Where to even begin?
The 108th Grey Cup had everything you could ever want in a football game and then some.
The 2021 CFL season wasn’t always pretty, but Sunday’s title match was the perfect showcase of what makes Canadian football so great.
It was also a reminder as to how special our country’s annual tradition is and how meaningful it was to have it back.
The contest ended in fitting fashion with the best team in the three-down game hoisting the Grey Cup over their heads. It took a wild comeback, but the Winnipeg Blue Bombers successfully defended their crown by beating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 33-25 in overtime at Tim Hortons Field.
For one fan base, it meant heading to Portage and Main to celebrate the fact that Canada’s iconic silver mug is staying put for at least another year. For the other, it was about as devastating of a loss as they could’ve ever imagined. Hamilton hasn’t won the Grey Cup since 1999. The longest championship drought in the CFL will extend into another year.
There’s a lot to unpack, but let’s dive right in and look at five takeaways from one of the most memorable games in league history.
1. Castillo’s night
Monday was the one-year anniversary of Sergio Castillo missing three field goals in a game against the Seattle Seahawks. The tough night led to the New York Jets cutting Castillo almost immediately.
Fast forward one year later to the exact same date, the Amarillo, Texas, native was celebrating a Grey Cup victory.
And he was no bystander as it’s unlikely that the Bombers could’ve pulled it off without him. Castillo was brilliant in the big game, drilling all five of his field goal attempts, including a crucial 45-yarder with 2:05 left on the clock to give the Bombers a late 24-22 lead. Castillo had no problem handling the bright lights, or the wind for that matter, despite it being only the second playoff game of his seven-year career. You could easily argue Castillo deserved the Most Outstanding Player award, but he ended up in second place behind Zach Collaros.
“I was just very fortunate for Zach, the offence, and the defence to give us a chance. At the end of the day, that’s all you can ask for as a kicker,” Castillo told the Free Press on the field after the game.
“As a kicker, you have five, six, seven plays and you want to do the most you can every single time. To be able to have that chance and come through, I’m very fortunate.” It’s ironic the team’s Grey Cup hero was a kicker considering how much the Bombers’ kicking game was criticized this season. But the Bombers acquiring Castillo from the B.C. Lions right before the trade deadline will be a trade that’s talked about around these parts for years and years.
It turns out the fourth time’s the charm as the Bombers tried three different kickers this season before landing a reliable leg in Castillo.
“We had some struggles in our kicking game in the early part of the season, so for Castillo to come up clutch and do what he did tonight, it was amazing,” said receiver Nic Demski.
2. The mighty rouge
Only in Canada would a player taking a knee in the end zone become the most controversial play of a game.
After Castillo’s field goal put Winnipeg up 24-22, Ticats returner Tim White caught the kickoff and opted to kneel in the end zone and concede a point.
There weren’t any Winnipeg defenders near him.
It allowed the Tabbies to start their drive at their own 35-yard line, which is likely further ahead than where White would’ve returned the ball to, but it put them down three points. Hamilton managed to march down the field against wind gusts of 50 km/h before settling for a 13-yard chip shot. Instead of being a walkoff, all it did was take the game to overtime.
Ticats head coach Orlondo Steinauer was grilled about that decision after the game.
“We gave him the option that he could bring it out or not,” Steinauer said. “I’m OK with the decision.”
It’s possible that White goofed and Steinauer was just trying to protect his player. But if Steinauer did leave the decision up to his return man, that’s quite the head scratcher. Mike O’Shea was also asked about it and he came to the defence of his longtime friend Steinauer.
“The field position they gained from that was very important. Now the plays after dictated or showed that they got down and they might have been inside the red zone (regardless), but all those yards would’ve been very important for their field goal kicker,” O’Shea said post-game
“I thought it was really smart.”
O’Shea might be the only person labelling that decision as “smart.”
3. Roller coaster night for QBs
Jeremiah Masoli would have been the story of the game if his Ticats could’ve found a way to hang on.
Benched in the East Division final in the second quarter, Masoli had to sit and watch Dane Evans start the Grey Cup. Evans couldn’t do anything right and was likely going to get subbed out at some point, but a neck injury forced Hamilton to take their starter out of the game midway through the second.
The Ticats woke up once Masoli got in there and he outduelled Collaros for most of the contest. With a 22-10 lead in the fourth, it looked like it was going to be Masoli’s night and he was going to cement himself as a legend in Hamilton.
But the Bombers found a way to rip the storybook ending away.
“Not right now, but I do love a lot of people in that locker room. I love a lot of guys on the coaching staff and in the building, so I guess I do feel for them a little bit,” said Collaros when asked if he feels for Hamilton.
With two interceptions in the third quarter, Collaros wasn’t at his best, but he was able to bounce back. Collaros threw a touchdown to Demski, the game’s Most Outstanding Canadian, in the fourth and another to Darvin Adams in the extra frame.
As special as the Masoli story would’ve been (to people outside of Manitoba, of course), Collaros leading the Bombers to a Grey Cup in Hamilton, a place where he played for four years and had many ups and downs, is quite meaningful.
“I threw two interceptions, put us in a bad spot, guys picked me up: ‘Hey, we’re going to get you the ball back.’ They did a great job of limiting the points in the third quarter when I put our defence in really bad positions. They had belief in us to get it done in the fourth and we did,” Collaros said.
4. Defence wins championships
It’s cliché, but it really is true.
Was there a bigger play than the one made by defensive back Deatrick Nichols at the end of the fourth? The Ticats were six yards away from winning the game, but Nichols was able to get his fingertips on a pass intended for Jaelon Acklin. Then in overtime, Masoli forced a pass to Acklin and Nichols jumped it. He bobbled the ball and it landed in front of Winston Rose who used his left hand to tap the ball to linebacker Kyrie Wilson for the interception to close out the game.
It was a wacky play, but it was a perfect example of what makes this unit so special: they play together.
To Hamilton’s credit, their defence had a championship-level performance, but it just wasn’t enough. Even without star defensive tackle Ted Laurent, they controlled the line of scrimmage for three quarters and kept Andrew Harris mostly in check. Their pass rush got to Collaros often as well.
5. History is made
Before Sunday, this sentence hadn’t been written since 1962: the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are back-to-back champions.
It may be a nine-team league, but that’s no easy feat. It hasn’t been done since Anthony Calvillo and the Montreal Alouettes repeated as champions in 2010.
“This organization, this family, is built on a lot,” said receiver Rasheed Bailey.
“It’s built on trust and a lot of passion. We’re finishers, baby, and that’s what it’s all about. It was all about coming back and doing this thing, fighting through COVID, and becoming back-to-back champions.”
The way they pulled it off makes it even more impressive. The Ticats were 16-2 at Tim Hortons Field dating back to 2019 and had the luxury of playing for the Grey Cup in their own building. The Bombers overcame six turnovers in the West Division final against Saskatchewan, and they overcame a 12-point deficit in the battle for the cup.
Their biggest challenge moving forward will be keeping everyone together, but that’s a topic for another day. The Bombers are holding a Grey Cup celebration at IG Field Wednesday evening and if it’s anything like the parade in 2019, the place will be rocking.
Enjoy the moment, Winnipeg. Teams like this don’t come around often.
“It’s the love we have for each other,” Collaros said.
“Gratitude was the word of the year for us. Grateful to play, grateful for each other, grateful for the league, and nobody wavered.”
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.
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