OTTAWA – Former NFL running back Marcus Thigpen was sitting on his couch this summer when he came across an Instagram post celebrating a passing milestone of ex-CFL teammate Kevin Glenn. Thigpen had been out of football for more than two years but he sent a simple message to his former quarterback: I want to come back.
Six weeks later, they were both members of the Saskatchewan Roughriders and on Sunday the duo sparked the Riders to a convincing 31-20 win over the Ottawa Redblacks in the CFL Eastern Semi-Final and are now just a win away from playing in the Grey Cup. They’ll face the Toronto Argonauts at BMO Field next Sunday.
“They’re happy tears,” said a jubilant Thigpen after the game. “To be in the position I am right now, to come back from being at home for two years and to have the success I’m having, it’s a blessing.”
Thigpen ran for 169 yards on 15 carries including a 75-yard touchdown sprint early in the third quarter that broke open what had been a mostly freewheeling affair. Glenn threw for a tidy 252 yards on 18-of-28 passing and a touchdown with zero interceptions.
The game was a track meet in the early going, with the teams combining for the fastest three touchdowns in a playoff game and posting majors on the opening three possessions for the first time in CFL post-season history.
But it was the Redblacks who would eventually falter. They committed four turnovers, including two within range of the Saskatchewan end zone. There were several dropped passes and the team was hampered by a first-half knee injury to leading receiver Greg Ellingson. He played on it but was clearly hurting.
“We never found a way to make key plays in the big moments of the game,” said Redblacks coach Rick Campbell. “Just didn’t get it done.”
Ottawa quarterback Trevor Harris had a gaudy stat line – 37 of 60 for 457 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions – but wasn’t impressive in his first career playoff start. The former Argonaut is set to be a free agent in February and this performance won’t do much to silence the doubters.
“I know he’d say he’d want to play better,” Campbell said of his quarterback. “Our whole football team needed to play a little bit better.”
The Redblacks are the defending Grey Cup champions and Ottawa will host this year’s title game and accompanying week-long party. The CFL hasn’t seen a team win back-to-back titles since the Montreal Alouettes in 2009 and 2010, led by current Argonauts head coach Marc Trestman.
“To come up short in the semifinal, it’s heartbreaking,” said Ottawa centre Jon Gott. “I feel bad for my teammates, I feel bad for the fans. I thought we were going to go further than this.”
The Riders are also trying to make a little history. Their 10-8 record in the dominant West Division was good enough to earn them a playoff spot in the weaker East but no crossover team has ever made it to the Grey Cup, never mind won it.
“The impossible,” Glenn said about his team’s motivation. “For something that has never been done in this league, for us to be on the verge of doing that is exciting.”
The Riders won both games between the two teams during the regular season, defeating Toronto 38-27 in Regina in late July, then winning at BMO in October on a last-minute field goal.
Of course, Thigpen wasn’t on the roster for either one of those contests.
After three seasons as Glenn’s teammate with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats starting in 2009, Thigpen played 50 games for four NFL teams, including the Miami Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills. He was used primarily as a return man, scoring four touchdowns during his career but decided to call it quits after his release by Buffalo in 2015, despite being just 29.
“I feel like I stopped playing too early and I felt like I still had a lot left in the tank,” Thigpen said. “That’s one of the main reasons why I missed it, just being in the locker room and the jokes we have. It’s amazing being back.”
Glenn has never won a Grey Cup championship in his 17 year CFL career – he’s now 4-8 in 12 career playoff starts – and Thigpen says that’s something the entire locker room is aware of.
“It’s motivating not only me but it’s motivating us as a team. I told him that I want to win a Grey Cup for him. I’ve never won a championship in football in my life and I want it as bad as he does,” Thigpen said. “That’s one of our motivations, to get him a Grey Cup. He deserves it.”
Maybe they can celebrate on Instagram.