When Chad Kelly arrived in the CFL nine months ago, he promised to throw for 6,000 yards and become the next Doug Flutie.
Settling for Grey Cup hero status will have to be a nice consolation prize for now.
Regardless of what happens for the remainder of his career, the Toronto Argonauts’ first-year backup quarterback will live on as a Canadian football legend for his actions in the 109th Grey Cup, coming off the bench in the fourth quarter to secure his team a come-from-behind victory.
“He had ice in his veins,” Toronto starter McLeod Bethel-Thompson said amidst the confetti post-game. “He f***ing delivered unbelievably — pardon my language.”
The Argos were trailing 23-17 against the two-time defending champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers with just over 11 minutes remaining when Kelly entered the game. He completed 4-of-6 passes for 43 yards and rushed for 21 more in limited action, steering his team to a 24-23 victory.
The 28-year-old had started just one game in his rookie year, the Argos’ regular season finale, but his teammates had no doubt that he could deliver in crunch time.
“I told Chad at the beginning of the year, there’s gonna come a time when we’re gonna need you to help win us a game and when it when that time comes, I know you’ll be ready,” said veteran defensive end Ja’Gared Davis.
“What better game for him to rise to the occasion than the Grey Cup. He came in, he stood right in like he didn’t miss a beat, he made every play that we needed him to make and then some. He put us in a position to become Grey Cup champions.”
Bethel-Thompson kept the Argonauts competitive through three quarters, going a respectable 15-of-28 for 203 yards. However, the 34-year-old was forced from the game in the final frame after suffering a dislocated thumb on a field goal drive. The injured phalange refused to stay in place and Kelly entered the game on a mission.
His first drive was relatively uneventful, resulting in a punt after he helped push the Argos out of their own end. His second put Toronto in front, changing the complexion of the game.
“It felt amazing. I couldn’t believe that I had the chance right then and there to go and prove myself down six,” the nephew of NFL Hall of Famer Jim Kelly told reporters.
“Here we go. It was a great return by [Javon] Leake getting us in position to score and we didn’t need a field goal, we needed a touchdown. Coach had faith in me to call some things, we knew we might get some cover zero and even when they didn’t give us cover zero, we had to make plays.”
Pinned in second-and-15 from the Winnipeg 36-yard-line, Kelly felt pressure and escaped up the middle, running 20 yards before absorbing a hellacious hit from defensive back Desmond Lawrence. The six-foot-two, 216-pound pivot appeared entirely unfazed, delivering a first down strike to DaVaris Daniels two plays later that set up A.J. Ouellette’s second touchdown run of the game.
“You never expect to have to put your backup quarterback in that situation and in that way but the second-and-15 scramble that Chad had, that was amazing,” head coach Ryan Dinwiddie said. “That changed the game right there.”
“Now you can see why Chad’s so darn confident. He didn’t bat an eye, man. He was ready for that stage.”
A Henoc Muamba interception set the Argos up for a potential clinching field goal on the next drive, only for the kick to be blocked by the Bombers’ Nick Hallett. Winnipeg marched the field for their own potential game-winner, only for Toronto’s Robbie Smith to replicate that unlikely special teams play and secure a one-point victory on the back of Kelly’s impressive run.
For the Grey Cup hero, it was the Argos’ attitude throughout the season that allowed them to pull the almost unthinkable upset.
“It was a dog fight every day in practice,” a wild-eyed Kelly shouted emphatically, surrounded by celebrating teammates. “There wasn’t a day in practice that we weren’t competing and that’s how great teams are made.”
For the man he replaced, leaving the field was far from easy but champagne sipped from a silver chalice has a way of making all the pain go away.
“I wanted to be on the field. My ego was like I want to be out there, I want to go make the game-winning pass, but that’s ego,” Bethel-Thompson said. “When you come above all that, it doesn’t matter whether it’s yours or your brother’s success; it’s all the same.”
“I’m so happy for Chad, he played great. I’m so happy for all these guys. We’re all champions, man. It’s been a beautiful journey.”
Kelly’s late-game heroics sets the stage for a fascinating offseason in the centre of the universe. Bethel-Thompson remained non-committal about his future in football while clutching the Grey Cup for the second time and has been rumoured to be contemplating retirement. The Argos have been tied to pending free agent Bo Levi Mitchell but long ago pegged their controversial former Ole Miss standout as the quarterback of the future.
Selected with the final pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and forced across the border due to off-the-field issues, Kelly’s clock to become a full-time starter is ticking. His shining moment in Regina has proven what SEC fans already knew; the quarterback’s immense physical tools are only matched by his unshakeable cockiness.
Basking in the absurdity of his own ascension, Kelly was quiet for only one moment on the field.
“We did it. We did it. We did it,” he said shaking his head, before looking straight down the lens of a nearby camera and shouting in celebration.
“We’re champions! We’re champions! Grey Cup champions, 109th Grey Cup and we’re the champions. Right now, here we are and we’re not done.”