TORONTO - During his playing days as a quarterback with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Scott Milanovich recalls a week when the Green Bay Packers provided the opposition.
It was a week unlike any other, admits Toronto’s rookie head coach, a time when emotions at practice became more pronounced, when the intensity level grew as kickoff grew nearer.
“We didn’t beat them very often,’’ Milanovich said. “And we always looked forward to playing Green Bay.
“That was the Brett Favre era and we were like the little puppy dogs nipping at their heels. We never did beat them at Lambeau (Field), but we always got fired up.”
Regardless of record or perceived talent level, rivalry games summon the best, force a player to somehow extract more.
In football, the old axiom is that every game looms big given how so few are played, how one slip-up, no matter the date on the calendar, can come back and haunt a team.
But as the countdown to Saturday night’s visit by the Argos to the Hammer draws closer, Milanovich admits the air in Argoland has been different.
“I haven’t gotten caught up in it, but I have sensed it,’’ he added. “It is such a small league that there’s always something.”
Milanovich would point to Ricky Ray’s return to Edmonton in the season opener as an example, followed by last week’s visit to Toronto by Calgary, a team that cried foul when the Argos lured defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones to Hogtown.
Saturday’s game is the first of four involving the Argos and Ticats and the first for Toronto of a three-game stretch against Eastern foes, which provides another layer to the increased intensity around the club.
“I don’t know what it is, but I have sensed a heightened level of intensity this week,’’ continued Milanovich. “Maybe it’s Hamilton, maybe it’s an Eastern Division game, I don’t know, but I do understand the importance.”
For years, Ray’s rival was located in Calgary. Much like the Argos and Ticats, the Esks-Stamps feud would peak around Labour Day and boil over into the post-season.
In his first year in Toronto, Ray has had to learn a lot, a do-to list that now includes a built-in rivalry.
“All of us new guys to Toronto have got to learn what it’s like and this is a good step,’’ said Ray of playing the Ticats. “We’ll get used to it quickly because we’ll be playing them four times and that’s when you start to hate a team.”
With Henry Burris, Ray’s former sparring partner, now flinging the football for the Ticats, there’s a familiarity that helps stoke the rivalry flames.
At the end of the day, getting a win remains the bottom line. Toss in a division game and Ray understands the importance of Saturday.
“It’s huge,’’ he said. “We talk about them being four-pointers. If we win, we get two and that’s two they don’t get. It’s very important.
“It’s still early in the season, but you jockey all year and when you get down to the wire, these two early-season points mean a lot.”
In Tiger Town, an air of urgency is palpable involving a team that can ill afford an 0-3 start.
The B.C. Lions, who ended last season with a Grey Cup title, started 0-5. However, the citizens in Hamilton aren’t as patient and the club has invested too much if things don’t change.
This week’s media-driven diversion — an alleged rift between Ticats head coach George Cortez and defensive co-ordinator Casey Creehan — did absolutely nothing except prove, once again, the damage that ego and agenda create when a public forum of any kind caters to such nonsense.
Losing is never good, exposing character flaws and weaknesses. At the same time, winning cures everything and the Ticats can salvage a lot by winning.
The Argos are building something and can’t afford a setback, especially with a short week on the horizon and the visiting Blue Bombers up next on Wednesday.
It’s only Week 3 in the CFL, but Saturday night has the feel of a Labour Day backdrop.
The only thing missing, of course, is a sellout.