The Saskatchewan Roughriders had quite a ride in 2007.
It began with a tumultuous off-season as general manager Eric Tillman was forced to shave $600,000 in payroll to reach the $4.05-million salary cap while hiring a rookie head coach, Kent Austin.
But the new-look Riders quickly emerged as the CFL's feel-good story, finishing second in the West Division to secure their first home playoff game since 1988 en route to capturing just their third Grey Cup title and first since '89.
On Friday, the Roughriders capped their storybook season by being voted the Canadian Press team of the year. They finished first in a poll of sports editors and broadcasters across the country.
"It was a remarkable year in many regards," Tillman said. "It was special for our players, our coaches and last but certainly not least for our fans, a fan base that is without parallel."
The Roughriders captured 40 first-place votes for 173 total points to finish ahead of the gold medal-winning men's junior hockey team, which earned 25 first-place votes and 143 points. The NHL's Ottawa Senators were third with 12 first-place votes and 71 points.
"The Roughriders not only won their first CFL Grey Cup in 16 years, they rekindled interest in the sport in Western Canada," said David Ritchie, sports editor for the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.
"No team reflects more what the CFL is all about than the Riders."
Earlier this week, NHL star Sidney Crosby and women's hockey team captain Hayley Wickenheiser were named The Canadian Press male and female athletes of the year.
Salary cap issues forced Tillman to revamp the Riders' lineup following the '06 season, releasing or trading such veterans as running back Dominique Dorsey, quarterback Rocky Butler, defensive lineman Nate Davis and offensive linemen Rob Lazeo, Fred Childress and Andrew Greene. He also had to watch defensive backs Omarr Morgan and Davin Bush leave for more lucrative free-agent deals.
Tillman did replenish his talent base, though, landing offensive linemen Mike Abou-Mechrek, Jermese Jones and Wayne Smith, kicker Jamie Boreham, running back Wes Cates, wide receiver D.J. Flick and defensive backs Tad Kornegay and Airabin Justin either via trade or free agency.
But Tillman said it was Austin who set the tone for the Riders' amazing 2007 season during his speech to players the first night of training camp.
"This was a franchise that had improved significantly from where it was during the previous seven years but had levelled off," Tillman said.
"Kent said, 'We don't play the game to be competitive, we don't play the game to be pretty good, we play the game to be champions. That's what our goal is this year, that's what it will be next year and every year we're together.'
"In talking to the veteran players the next day, during various courses of the season and even after the Grey Cup, many of them talk about that being a defining moment because they had never been challenged to that level."
The Roughriders had shown definite signs of being a CFL contender. Despite posting a 9-9 record three straight years, Saskatchewan reached the West Division final twice, losing both times.
Just like past years when the Riders started slowly, they did so in 2007, going 2-2 after their first four games. But then the club got on a nice roll, winning five straight and posting a 12-6 record to finish second in the West Division standings. What made that accomplishment noteworthy was it came despite Saskatchewan leading the CFL in man-games lost due to injury.
Defensive tackle Terrell Jurineack played just one game due to a knee injury while linebacker T.J. Stancill missed half of the season with a knee ailment, too. Offensively, the Riders lost receivers Michael Washington (patella tendon) and Matt Dominguez (knee), fullback Chris Szarka (severed fingers in table saw accident) and Cates (leg fracture) to injury.
Both Cates and Szarka returned late in the year and played hurt, as did Flick, who suffered a hip pointer late in the season and was at about 60 per cent capacity in the playoffs.
"Candidly, I think that was the biggest accomplishment," Tillman said of the Riders being able to overcome the injury bug. "It wasn't a list of injuries, it was a scroll."
Quarterback Kerry Joseph certainly did his part, too.
Joseph took a $135,000 pay cut in the off-season, but gave the Riders bang for their buck with a salary of about$230,000.
After finishing third overall in passing (4,002 yards) and leading all quarterbacks in rushing (737 yards and 13 TDs), Joseph was named the CFL's outstanding player. He became the first Saskatchewan quarterback to win the award since Ron Lancaster in 1976.
"A remarkable season for a totally unselfish human being," Tillman said of his quarterback. "He was without a doubt the catalyst of our success.
"Give tremendous credit to Kerry for his work ethic and character and give major kudos to Kent for helping Kerry reach his fullest potential."