When the Hamilton Tiger-Cats take on the Montreal Alouettes on Sunday, it will have zero impact on the CFL playoff race but for three members of the Ticats, the game still has plenty of meaning.
Head coach June Jones is facing his second daunting challenge of the 2017 season. The first was motivating the 0-8 team he took over in late August and getting them to believe they could be competitive, that they could win. Now he must find a way to inspire a club without the carrot of the post-season to chase. How do they compare?
“That’s an interesting question. I don’t feel it’s any different, I feel like I’m in a better position right now because they trusted me and some of the things that I’ve been saying and doing. There’s more of a belief now,” he said. “The first week I was here, there was a hope. Now they see it. They can feel there’s a chance that we’ll be pretty good.”
The team will start Jeremiah Masoli at quarterback and field much the same line up that lost to Calgary last Friday: Jones has made it clear that the goal is to win games now, not look ahead to 2018.
“Our kids have bought into the family atmosphere and they’re doing it for each other. That’s how you get good,” Jones said. “That film of the next three games is their resume but they can’t put that ahead of the team. If you do that, you’re never going to play the game as well as you can.”
Jones is just one of several Ticats with uncertain futures – a list that includes several high-profile players who will be playing Sunday. Jones says he isn’t thinking about the future but he’s certainly talking like he hopes to be here.
“I don’t talk about my future with the players but I’m really proud with how these kids have hung together these last seven games,” he said. “It would be unbelievable to win the last three and get that going for next year.”
Justin Vaughn is likely to be here next season. The rookie defensive end has played in all 15 games this season and emerged as a promising young player. A Hamilton native, the Canadian defensive tackle takes the bus to work from his parent’s home in the city.
“This year exceeded my expectations. It’s still crazy thinking about it. I got off the bus this morning and I was walking over, it was dark and you just see ‘Tim Hortons Field’ lit up on the sign and it’s just so cool to be a professional football player in the town I grew up in,” Vaughn said.
Vaughn said he isn’t thinking about his future, more playing time or anything else beyond Sunday’s game against Montreal. He’s living at home, taking the bus and playing football and it’s everything he ever dreamed of.
“People think we make so much money but even if I did make more, I’d still do this. It’s convenient and it’s cheap. I’m trying to save my money, I want to be rich later in life, so I don’t mind struggling now,” he said. “I’m just excited to go play.”
Receiver Luke Tasker says there is true joy to be found in the minutiae of the game.
“For me, that moment of catching a pass and turning upfield and being the guy with the ball in his hands,” he said. “You get to the top of a route and you see the ball in the air and then it’s in your hands. In a great game, that will happen ten times. In an average game, four or five times. And there are only 18 games a year. That’s all it is,”
Tasker is in his fifth season with the Ticats but is slated to become a free agent next season. He’s close friends with several veteran players and if these final three games are the last they have together, he wants to make the most of it.
“It would be too hard to go out there and just play if you didn’t care about your teammates right now. It’s what’s carrying us. To go out there and have fun and try and win, that’s what it’s all about, playoffs or no playoffs,” he said.
“Yeah, you wish there was playoffs involved. But in these games, all that’s left is the good parts about football.”
“It’s just time to have fun now. There’s nothing else left to do.”
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