westwood is candid.
“I get a pang in my heart immediately,” says Westwood. “That game is burned into my soul.”
All three of Westwood’s misses came either in the first quarter or from extreme distance. Still, that doesn’t stop critics from pointing out that Westwood left eight points on the field (Westwood’s initial miss went for a single point) in what ended up being an eight-point game.
“I think that’s stupid,” says Westwood, laughing. “It doesn’t add up like that. I miss a field goal in the first quarter and everything changes if I make it. Who knows what happens if I make one of those kicks in the first quarter? But you certainly can’t look back and say, ‘oh you make those kicks and you win.’ Everything changes.”
Westwood also sheds some light on the bizarre circumstances of his two first quarter misses.
“In my first miss [from 38 yards out] I was on the right hash and the flags on the posts were parallel to the ground. I looked over to [head official] Jake Ireland and said, ‘Jake, why are the flags flying like that?’ and he shrugged his shoulders at me.”
The 2001 Grey Cup game was hosted at Olympic Stadium in Montreal with 65,223 people in attendance – the third-largest crowd in Grey Cup history. CBC commentator Mark Lee mentioned twice during the broadcast that the temperature inside Olympic Stadium was very warm. Outside it was a record-high 16-degrees Celsius in Montreal on November 25, 2001 — 14 degrees warmer than the average temperature for late November in Quebec’s largest city.
Is it possible that staff at Olympic Stadium, a facility famous for its inadequacy, inadvertently created a draft in the building in a desperate attempt to cool the air temperature? Judging by the flags on the uprights, which can be seen fluttering sporadically throughout the game, that may well have been the case.
“It wasn’t like that all week [in practice] and it wasn’t like that in warm-ups. It was a left to right wind and the ball just whipped over to the right on me like it was outside. It was crazy.”
On his second miss, Westwood accounted for the draft, but to no avail.
“I’m on the left hash and I aim at the left upright, thinking the wind is going to carry it over. I crank it, it’s going right at the upright and bam – off the upright.”
Westwood’s final miss of the game came from 53 yards out, a huge distance for that era of CFL kicking. Using the earliest season for which the CFL provides field goal statistics on its website as a reference (2004), just one kick of 53-plus yards in length was made that whole year. That field goal was booted by Ottawa’s Sandro Sciortino, a one-year CFL player who finished his career with a field goal percentage of 56.7.
Still, even with the circumstances of his misses taken into account, Westwood’s performance was still a tough one from which to move on.
“I remember looking into the mirror after the game and wanting to punch it,” says the 49-year-old father of one. “The fire and the burn right down to my soul for disappointing the team really profoundly affected me in a way that’s still a part of me to this day.”
Westwood says he learned a valuable lesson from the 2001 Grey Cup game, a personal performance he describes as “horrible.”
“The battle to come back after that level of disappointment for me personally was a remarkable journey,” says Westwood. “When I went out for the first kick in the exhibition game the next year … if there were 25,000 people in the stadium it sounded like 22,000 of them were booing specifically because I had taken the field. I just remember thinking, ‘this is my hometown.’ I’d always had a fantastic relationship with the fans up until that point in time. There was a hardening of the soul and a sharpening of the senses. I had two choices: wilt and die or put my back in the corner and swing until the bell went off and I wasn’t allowed to swing anymore. It’s about getting confidence back. Before [the 2001 Grey Cup game] I felt absolutely bulletproof. I never had any negative thoughts before kicking a field goal. After that, it was different. Since then I’ve seen Jordan Spieth collapse at the Masters and Tiger Woods lose that little bit of confidence. I know exactly what athletes like that are feeling – the deep-down way that it affects your soul when you have a catastrophic athletic event that shakes your confidence to the core. And then to try to come back from that – it is a journey, man.”
Westwood waited six years for his next opportunity to kick in a Grey Cup game. After converting on a 16-yard field goal early in the first quarter, Westwood is called upon to boot a 42-yarder late in the fourth quarter with his team down 23-16 to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. CBC commentator Mark Lee mentions Westwood’s 1-for-4 performance in the 2001 Grey Cup as the veteran kicker sets his tee down next to holder Jamie Stoddard.
The ball is snapped. The kick is up.
The kick is good.
The 2001 Grey Cup game will continue to be a source of intense CFL debate for decades to come. Did the better team hoist Earl Grey’s mug? How would the Bombers have played had they not rested so many starters down the stretch? What happens if Troy Westwood makes all three of his first quarter field goals? How much was Khari Jones affected by his repeated blows to the head? Were the clearly Bombers the superior team? Or did a late-season surge prove the Stampeders were the better squad, records be damned?
In any case, there are no shortage of story lines to dissect in years to come.
Whether or not the 2001 Winnipeg Blue Bombers were the greatest team to never win a championship — and whether or not such a title is truly meaningful — it is undoubtedly a team worth remembering and celebrating. Featuring two CFL Most Outstanding Players (Jones, 2001; Stegall, 2002), four Canadian Football Hall of Fame inductees (see above), three active professional coaches (Khari Jones, offensive coordinator, B.C. Lions; Markus Howell, receivers coach, Saskatchewan Roughriders; Harold Nash Jr., strength and conditioning coach, Detroit Lions), and a club CEO (Wade Miller, Winnipeg Blue Bombers), it is a group that is and will continue to make an impact on the world of professional football into the future.
Now if only they’d won the Grey Cup…