TORONTO - Willie Middlebrooks spent most of his football life as a winner.
It was only since joining the Argonauts that he became a reluctant expert at losing.
He's the only Argonaut who joined the club in 2008 who hasn't been to the playoffs. That's two-plus seasons of despair; 37 losses -- and those are just the ones everyone counted. Nobody has suffered more in less time.
Everyone else is gone in Jim Barker's house-cleaning, or like Kevin Eiben made it to glory with the club before, or like Chad Owens has signed on more recently.
"I think I lost more games the last two years here than I did in my life from Pop Warner, high school, college and NFL if you wrap them up all together. It's been bittersweet," Middlebrooks said Monday, just 48 hours after wrapping up a playoff spot for the first time in his two-plus seasons.
An 8-8 record isn't anything to brag about. Then, again, coming off seven wins in those previous two years makes it a monumental accomplishment.
"It's fun again," said Middlebrooks of this year's team. "We didn't have a bunch of guys on the team this year that were cancers. You saw that last year and the year before."
He's not pointing fingers at anyone specifically, but there's a reason Jim Barker came in as the new head coach and rebuilt this roster from the one that went 7-29 the previous two years.
"(Missing the playoffs) was very disappointing to me," said Middlebrooks, "because on paper we had a lot of guys with talent and CFL and NFL experience. When only two teams don't make it and one of them was mine -- that was heartbreaking."
This year it was different right from training camp. The Argos still lost games but never faith.
"You could tell right from camp that the coaches we've got are still kids at heart. They get enthused and energetic, passionate ... you see guys are running onto the practice field joking; they're not coming here anymore saying, ‘Damn, now I gotta practice with these guys and I just got through a rough day'. "
Not that there haven't been rough patches this season, too.
This has been a team with a killer defence and a suicidal offence. That offence has been long on potential with Cory Boyd, but short on delivery with its passing game. This is a team that has had to rely too much on returner Chad Owens and its record-setting special teams.
There were three humiliating defeats to the hated Ticats. There have been breakdowns and there have been flaws of execution and there are times when it seems quarterback Cleo Lemon and his receivers are reading from different pages of the playbook.
But there was one thing that never faltered.
"This team never lost faith. The media did. The fans did," said Barker yesterday, "but the only thing I care about is the mentality of our team and today they practiced great. They know we have work to do to get ready for Nov. 14."
That will be a playoff rematch with Hamilton they are given little chance of winning by few not wearing Double Blue.
Barker and the Argos have built an us-against-the-world mentality.
"Almost every game we've played, we go to (Saskatchewan) and you and nobody believes we can win," said Barker. "We had Montreal come here after they hammered us and you and nobody believed; just like if we go into Hamilton you and nobody will believe we can win. That's the nature of media and fans; they'll be with you when things are good. It's not like family.
"We know our fans came out and supported us -- and we laid and egg. The natural thing is to bail."
There's only one road back into the hearts of those fans, and that's through the win column.
Kevin Eiben, the longest-suffering Argonaut has tasted Grey Cup champagne and shared Middlebrooks pain.
"We all know how good we can be and we haven't shown that yet," said Eiben.
They have three games left to show him to be a prophet; three games to show their faith is not misplaced.
"The important thing is we're in the playoffs. It's anybody's Grey Cup once you get into the playoffs. If you're not there, you're sitting at home, watching, eating popcorn -- you got no chance," said Eiben.
He, like Middlebrooks, has lost his taste for popcorn.
"I got out of town (last year). I didn't even watch the Grey Cup. I couldn't," said Eiben. "If I'm not in it, it hurts. You train too hard in training camp and all through the season to not be there."
At least now, they're in with a chance -- depending on who you believe.