The West Division final will mark a unique anniversary for Paul McCallum.
Playing for Saskatchewan in the 2004 West final, the veteran kicker missed while attempting an 18-yard field goal attempt that would have given the Roughriders a berth in the Grey Cup. Instead, the host B.C. Lions prevailed and went on to win the title.
McCallum was subsequently disowned by Rider fans and, after one more season in Regina, ended up moving back to the Lions, the team with which he had begun his unlikely CFL career.
The miss could have destroyed McCallum's career. Instead, it made him better.
"I wanted it not to define me," McCallum said Saturday after his club's final walkthrough at B.C. Place Stadium. "I made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes, and I didn't want to be known for that mistake. You can come back and make a positive out of a negative. I think I've done that."
There is little doubt he has.
Heading into Sunday's contest against the Calgary Stampeders, he has made 39 of the 40 field goals he has attempted in the playoffs (semifinals, division finals and Grey Cup included) since 2006. His only miss came in last year's Grey Cup, which the Lions won anyway, over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
"I'm pretty proud of that, but my career's not over, so I just want to keep going," he said.
This season, McCallum has adjusted to a new holder in backup quarterback Mike Reilly and snapper in Angus Reid on field goals. They replaced former backup signal-caller Jarious Jackson, who was released and signed with Toronto in the off-season, and Dan McCullough, who retired.
Led CFL in field goals
After some struggles adjusting to the newcomers, he established the same high level of trust and comfort that he felt with his former battery mates in a process that lasts a few seconds. McCallum finished the regular season with 44 field goals — the highest total in the league — off 52 attempts.
His punts averaged 41.2 yards and his kickoffs travelled an average of 56.5.
The field goal stats were down slightly from 2011, when he connected on 50-of-53 attempts.
But the results defied the fact that at age 42, the Surrey, B.C., product is the oldest player in the CFL.
'To me, I don't think age is an issue as far as I'm still here at that age. 'It's the fact that I'm still producing at that age.'—Lions kicker Paul McCallum
"To me, I don't think age is an issue as far as I'm still here at that age," he said. "It's the fact that I'm still producing at that age."
According to Don Sweet, a former CFL legend with the Montreal Alouettes who now tutors McCallum, the B.C. veteran's success has nothing to do with age. It's all about how smoothly he swings his leg, rhythm, tempo, and the ability to cast aside "voices" in his head that lead to extra pressure and distractions.
"You have to have ice in your veins," said Sweet, when asked what it takes to be a good kicker.
He rates McCallum as the CFL's all-time best, or at least on par with Lions legend Lui Passaglia, who played 25 seasons.
As a divorced father of two girls aged 11 and 13, McCallum, who is also a residential real estate agent, could face plenty of distraction on and off the field. He attributes his strong focus to positive thinking and his thirst for pressure-packed situations.
"I just think it's kind of your personality, your nature, your demeanour and things like that," said McCallum, adding he does not need to block anything out. "It's just something that I enjoy. I don't feel the same kind of pressure that, maybe, somebody else does. It's just something that I sort of thrive on, and I really enjoy that part of the game."
Also excelled in soccer
He's been thinking about it for 20 seasons after his football career started seemingly by chance. The oldest of two sons of Scottish immigrants, he was not allowed to play the Canadian version of football while growing up.
Instead, he played the traditional European version — soccer. McCallum excelled with national and provincial teams as a youngster. He played with the Vancouver 86ers reserve team as well as a few friendlies with the parent Canadian Soccer League club (which was another name for what was, essentially, the Vancouver Whitecaps organization in the mid-to-late 1980s) and attempted to try his luck in Scotland at age 19.
His cousin played professionally there and his uncle had connections with all the top teams.
"At the time, I wasn't good enough," said McCallum. "It was one of those things where I was going to have to put a lot more time and effort in and stay there and work my way back up over there. I was told I could. I had the potential. But the life to me over in Europe wasn't good enough as it is over here. So being spoiled over here in North America, I gave it up and came home."
A chance visit to a park to see friends led to him earning an invitation to kick for his local junior team, the Surrey Rams. It was early 1990s, and the Lions noticed him and brought him to B.C. Place for a private workout. On the ride home, then Lions player personnel director Bill Quinter told him he had the ability to become a CFL kicker if he wanted to.
Having given up on his dream of a soccer career, he decided that he did. He trained with the Lions as a junior, signed as a free agent with Hamilton in 1993, but never played for the Tiger-Cats before playing briefly for the Lions, who still had Passaglia in his prime, Ottawa, B.C. again, a Scottish team in the World League of American Football, and then moving on to Saskatchewan.
One season after his fateful miss, he signed as a free agent with the Lions in February 2006 and survived a challenge for his job from Sean Whyte, who has since been traded to Montreal.
Now, with the 2004 miss having made him stronger and better, McCallum is not fazed by the possibility of being called in during the dying moments of Sunday's game to attempt a field goal necessary to keep the Lions' hopes of a second consecutive Grey Cup alive.
"I try and approach them all the same way," he said. "I've gotta make them all."