If the Toronto Argonauts are going to defend their CFL title, they're going to have to do it without their Grey Cup MVP.
Chad Kackert underwent surgery Tuesday to repair a broken ankle and is done for the year, the final blow in a season full of them for the Argos' explosive running back.
If the Argos can take any measure of comfort into Sunday's East Division final versus the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, it's that they've been in this spot for the better part of the season — having to make do without the player who led them to Grey Cup glory a year ago.
"All injuries are frustrating," Argos head coach Scott Milanovich said after Tuesday's walk-through. "From his perspective it was very disappointing, it was a tough year for him with the injuries and finally felt like he was getting healthy, finally felt like he was getting his chance to get in there and do what he wanted to do all year.
"Our team is very disappointed for him, but it's football, but you've got to rally, and we've got guys who fortunately have played well."
Milanovich said he will rely on backups Jerious Norwood and Curtis Steele to fill in for Kackert, and — regrettably for Kackert — it won't be the first time. The speedy running back missed 10 of 18 games this season after injuring his knee and shoulder (twice), plus suffering a concussion.
The five-foot-eight, 206-pound Kackert was still Toronto's leading rusher this season, running for 480 yards on 71 carries (6.8-yard average) with three touchdowns. The former New Hampshire star added 23 catches for 184 yards and a TD.
A season he'd surely love to forget finally came to a crashing halt Friday afternoon when he injured his ankle at practice at Rogers Centre.
The disappointment in losing Kackert is tempered, Milanovich said, by the fact other players have stepped up all season when others have been hurt.
"Absolutely, (Norwood and Steele) have played and played well, and played in big games, even on the road, Jerious played in Calgary and Saskatchewan and helped us get wins," Milanovich said. "It would be more nerve-wracking had they not played, and you didn't have the confidence level that they're going to be in there and execute what you're doing.
"As disappointing as it is for Kack, me as a coach and the players as a team have faith in the guys who are going to fill in for him. We're just going to have to move on, unfortunately."
Norwood, who is still adjusting to Canadian football, is coming off a big game, running for 102 yards on eight carries in Toronto's 23-20 loss to Montreal in the Nov. 1 regular-season finale. Norwood added four catches for 62 yards in replacing Kackert, who in a cruel twist was healthy that night and given the game off to rest for the playoffs.
"It was just a terrible accident, and all our thoughts and prayers go out to Kack, but we've got to keep rolling," Norwood said. "It's a team game, when one guy goes down, the next man has got to step up, stick together as a team. Just finish strong."
Norwood, who spent five seasons with the Atlanta Falcons and was signed by the Argos on Aug. 14 as an insurance policy, has been by Kackert's house to visit his injured teammate.
"I just let him know that I loved him and we loved him as a team, and we support him," Norwood said. "He was actually feeling pretty good. . . he's in a good mood, good spirits, hopefully we can go out and get a win for him."
Quarterback Ricky Ray said sometimes unfortunate, crazy things happen in practice, and that it was a big blow to see a teammate go down, especially Kackert with his big-play potential.
"It's tough not having him but we've got some guys that got a lot of experience this year when he was out, and guys that we feel can go in and do the job," Ray said. "It would be more difficult if Chad had been there the whole year and played every game and now we're trying to find guys that can come in without any experience to fill that role. But we've got guys that got significant playing time this year that can come in and do a good job."
Steele's best game came in his Argos debut, running for two touchdowns in Toronto's 38-12 romp over the B.C. Lions on July 30.
"We just knew the situation, (Milanovich) told us that he's got the guys, we've been in this situation before since early in the year when Kack went down and I had to step up and fill those shoes," the rookie running back said. "He just told us to be ready, prepare like we always have."
The broken ankle is a heartbreaking ending for Kackert, who was a major part of Toronto's success late last season.
Just a couple of weeks ago, on the eve of his most recent return to the lineup — this time after missing two weeks with a shoulder injury — he had talked about finding solace from Rudyard Kipling's inspirational poem "If."
Two lines of the poem read: "If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same. . ."
"(The poem offers) perspective and that if I let anything get to my character, then I've lost," Kackert said in an interview the day before Toronto's Oct. 24 game versus Winnipeg. "I kind of had to take that in and understand that's the one thing I do have that can't be taken away."
Kackert was presented with last year's Grey Cup MVP after powering through the Calgary Stampeders defence for 133 yards on 20 carries in Toronto's 35-22 victory. He added 62 yards on eight catches out of the backfield.