The first time in his life Chris Van Zeyl settled into a set as a converted offensive lineman, back at practice with Montreal five years ago, he looked up straight into the eyes of defender Anwar Stewart.
Even then, the rush end was a legend, on his way to eight Grey Cup appearances and four wins, multiple all-star selections and great acclaim.
"And I won," says Van Zeyl, sitting in a quiet corner away from the noise of Wednesday's Eastern Division media breakfast at the downtown Hilton. "It's incredible. It's come full circle for me, being able to play against him in the Grey Cup is amazing."
Stewart vs. Van Zeyl will be one of the key matchups of this Sunday's Toronto-Calgary set-to for Lord Grey's chalice - the 100th time two groups of pigskin protagonists have competed for all-Canadian glory.
Van Zeyl is the right offensive tackle for the Argonauts, and he's going to have the cagey veteran Stampeder right in his face, play after play, for at least half the 60 minutes on the clock.
Nothing in the game more approximates hand-to-hand combat than the single combat warrior confrontations at each end of the lines, and both these men are studying film, running what-if scenarios through their heads and girding for the collision to come.
But first, Stewart would like to clear a little something up.
"He didn't beat nothing," the big lineman said, smiling, a few hours later while the Stampeders were doing media lunch at the Intercontinental. "[Besides], I probably got a dozen sacks on Van Zeyl. He's crazy.
"You tell him to watch out for that spin move. I'll have him chasing his tail like a dog does."
This isn't really Stewart at heart, it's part of the big-as-all-outdoors act he puts on to have some fun. What's really there is a thoughtful man who has always approached his job with a careful, deliberate professionalism.
Stewart lands on his feet
A man who knows his chosen vocation, and understands that the young kid who switched from D-Line to O-Line at the behest of his former Alouettes' employers, has grown up to be a handful who must be properly studied.
"When you start to break down film on somebody, you want to see what they do very well, and what they do not so well," says Stewart, who sat most of the season after a shocking departure from a 10-year Montreal career following training camp - too old and too expensive, apparently.
He waited, did some college coaching at Concordia, got married, and then with Calgary's defensive line decimated by injury he went West where in his five games since has been excellent, picking up five sacks, including four in one game.
"What you do is attack their weaknesses, and with Chris, you look at what he's done and I think now he's had that experience [of starting in Toronto], but my past success against him was because he was inexperienced. He was just starting to really get what it is to be an offensive lineman."
Calgary's almost-ancient warrior will check his opponent's stance, see what goes on in each situation, when is he aggressive and jumping the set, what can be used to counter.
A check of the stats shows in the games Van Zeyl and Stewart have faced each other over the last three seasons, the Toronto tackle has not given up a single sack. That does not, however, count hurries on the quarterback, or hits for little or no gain in the backfield, something Stewart excels at.
"I have a pretty good history with him, being we've both played in the East a number of years ... I've probably played against him 10-12 times," says Van Zeyl, who has already been in the film room checking and rechecking Stewart's game.
"I'm going to play him very similar to how I played [Montreal's] John Bowman last week (one sack given up and a tackle in the backfield, plus a few hurries). "I didn't have the best game against Bowman, but I know where I failed and I know where I can pick [it] up."
Stewart is impressed with how Van Zeyl has stuck with it, despite two years on the Als' practice roster, then getting cut after camp the next year, and finally making it to Toronto halfway through 2009. He's scraped and struggled for everything on the way to becoming one of the best offensive linemen in the league.
"It says a lot about him, he's a great kid. He's feisty. He doesn't take no for an answer, and that's how it's got to be."
But as Stewart points out, "come 6 o'clock on Sunday night, all that stuff is out the window." The battle begins.
"Everything goes. Anything goes," he says. "As men, we are competitive. I want to win, he wants to win ... It's going to be an explosive game, an aggressive game, and we are going to get after each other and see what happens."
Van Zeyl is confident. Has to be. Has to know there's something in his bag of tricks even someone like Stewart has never seen. Talks about how last year he put Stewart on his butt a couple of times.
Also cautious, however. Aware of how he can be taken advantage of.
"If I ever had a weakness, it's that I attack so much," says the native of Niagara's wine and orchard region in Ontario. "I've learned over time to be a little more patient and I've accepted it. Against Anwar, I might be more patient because he might be waiting for me to be more aggressive."
Nothing Stewart hasn't seen.
"I have stuff in my repertoire that I do for people who are aggressive like that," he says. And smiles again.
Looking forward to it, Anwar?
"Oh yeah. It's going to be great."
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