Roughriders named Canadian Press team of the year
Grey Cup champions earned 28 per cent of vote
Corey Chamblin could win another 10 football championships and never duplicate the one he earned this year with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
The Roughriders successfully shouldered the weight of heavy expectations and overcame adversity in 2013, capping the year with a dominant 45-23 Grey Cup win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Nov. 24. The title was Saskatchewan's fourth but first on home soil before a rabid Mosaic Stadium gathering of 44,710.
"There will never be a more perfect night in football than that one," the Riders head coach said. "When we walked out and saw all that green, I'll tell you, it wasn't just a home game, it was more a homecoming.
"You'll never replicate that. Many people are talking about repeating and all that, and I say we'll never be able to do what we did this year again. It was too special."
The Riders were rewarded for that accomplishment by sports editors and broadcasters across the country, who voted them The Canadian Press Team of the Year for 2013.
"That's amazing," said Riders GM Brendan Taman, "That's quite an honour."
The Grey Cup champions earned 28 per cent the vote to edge out Canada's Davis Cup tennis team (23 per cent). The Vanier Cup-champion Laval Rouge et Or were third with 14 per cent while the Memorial Cup-winning Halifax Mooseheads earned 13 per cent.
"They are Canada's team and their Grey Cup win in front of their home fans capped a Cinderella season for the Riders," said Bob Irving, the sports director at CJOB radio in Winnipeg.
"Canada's Team wins the Grey Cup in its home province," added Montreal Gazette sports editor Stu Cowan. "Might never happen again. Enough said."
Riders captured honours in '07
It's the second time the Riders have been named team of the year. They also captured the honour in '07 after beating Winnipeg 23-19 in the Grey Cup.
Saskatchewan is the second CFL champion in three years to be named the country's top team following the B.C. Lions in 2011.
Running back Kory Sheets was a one-man show in the Grey Cup with a record 197 yards rushing and two TDs for MVP honours. Slotback Chris Getzlaf, a Regina native, was named top Canadian with three catches for 78 yards.
But it was Taman who built a team capable of winning a championship at home.
In January, he acquired veteran slotback Geroy Simon from B.C., then in free agency signed defensive ends John Chick and Canadian Ricky Foley as well as outspoken defensive back Dwight Anderson. All four were previous Grey Cup champions and proven veterans who were expected to provide leadership to an already solid existing core.
In October, Taman gambled by acquiring rush end Alex Hall from Winnipeg. Hall had a CFL-leading 15 sacks at the time but was slated to become a free agent in February with plans to pursue NFL opportunities.
Although he never showed it, Taman admits the expectations weighed on him.
"It was one of the toughest years that way since I've been in the business and I've been in it 26 years," he said. "That was the most pressure I've felt but I kept a lot of that within, which probably wasn't healthy, however externally I never really admitted to it too much."
For years, Simon was the No. 1 receiver in B.C., but assumed more of a supporting role in Saskatchewan. Although Simon became the CFL's all-time leading receiver this season, he was fourth on the Riders with 40 catches for 565 yards and three TDs.
But against Hamilton, Simon had three receptions for 67 yards and his first two Grey Cup TDs.
Foley, Chick, Anderson and Hall all helped Saskatchewan's defence establish itself as the CFL's stingiest, allowing a league-low 22.1 points per game and finishing tied for the interceptions lead (24). And in the opening half of the Grey Cup, the unit held Hamilton to just three yards rushing and five first downs as the Riders surged to a commanding 31-6 advantage.
Saskatchewan set Grey Cup tone early
Saskatchewan opened the season emphatically, posting an impressive 8-1 record. Anchoring the Riders' start was Sheets, who ran for 100 or more yards in the club's first six games and seven of eight, amassing over 1,000 yards at the halfway point of the season.
