Fans in Calgary were robbed of a proper goodbye in March 2013 when the Flames traded longtime captain Jarome Iginla to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He was held out of what would have been his final game in Calgary and didn’t return to the Saddledome for another 107 days, then a member of the Boston Bruins.
More recently, Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, and Sean Monahan all left town through free agency and trades without any kind of fan interaction or appreciation.
Fortunately for Stampeders fans, the longtime face of their franchise was able to get the love and attention he deserved before likely leaving town for other opportunities.
The Stampeders ran roughshod over the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Saturday, amassing 310 yards on the ground on their way to a 36-10 victory in front of 25,179 fans, many of whom wore green. For all intents and purposes, the game served as the backdrop for Mitchell’s farewell as it meant nothing in the standings.
The highlight of the night came late in the fourth quarter when Mitchell took what was likely his last snaps in a Stampeders uniform at McMahon Stadium.
The groundswell in the stands started behind the bench and like a wave throughout the stadium, fans rose to their feet in unison to celebrate a franchise great with cheers befitting that of a man who led this team to four Grey Cup games, winning twice.
They applauded the man who has thrown for more yards, completed more passes, and won more games than any other quarterback to wear the red and white. In fact, to this point in his career, Mitchell has won a better percentage of his games than any quarterback, ever.
He compiled a 90-25-2 record in 117 games as a starter for a 76.9 percent win rate. The man most consider to be the greatest CFL quarterback of all-time, Doug Flutie, sits behind Bo at 74.6 percent with a 94-32 record in 126 starts.
After the game, the man himself was appreciative of the love the fans showered on him.
“It meant a lot to me. I appreciate (Stampeders’ head coach Dave Dickenson) and (general manager John Hufnagel) for the way they handled the situation. Giving me that moment, it was awesome to be able to have that moment with the fans and my teammates.”
With that said, Mitchell also recognizes that it may not have been the way he wanted to leave the field at McMahon.
“It’s bittersweet. Obviously, I would have loved for it to be under different circumstances, but either way, I’ve loved every second I’ve been here and hopefully we can bring a Grey Cup back to the city before I leave.”
Some fans, including this reporter, were disappointed that Mitchell’s lone contribution was handling the ball off in the final minutes, and his last home appearance didn’t include a pass attempt.
“I almost just called my own play there,” Mitchell said, chuckling “(Dickenson) even said, ‘Honestly, I expected you to.’ But I knew we were close to 300 yards rushing and I wanted to make sure we got it. I wanted to call my own pass play, but I didn’t want to be selfish in the moment.”
From his vantage point, Dickenson allowed Mitchell did have some leeway in the play selection.
“Bo and I, when we had our conversations, we kinda had a plan. Bo is here to help us win games. He’s not looking for an extra throw. Every run we sent in has what we call ‘get out of jails.’ Potentially if the looks are what he wants or the blitz is there, he can do some different things, but it didn’t present itself.”
Mitchell did relay some concerns about throwing the ball due to the presence of another player that called Calgary home for much of his Hall of Fame career.
“I talked to a lot of guys and said if Dave put me in, I was just going to throw the ball downfield. But I think Charleston (Hughes) knew that too, so I think Charleston was waiting for me to do that,” said Mitchell.
A rare moment of levity between the former teammates took place during victory formation at the end of the game.
“I told him on the last play to come get a sack. Try to get him one last one. He said he’s coming back next year, but he’s like 48 years old. But it was awesome seeing him out there.”
To a man, everyone who spoke about Mitchell this week did so with reverence.
“I’m glad it happened,” Dickenson said following the game. “Bo made it clear he didn’t need that moment, but he earned it and deserved it.”
The only thing Dickenson regretted was the timing of the move.
“I wish I would have put Tommy in and then called timeout and then put Bo in, because I think that the fans saw that 19 was out in the game, but it would have been nice to give him that little extra moment.”
Stampeders’ linebacker Jameer Thurman was one of the first to start gesturing to the crowd as Bo was headed to his first huddle of the game, letting fans know it was time to show their love one final time.
“He’s done a lot for this city, this organization, and a lot of players as well. I think everyone should show support and be appreciative because he’s won a lot here.”
Running back Dedrick Mills knew of Mitchell’s reputation before coming to Calgary and said he absolutely lived up to it.
“It’s a very exciting moment to be here with Bo and actually to be on the same team as Bo. Before I even got here I heard he was great, he’s a legend here, he’s a future Hall of Famer. I’m just very excited to be on the same team.”
Another young player that learned at the master’s feet this season was Tommy Stevens, who threw his first touchdown pass in the game along with gathering up 163 rushing yards on just four carries, earning a game ball that was presented by offensive team captain, Bo Levi Mitchell.
“Bo has been great to me since the day I got to Calgary,” Stevens said. “One of my favourite teammates that I’ve ever had and he is special man. He’s just special.”
“Obviously, you can tell what he means to this community, and what he means to this league. He’s just an awesome teammate. I’m glad that I’ve been able to experience and spend some time with him and learn from him. Again, I think it’s obvious what he means to this league and this community, I just can’t say enough good things about him.”
Interviews over the last few days have made it clear that Mitchell is unlikely to retire and there are several teams interested in signing the veteran passer. As such, it is very likely Stampeders fans will get a chance to send some sound in Mitchell’s direction again.
It may be a lot less friendly than it was at McMahon on this occasion, and so for that this was needed.
It gave the fans a chance to say goodbye properly, in a way that most never get to in the cold business of professional sports. It was a catharsis for thousands of team faithful collectively feeling all the warmth of a decade of dominance in the span of a few moments.
I’m glad I was there. I’m glad he got in one last time, even if only to hand it off in a way that was indicative of his career: putting the team ahead of himself.