Greatest never to win Cup

PAUL FRIESEN, SPORTS COLUMNIST

, Last Updated: 7:38 AM ET

Every sport has them, and they're easy to spot.

Tortured souls, they are followed by a black cloud wherever they go, bent over as if carrying a heavy load.

Happy memories of a career gone by are quickly replaced by horrible flashbacks of what went wrong, what they did wrong.

It gets to the point where they hope nobody remembers at all, so they don't have to answer the same questions for the 300th time.

That's how it is for all great players who finish their careers without a championship, right?

OK, so that's a little melodramatic.

But there's little doubt that whenever these players relive their glory days, they can't help but feel something is missing.

"It's difficult," former receiver Jim Young said. "I remember ... and I shudder. It's difficult."

Young played 13 seasons and never even reached the Grey Cup game. What are the odds on that?

When yours is one of just eight or nine teams in the CFL, chances are you'll taste champagne eventually, if you stick around long enough.

But some defy the odds, playing long and hard, earning all-star nods and individual trophies, some even changing teams -- but the bottom line never changes.

They are the greatest players never to win a Grey Cup.

And today, with Winnipeg Blue Bomber Milt Stegall threatening to join their ranks, Sun Media salutes them.

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Stegall may not be the best player in CFL history, but if the Bombers fail to win it all again this season, he may well go down as the best never to win a championship.

"I feel for him," Young said. "He's still playing, and he's still got that dark spot."

The thought of erasing it, and not the all-time touchdown record, is the main reason Stegall didn't retire.

"A lot of guys have put up big numbers -- and I've done it before -- and not win a championship," Stegall told Sun Media earlier this year. "It's not fulfilling. My only goal is to win the Grey Cup."

Nobody has scored more touchdowns, all-time, than No. 85, but just one came in a Grey Cup game, a reception from Khari Jones as the Bombers dropped the '01 title game to Calgary.

"It's unfortunate," Jones said. "He's the kind of guy that, more than almost anyone else, with his work ethic, you want to see him rewarded for that with what he wants. There's not always happy endings to everything."

Stegall has been a division all-star seven times, a CFL all-star six times and won the Outstanding Player Award in '02.

He says he'd trade it all in a heartbeat for a different outcome that day in Montreal.

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Jones is another former CFL Most Outstanding Player who never won the ultimate trophy.

Based on his statistics -- he's behind only Dieter Brock on Winnipeg's all-time passing yardage list -- his place in Bomber history would be secure.

Based on championships, he and Brock trail the legendary Ken Ploen by a mile, or whatever distance three Grey Cups are worth.

"It would have been more satisfying," Jones said of his career. "But you deal with it. It's probably tougher getting as close as we did and not being able to do it. And then not getting back. That was tough."

Jones says he doesn't dwell on the Bombers' near miss in '01, but occasionally he's reminded of it, like it or not.

"I do think about it whenever I go to Montreal," he said. "There's probably only one throw in the Grey Cup that I would want back, and that was early in the game to Arland Bruce ... just over his hands."

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We're guessing that's how it is with all of them: one play, or one game, replayed over and over again in their minds.

Nearly 30 years after he retired, Jim Young is still doing it.

"Dirty Thirty" must sometimes think he was the victim of a dirty trick, playing 13 seasons, the same as Stegall, and playing in just one West Final, which his B.C. Lions lost.

"You flash back on things," Young, still living in the Vancouver area, said. "If I'd run this pattern just a little differently, or if I'd seen this just a little sooner. It's funny how you flash on your mistakes in life."

Twice, Young was named the CFL's top Canadian, in '70 and '72. The Lions were a combined 11-21 those years, finishing fourth and fifth, respectively, in the West.

It took eight years for his team to manage a .500 season.

His best shot came in '77, when his Lions went 10-6 and outlasted Winnipeg 33-32 in the West semifinal, only to get slaughtered, 38-1, by Edmonton in the West final. Incredibly, it was the only time Young's team even won a playoff game.

"Every year, (the Cup) is your goal," Young said. "And when you don't achieve it, it leaves a hole. And so you start the next year. Every year you start with that optimism, and you eventually get it knocked out of you by the end of the year."

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Sam Etcheverry, the great Montreal receiver, and Bill Baker, the venerable Saskatchewan lineman, are two other CFL greats who had it knocked out of them, year after year.

Both have busts in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, as do Young and Brock.

Stegall's is being shined up for the moment he decides to hang 'em up.

So far, the thing probably doesn't have a big smile on it.

"They may do it this year," Young said of Stegall's Bombers. "They're not out, yet."


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