But after opening September with a 48-25 win over Winnipeg, the Riders dropped four straight. What's more, Sheets suffered a knee injury in a 31-29 home loss to Toronto on Sept. 14 and then later in the month Anderson and receivers Taj Smith and Eron Riley were arrested and charged with aggravated assault following a bar fight.
"I think it's healthy to go through a little adversity during the season because it makes you stronger down the road," Foley said. "No panic button was pressed but after we lost four in a row going on that road trip, a lot of veterans just said, 'Ok, enough is enough, this has got to be it."'
The turning point of Saskatchewan's season came Oct. 4 at B.C. Place. Sheets returned to run for 80 yards and two TDs, Anderson registered one of three interceptions while Foley had two of five sacks in the Riders' 31-17 road victory.
"To me, that's when I knew this team had a chance to go all the way," Taman said. "When we went into a tough place to play and knocked them off and we got our running back back, that's when I knew this team had the chance to do something special.
"Deep down I thought if we won this game this team is back, we're back to that 8-1 team and we were."
A fact not lost on Foley, named the top Canadian in Toronto's 2012 Grey Cup win over Calgary.
"I remember in that locker-room before the game how focused and intense we were," he said. "Darian (Riders quarterback Darian Durant) is our pre-game speech guy and he says what we need to hear and for some reason that day he pointed to me and said, 'Get 'em,' and I went off.
"I took a page out of (former Argos teammate) Adriano Belli's book and flipped the tables over during the pre-game speech and knocked everything over. I apologized to the guys I got Gatorade on afterwards but I think that was the turning point of our year when everybody came together in all three phases."
Saskatchewan (11-7) finished its season losing two straight, including a 29-25 road decision to Calgary (league-best 14-4) for top spot in the West Division. But another big win over B.C., 29-25 in the Western semifinal, set up a conference final rematch with the Stampeders at McMahon Stadium.
Saskatchewan emerged with a 35-13 victory as Sheets ran for 177 yards and a TD while Durant threw for 280 yards and three touchdowns.
And then there was the Grey Cup, and the boost the Saskatchewan players received playing before the sea of green that was Rider Nation at venerable Mosaic Stadium.
"What topped it all off was that it was here," Taman said. "If we'd won this in Toronto or Vancouver, flying back would've been cool but we just literally won the game right here with all our fans sitting in that crowd.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
For Chamblin, the full scope of the Grey Cup victory hasn't fully sunk in.
"Not until I get that ring," he said. "Every once in a while I lean over to my wife and tell her, 'We won the Grey Cup.'
"We treated it as the next game and that's why we didn't let it get too big for us. Once I see the ring, I'll really feel like, you know what? We won the championship."
Foley's third career Grey Cup win — his first was with B.C in '06 — was decidedly different than the 2012 championship he earned with Toronto.
"In Toronto with coach (Scott) Milanovich, we never spoke about the Grey Cup at all," Foley said. "But coach Chamblin always addressed us 'Good morning champs,' and at first I didn't know how to take it because we hadn't won anything.
"But I think because we addressed the issue of pressure and the objective early on, once we beat Calgary at McMahon there really wasn't a celebration because it felt like this was what we were supposed to do. We expected to be there and then with the Grey Cup at home, instead of having pressure it was more like an advantage."
And for Getzlaf, the opportunity to realize a childhood dream.
"As a Saskatchewan kid, to play professional football for the team you grew up cheering for is special in itself," he said. "Then to have an opportunity to get to the Grey Cup and win it on home soil, I don't think that will sink in for a while.
"When you go out on top in front of your own fans who've waited a long time for a situation like that, it's such an amazing feeling."
However, Getzlaf isn't resting on his laurels.
"Oh no, it's back to the grind," he said. "I'm already back to the gym trying to make my body right to hopefully do it all over again."
For Chamblin, that means aiming for another championship but not a repeat.
"Repeating means doing the same thing and we can't do that," he said. "What we did will forever be etched in our minds . . . it really tested our mettle and allowed us to grow."