Johnson: Ray continues to play Stamps’ adversary
After haunting them at the helm of the Eskimos, QB stands in the way of a Calgary Grey Cup victory
TORONTO - Try as he might, Ricky Ray can’t seem to shake ’em. Might as well be looking to lose his own shadow in the sunshine.
“You get used to seeing those guys all those years you’re playing in Edmonton,” mused the Toronto Argonaut quarterback. “A lot. That’s the rivalry, of course. You’re playing them at least three times a year, sometimes four. Then playoffs, usually.
“Man, you’d think coming here out east I’d be able to get rid of ’em. But they keep following me around.
“I had to play Edmonton in the playoffs already. And now Calgary. But I guess I should’ve expected that. Feels like I’m still out west.”
For Ricky Ray, this is turning out to be deja vu all over, harkening back to those countless Labour Day Classics and the short-turnaround rematches up north at Commonwealth Stadium. To the post-season skirmishes and provincial bragging rights. To when he wore the green and gold with such distinction, for nine years, rewriting the franchise record book along the way.
And here he is, looking to plunge a stake into the beating heart of the Calgary Stampeders.
One more time.
His longtime pal, QB’ing compatriot and now tutor, Argos’ quarterback coach Jason Maas, figures the way this whole post-season scenario has played out is nothing short of downright eerie. Sunday being a logical capper.
“To have the playoff run he’s had,” Maas mused Thursday, following Toronto’s 9:30 a.m. practice time at Rogers Centre, “to beat Edmonton in the playoffs, to beat Montreal who he’s faced in Grey Cups before and now to play Calgary, who as an Eskimo he’s grown up hating — it’s in his blood — in a winner-take-all championship game, well, I’d say that’s pretty special.
“It’s definitely strange how the whole situation’s worked out.
“It’s as if someone wrote this great script and it’s being played out in front of all of us.”
All that’s required is an ending. The Argos, as has been noted ad nauseam, came up trumps in both regular-season meetings between the sides, 39-36 at Rogers Centre in the game Drew Tate injured his shoulder, and 22-14 at McMahon Stadium.
Since that second collision, the Stamps are 9-2.
“That’s a different team than the one we played twice early in the season,” Ray says, dismissively. “Obviously confidence is a big factor. Just being on a roll helps you out. They’ve got some physical DBs on the back end. You can talk about the addition of Anwar (Stewart), a wily old veteran on the D-line. Their linebackers are fast. That’s a very athletic team and they give you a lot of different looks, get to the ball quick and tackle well.
“They just do a lot of things good.”
Ricky does, too. As the Stampeders know only too well.
“I don’t know if we’re following him around, exactly,” laughs Calgary DB Brandon Smith, when informed of Ray’s comment. “But to be the best, you’ve gotta beat the best and Ricky Ray’s one of the best quarterbacks around. It’s a clash of the best.”
“It’s definitely fitting,” chimed in another veteran Stampeder defender, Keon Raymond. “Playing against a guy we’re so familiar with in a game of this importance. We understand his nuances. We’ll be able to kind of hone in on him ’cause we’ve played against him a few times.”
A few hundred, seems like.
For Ray, it’s taken time to build familiarity and trust with his receiving corps, the offence in general and a new setting. But the Argos’ presence in this 100th Grey Cup is testament to how handsomely his perseverance has paid off.
“This offence,” says Ray, “is definitely tailor-made to help make the quarterback’s job a little easier. They don’t ask us too much. They just ask us to make good decisions. They reward good decisions. It definitely fits into some of my strengths and has made me more disciplined, as I said.
“They’re not asking us to read the whole field or make spectacular plays. We just gotta go out and do our job and be smart with the football. This offence is going to get you some open guys.”
Both these teams can make a logical argument for validation Sunday. Both have that whiff of destiny about them. The Argos finished a middling 9-9 on the regular season, yet got hot at the right time to reach the big game. The Stamps, meanwhile, overcame a rash of injuries and the loss of their starting quarterback — twice — to book this date.
“I don’t know if it’s destiny, really,” squirms Ricky Ray-gun. “We’re both playing good football right now. That’s more of an explanation than fate, or anything like that.
“From our standpoint, our confidence has been building each step of the way. The whole destiny thing . . . I don’t know.
“Both teams earned their way into this Grey Cup. I couldn’t say if it’s unique or not, to not have at least one divisional winner in the game but we had to go on the road, into a tough place, in the Eastern final and they had to do the same thing out west.
“I don’t think you could say either one of us were favoured to be here. But here we are.”
Yes, here they are. Ricky Ray and the Calgary Stampeders in a game with massive implications. One more time.
“Yeah,” repeats Ray, his voice full of wonder. “Crazy, isn’t it?”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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