Any day is a great day for Canadian football.
Sun, rain, sleet, snow, blizzard: our boys play, and we watch from the bleachers with delight, through it all.
(Except for fog. The 50th Grey Cup game, played at Exhibition Stadium in 1962 and dubbed The Fog Bowl, took 24 hours to finish thanks to what is apparently the only weather condition that can put a football game here in the Great White North on hold.)
It almost feels like a rite of passage. If you haven’t suffered through four quarters of below-freezing temperatures with ice pellets pelting your face, then your fandom just isn’t immense enough.
And the rest of Canada can rejoice, for Toronto’s fans are no longer sheltered like a band of precious little snowflakes. For the first time since 1989, CFL games are being played in a proper football stadium in the Big Smoke, BMO Field at Exhibition Place, and Sunday’s 104th Grey Cup faceoff featuring the Calgary Stampeders and the Ottawa Redblacks will be as exposed to the elements as our great game should be.
It takes a hardened athlete to go into Canada’s annually most-watched national championship having no idea what lies ahead. Early forecasts are calling for sunny skies and a relatively temperate high of 4 degrees Celsius for our upcoming late November Sunday, but we all know that could turn on a dime at any moment. Every player needs to be in peak physical condition and ready for anything.
I was reminded of that lesson all too well on Thursday morning.
The day started with a trip to Nissan Canada’s head office in Mississauga to pick up a half-ton Nissan Titan. I was among a select group tasked with completing the final two legs of the Rally of the Titans, an event that’s already been under way for more than a week building buzz for the Grey Cup from coast to coast.
Two teams began their journeys at our country’s far reaches on November 12th and set out to converge on Toronto while completing challenges and collecting scores along the way.
The western team’s first truck left Vancouver with BC Lions stickers on its side and collected its teammates at stops in CFL cities along the way: the Calgary Stampeders, Edmonton Eskimos, Saskatchewan Roughriders, and Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
From the east, the first truck, with a Grey Cup logo on its side to keep the numbers even, departed St. John’s, Newfoundland – but not without its occupant being Screeched in first (on the night before, of course) – and headed for the CFL’s Eastern Division markets: the Montreal Alouettes, the Ottawa Redblacks (I have to put a loonie in a jar every time I almost type Rough Riders or Renegades), the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and the Toronto Argonauts.
By the time we met up with these intrepid travelers, the drivers from the farthest reaches had taken their Titans nearly 9,000 km each and had performed a variety of challenges on the way: delivering supplies to food banks, performing good Samaritan tasks for locals, taking part in Habitat for Humanity builds, and visiting Nissan Kickoff Project schools.
This latter program is an undertaking by Nissan Canada as part of its CFL partnership, which began in 2007. Through the Project, more than $435,000 has been funneled directly into high school football programs, benefiting roughly 25 schools each year for the past three years, to complete field improvements and buy jerseys and equipment to bolster support for football at a grassroots level across the country.
On Thursday, there were only two tasks left to complete in the Rally, and they were partly on my shoulders. I was to choose one Titan to drive to the University of Toronto’s athletic grounds where I would compete under the tutelage of CFL players in a skills challenge. Then, it was up to me to complete the final leg of the Rally by getting the Titan to the Grey Cup Festival on Bremner Blvd. in downtown Toronto where all 10 trucks will remain until game day.
I greatly enjoyed the first portion of the drive. I chose the Ottawa Redblacks truck under the guise that I would be supporting the winning team – I always have enjoyed cheering for underdogs; I’m an Argonauts and a Maple Leafs fan, after all – and I set off for U of T campus. I even took the truck through a Starbucks drive-through just because I thought it would be hilarious.
Actually, it wasn’t hard at all. I didn’t even curb it. I’ve driven plenty of big trucks before, and I was pleasantly surprised at how easy the behemoth version of the Titan was to get around. It felt like I was piloting a fullback as it glided along seamlessly lead blocking its way through traffic.
And having the benefit of living downtown myself, I even arrived at our destination ahead of most of the other trucks having spent significantly less time sitting in traffic. I was feeling pretty good about my life.
We headed out to the field and were briefed on our challenge. Each of us was paired with a CFL pro who would coach us through a skills competition with drills testing sprinting, agility, and ball handling.
I was teamed up with Mike Filer, an offensive lineman with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. (Despite my requirement to look down all things Ti-Cats due to my status as an Argos fan, none of what you’re about to read was in any way Mike’s fault.)
We did some quick warm-ups and lined up for our first drill: a 40-yard sprint. It was cold and rainy, and we competitors jogged lightly in place to try to retain some warmth as we were counted down.
The whistle blew, and I ran forward about three steps.
Up went my right calf muscle, and down went me.
I needed to head to Starbucks again, but this time it was for a very different reason.
Through 20 years of CFL fandom I’d been waiting and hoping for a chance to do something like this, and in that single moment, the whole thing went up in smoke.
I was sad. And frustrated. I’m competitive – okay, that’s an understatement – and I’d really wanted to show those guys out there who’s boss. (Turns out it’s not me.)
In the end, I wasn’t able to use my throttle leg well enough to complete my final task of the Rally of the Titans and park the Redblacks truck at the Grey Cup Festival.
But as I sat in the Passenger Seat of Shame on the way home, the whole situation did cause me to reflect on the bigger picture.
In comparison to the grey and chilly conditions that bit me that day, those 24 men on the two starting lines could be up against much worse at BMO Field on Sunday. But they’ll be out there regardless, ready for battle after months of preparation, prepared to face whatever may be thrown at them in the name of claiming one of the greatest glories Canadian sport has to offer.
Sunday’s 104th Grey Cup kicks off at Toronto’s BMO Field at 6:30 PM with the Nissan Titan Tailgate getting under way at Ontario Place beginning at noon. Numerous contests are being run in connection to the completion of the Rally of the Titans in the lead-up to game day. Visit www.nissantitanrally.com for more details.