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B.C. Lions slot back Cory Rodgers (left) is brought down by Saskatchewan Roughriders' Mike McCullough in first quarter CFL action on Friday, June 13, 2008 in Regina. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Troy Fleece

Troy Fleece

Usually a time of celebration and happiness, this Grey Cup is different for Saskatchewan Roughriders linebacker Mike McCullough.

Two years ago the Roughriders were on the verge of winning the 2007 Grey Cup and McCullough's wife, Laura, was about to give birth to their second son, Joe. Cole, their first-born, was two years older and battling the effects of seizures and a type of muscular dystrophy, Duchenne's, that was expected to make him wheelchair-bound before his early teens.

Cole was three when he died in February at the family's Regina home.

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"Everything seems a little tainted," said McCullough, a seven-year veteran whose team will meet the Montreal Alouettes in Sunday's CFL championship game at McMahon Stadium.

"Nothing's as good as it should be. Grey Cup's a fun experience, but it sucks. It will never be the same again because I'll know when I go home I won't see Cole. You might see a cup, a sippee cup, or a show will come on that reminds me of him, and it creeps up on you, like a kick to the stomach."

McCullough is one of the Roughriders' most popular players. Known for his on-field intelligence and ability to instruct every member of the linebacking corps on their duties, McCullough has been an off-and-on starter who now plays in special situations and sometimes platoons with middle linebacker Rey Williams. He regularly gives the team motivational speeches, is quick with one-liners, and his lighthearted laughter can sometimes be heard coming from the linebackers' workouts.

"He's a tough man, a tough man," Riders head coach Ken Miller said. "Tough men try to hide their emotions, but certainly there are times, and I think I read people reasonably well, and I think there are times when I can see feelings of melancholy.

"I haven't talked to him about those things. Maybe I should, but we're all kind of private beings. I care, love and support him, not just in that but as a player and everything."

A product of Kingston, where he met Laura in high school, they moved to Regina after he was drafted in 2003 out of St. Francis Xavier University. Their family has since grown to include one-year-old son Wes.

They also have a daughter due in March.

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McCullough's teammates and the Roughriders' administration have been mindful of his situation and justifiably protective, but during the team's breakfast get-together with the media yesterday he was willing to talk publicly about his son and family. McCullough has been active in raising funds for Jesse's Journey, an organization dedicated to finding the cause of muscular dystrophy.

He's also been willing to make appearances for numerous other charities.

"As good a football player and friend as he is, he's a better dad," Riders centre Jeremy O'Day said. "You can't say enough good things about him.

"But you can see it all the time, that there are days something is missing from him. It's something he's always going to have with him and he knows it. You can tell when he's thinking about it, you can tell it's always on his mind. It's something you can do as a friend, but it's not something you always want to bring up. You've got to be there when he needs you or wants to talk."

McCullough wears a tattoo bearing Cole's name. Cole's full name was Bradley Cole McCullough, to honour Mike's older brother, Brad, who died five years ago at 27 from a heart problem. McCullough is committed to carrying their memories, physically and emotionally.

"This world's not fair," said McCullough, 29. "No parent should outlive a child. It's different if you lose a parent or someone older. Even if it's unexpected, it's still the natural order. This isn't the natural order of things and it's not the way the script is supposed to be written. You try to deal with it, but till the day I die, I'm sure it's not going to heal."

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