There are no moral victories in the Grey Cup game.
Losing hurts. You never forget it. It doesn't matter the circumstances.
At this writing, the Saturday before the 100th edition of the classic, it has been 31 years and five days since the rag tag 5-11 Ottawa Rough Riders came within a last-second field goal of pulling the greatest upset in Grey Cup history against the greatest team in CFL annals, the heavily favoured Edmonton Eskimos.
J. C. Watts is still annoyed.
The former Oklahoma star, and more recently two-term U.S. Congressman, author, and successful businessman, took his Riders into Montreal where Warren Moon and the Green and Gold were waiting with three straight Cup rings already on their fingers and two more to go.
And Edmonton almost blew it. They trailed 20-1 at halftime to a team that only made the playoffs because Montreal and Toronto were even worse, and the Eskimos had to rely on a Dave Cutler 27-yarder to steal it back.
Don't ask Watts if he's happy about how the Riders played. Proud they competed hard, sure. Pleased the pre-game pundits who called the match-up a travesty and an embarrassment were made to eat their words, you bet.
But not happy.
"When you get a chance to win it all, or to excel, or close the big deal, it's right now," said Watts, over the phone from Washington, where he runs a consulting business. "You don't wait to next week. You don't wait to next quarter. You do it now.
"We had a 'right now' moment, and didn't seize it."
Losing, you see, simply sucks.
Ask a half-dozen modern players who've lost a Grey Cup if they understand where Watts is coming from and to a man they nod their heads.
"Of course," says Toronto guard Marc Parenteau, who has played in three of these with Saskatchewan and lost two of them. "None of those memories go away. They are vivid images. I can still see losing. The feeling of a crushing defeat.
"It's hard to explain to people who haven't had it."
Etienne Boulay has had it both ways. As a Montreal Alouettes defensive back he won those two games Parenteau lost, and has tasted defeat as well.
"It feels like crap," the now-Argonaut says of losing. "You've worked really hard all year and for six months-plus you have to live with regrets of 'what if I could have done more.'"
A few minutes later, Boulay wanted to come back around and try that thought again.
"When I answered you earlier, I probably didn't answer you the right way when I said for six months you think 'What if?' It's more than six months," he said. "More than six months. Even 2006, 2008, ones we lost, I still wish I could have back."
He shook his head, thinking about the feeling.
Calgary returner Larry Taylor has been on both sides, and he jumped on Watts's emotions right away, especially the part about being a huge underdog, playing well and still losing.
"[Losing] is a feeling that will never be erased. No matter if you are the underdog or the favourite, a loss will have an effect on you, no matter what.
"Especially when you knew a game you should have had [was lost]," he said, after the Friday practice on the Rogers Centre turf. "If you knew you had a chance, a legitimate chance to win that ball game, it was yours to lose, that's going to have an effect on you."
It is, he says, what makes you a champion.
Watts was almost a Grey Cup champion, one of the most famous. If the Riders had pulled that one off, they would be celebrated in song and verse, perhaps by Gordon Lightfoot.
"We happened to get hot at the right time, in the last seven games we won five of them," said Watts, who, when asked, can remember every moment of that game, every one of his teammates. "You make it to the championship, anything can happen, and anything almost happened."
Destined to be embarrassed
No-one on that team, in the week before the game, thought for a moment they were destined to be embarrassed.
"I guess there were some folks who thought it would be a laughable game, and I surely could understand that, but as the quarterback of the team I felt we had as good a chance of beating them as they did of beating us."
In the dressing room at halftime, with a stunned stadium and TV crowd staring at the scoreboard and wondering if they had stayed in the bar too long the night before, Ottawa's Riders weren't in shock. They were confident.
"In the second half, the Eskimos came out and played like the Eskimos, but a couple of series we played like a five win team, a crucial fumble, missed a couple of passes when the ball was in the hands of the receivers.
"We had some things jump up out of our background that kind of haunted us."
Watts's father used to say that what's been done can't be undone.
"I don't dwell on it and sit around and say 'By golly, we let it slip away.' There's nothing we can do about it, you move on, you try and do better next time.
"But, I never got another shot."
That's what worries today's players as they head to Sunday night's game. Losing, and never getting another shot.
Because, losing is crap. Ask Toronto QB Ricky Ray, who is 10-2 in the post-season and owns two Grey Cup rings, losing one other.
"Being so close, and you know how it's going to change you life ... to be so close and not win it, it makes you sick."
Something we didn't mention about Watts in that 1981 game - he was chosen the game's most valuable player. He didn't mention that, either.
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