The grass was impossibly green, the home team in brilliant orange — and a young boy was in awe.
Doug Brown remembers his first trip to Empire Stadium like it was yesterday.
“Vividly,” the Winnipeg Blue Bomber D-lineman was saying the other day. “I was taken there by my dad as a child, watching Swervin’ Mervyn Fernandez catch balls in the end zone on real grass.
“That was my first B.C. Lions game, ever. They had those awesome orange jerseys.”
Little did Brown or his dad know the kid from New Westminster, B.C., would grow up (and up and up) to become a football player.
And who’d have thought he’d return to the same place some 28 years later, for what will surely be his last visit to what they now call Empire Field, as a member of the visiting team, against those same Lions.
“That’s crazy,” the 36-year-old said. “Now everything comes around, full circle.”
If that first visit planted the seed for what would become a 14-year (and counting) professional career dotted with all kinds of individual honours, this final trip represents something entirely different for Brown.
Oh, it’s potentially a beginning, of sorts. A Bomber victory could be a launching point towards better things, like a final six-game playoff push.
But the truth is this game is more about potential endings.
Because another loss and the Bombers, 3-9, can pretty much kiss that playoff jackpot goodbye.
If this team’s season is a poker game, it’s down to a chip and a chair.
“Our last stack,” is how Brown put it. “Where you have to ask for a line of credit. We’ll be asking for a favour from the casino boss.”
Or from all seven other CFL teams, who’ll have to deal out the perfect combination of wins and losses to keep Winnipeg at the table.
Crazy as it sounds, the Bombers, three points out of a crossover playoff spot, still have a pretty good handle on their own destiny. Orchestrate a sweep of the left coasters these next two games, and they’re the ones holding most of the cards.
But there’s no room for even one more fold.
“Oh, man, we’re on our last dollar,” running back Fred Reid acknowledged. “We’ve just got to come out and start winning, man ... and don’t shoot ourselves in the foot. That’s the key right now. We don’t shoot ourselves in the foot, we’ll be a damn good football team. And all the guys know that right now.”
Hard to believe it’s come to this.
But continually pulling defeat from the jaws of victory has been this team’s fatal addiction.
“Yeah, I’m really shocked,” Reid said. “I thought things would probably be a little different than it is right now. But it’s not too late to turn it around.”
That’s how it always is with the habitual gambler. Just give him one more roll of the dice, deal him one more hand, and he’ll change his luck.
Of course, the Bombers could have changed theirs a few times.
Ask Reid if there’s one he’d love to have back, and he doesn’t have to think long.
“Oh, this last game,” he said. “Oh, man, that would have been good. Leading Montreal, they’re on top of our division right now, the Grey Cup champions from last year. If we could have got that one ...”
But Reid doesn’t want to play that game.
Neither does Brown.
“You’ve gotta let go of things you can’t change,” he said.
The only looking back the big guy was willing to do was a bit of reminiscing.
And while the grass at Empire Field isn’t real, anymore, while Swervin’ Mervyn Fernandez is long gone and while the Lions’ orange isn’t quite as garish as it once was, for the little boy from New Westminster, one thing is exactly the same.
It doesn’t get bigger than this trip.