A guy doesn't back up Buck Pierce without understanding the importance of being the Winnipeg Blue Bombers' No. 2 quarterback as the team seeks to end a 21-year Grey Cup drought on Sunday.
But what does it say that Alex Brink stood on field at B.C. Place Stadium on Friday and, a little more than 48 hours away from the big game, name-dropped Ryan Dinwiddie, without prompting. Sammy Garza? Danny McManus? John Hufnagel and Jim Van Pelt? Brink didn't know from them. "But, I know about the Dinwiddie one," the 26-year-old Washington State product said.
Now, it's up to Blue Bombers fans to read something into the fact Brink knows all about "the Dinwiddie one," but for many it will be with a knowing nod and wink. An 'our secret' kind of thing, among those with an, um, appreciation for the role the backup QB has played in the Bombers sometimes tortured history – not to mention Pierce's spirit-willing and body-failing track record.
It is true that recent memories of Bombers backups doing their thing on the big stage aren't good. Dinwiddie lost the 2007 Grey Cup 23-19, pushed into the spotlight when Kevin Glenn broke his arm in the East final. It was the last time the Bombers made the Grey Cup and extended their winless streak to four. Garza, the son-in-law of then head coach and general manager Cal Murphy, who was dubbed Slingin' Sammy Son-In-Law, lost the 1993 Grey Cup after Matt Dunigan blew out his Achilles tendon late in the season.
But fear not, Bombers fans, if you see Brink's reddish, scraggly beard suddenly hidden behind a face-mask at some point on Sunday. In the two biggest drought-busting games in Bombers history, backup QBs played crucial roles. When the Bombers ended an 18-year Grey Cup drought in 1958, it was with Jim Van Pelt running the team in a 35-28 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
A former quarterback at Michigan who came north as a defensive halfback and placekicker, Van Pelt set the single-game Grey Cup scoring record with 22 points, on two touchdowns, two field goals and four converts. Ploen hurt his shoulder during the season, and played in the game as wide receiver, combining with his replacement on a trick play. Fast forward to 1984, when the Bombers beat the Tiger-Cats 47-18 in bitterly cold conditions at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium for their first Grey Cup win since 1962 and Hufnagel was called on to bail out Tom Clements, who in addition to playing with a punctured lung lost a contact lens on a short run in a 14-0 game that was spiralling out of control for the Bombers. While a frantic sideline search for a replacement lens and an equally frantic attempt at putting in the lens with a cold wind howling, Hufnagel – now the Calgary Stampeders head coach – coolly put the team in field goal range, and restored a sense of order.
So kudos to Blue Bombers head coach Paul LaPolice for channelling Brian Burke on Friday when he told a news conference that while the Bombers were aware of their history, this current group of players "cannot be held accountable," for the entire 21-year drought. They have enough on their plate, facing the quarterback across the field, Travis Lulay of the B.C. Lions, who is the league's newly minted most outstanding player.
LaPolice's counterpart with the Lions, Wally Buono, takes offence to the suggestion that the CFL is little more than a gridiron green box, a QB recycling program.
"It's the pressure to win that has created an issue, not the supply of quarterbacks," said Buono, who in fact cut Pierce in 2009. "If I wasn't who I was or didn't have the résumé I had I wouldn't have survived in this job in 2010 – and I'm not sure that means Travis would have received his chance."
Brink is a fourth-year pro and is one of many Bombers who will have memories of former assistant coach Richard Harris in their heart on Sunday. Harris was the Bombers' assistant head coach and defensive line coach who died of cardiac arrest earlier this season. It was Harris who called Brink into his office after Joey Elliot, then the Bombers' No. 2 pivot, was hurt and told the third-stringer: "Look, you struggled in your rookie year but you're going to get your opportunity and you're going to be great. I just know that." Four days after Harris died, Brink came off the bench and threw a 22-yard, fourth-quarter TD pass to beat the Lions.
"It was like he was looking down from heaven," Brink said.
It sure seems that the CFL badly needs a transfusion of star-power at the pivot position. But Bombers fans will let others worry about those bigger, weightier issues. Right now, they are quietly preparing to see Brink – all 140 pass attempts and six touchdown passes – on the field this Sunday, less with a sense of doom than an appreciation of history.