TORONTO - Eleven months have passed since Ricky Ray’s life was turned upside down with a trade he never saw coming, to a place he didn’t want to be, to a team with a history of difficulty, and only after Sunday was there finally a sense of clarity for the veteran quarterback.
He wasn’t just brought here to rescue the Argos or to give them some hope in this the year of the 100th Grey Cup in Toronto. He was brought here to bring the kind of calm that has been his trademark in a long Canadian Football League career. He was brought here to do exactly what he did Sunday: Turn defeat into victory; turn a strong performance into an ordinary performance. Stay balanced when everything around you seems on the verge of collapse. Protect the football and don’t turn it over. And in between get a break of sorts when an apparent interception on, in his words, “a really poor throw” got overturned by replay and a playoff football game changed because of it.
It has been a long time coming in Toronto and this has been a long season for the 33-year-old Ray, who knew just one CFL team before this season of discomfort. It has, indeed, been a long time coming: The playoff win for the Argos at home was their first in six seasons. The win for Ray was his first, after two defeats, against Edmonton earlier in the season. The win for rookie coach Scott Milanovich was his first playoff victory for the Argos. The punt return for a touchdown in the special season for Chad Owens was his first of the year.
But with Ray it was different, special, maybe more personal.
“I think this puts the storyline to rest,” he said.
The Edmonton team he learned to play Canadian football with is no longer his. The general manager, Eric Tillman, who traded him away, has been fired. Double blue are now his two favourite colours and it has taken time for all that to settle in.
But first, he had to get through a nearly disastrous first quarter of playoff football, the first for Ray as an Argo, the first for Milanovich as coach, was something both had to live through to experience.
“Coach kept telling me, don’t panic, it’s a long day, it’s a long game,” Ray said. “Coach did a good job keeping me calm. He kept talking to me. I needed that.”
The veteran quarterback needed the wisdom of the rookie coach when it mattered most. Milanovich talked Ray off the ledge, so to speak, early on, when the Argos looked unready to begin against the Eskimos. They looked unable to stop the run, fumbled themselves on their first drive, got a horse-collar penalty, dropped an interception, gave up a long punt return, had one first down. And that was in the first quarter.
“This is the way football is sometimes,” Ray said. “They kept us off balance pretty good early on.”
And then came the second quarter.
As terrible as the Argos were in the first, the Eskimos were worse in the second. Without ever really driving the ball, the Argos led 31-7 at the half. They scored more points in the second quarter than any team in CFL playoff history had ever scored. And the quarterback wasn’t exactly lighting it up.
It was all unfolding for him, almost like it was ordained by general manager Jim Barker and owner David Braley, who made the trade for Ray and wondered if there would be days like this. At no real time did Ray have to command the orchestra, the way the best of all quarterbacks do. He didn’t have to make any huge play, except a late surprising call that saw him run to the end zone with the final score of the first half.
If given the choice, Ray would prefer not to run the ball. He looks like the accidental ball carrier. When the call was put in from the red zone for a quarterback draw, he called his own number and held his breath. And when he all but walked his way into the end zone, he took a moment for a wide smile.
And that’s a rare moment for the always serious, semi-stoic, unemotional Ray on a football field.
That was his facial fist pump. It was also the end of the Eskimos for the season.
Ricky Ray’s Argos are a win from the 100th Grey Cup.
“It’s nice to have this over with,” said Ray, talking of the win, pointing to next Sunday’s Eastern final in Montreal. “We have to play better than this. We can’t do this and expect to win.”