Monday, November 16, 2009

One last heave

It had all the makings of a modern day resurrection of the famed Bobby Baun story. An athlete, hampered by injury, returns to the field of play, braving the pain and sacrificing his body for one last heroic performance.

For those that don’t know, Baun was a defenceman for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1960s. In the 1964 Stanley Cup finals, Baun fearlessly blocked a Gordie Howe slap shot, breaking his ankle and requiring him to be taken off the ice on a stretcher.

Famously though, in what is widely considered one of the most heroic moments in sports history, Baun returned to the ice in that same game, aided only by ankle tape and painkillers. Baun scored the game-winning overtime goal that night, giving the Leafs a Game 6 victory over the Detroit Red Wings, en route to their third consecutive Stanley Cup win. It was the kind of story that lives on for generations.

Fast-forward 45 years to the Yates Cup, the Ontario University football championship game played on Saturday between the Western Mustangs and Queen’s Gaels. The game featured two of the most prolific quarterbacks in CIS history with the Mustangs’ Michael Faulds and the Gaels’ Danny Brannagan going head to head.

Late in the fourth quarter, with Western trailing 43-39, Faulds, the nation’s all-time passing leader, got his team on the move, having already thrown for over 500 yards in the game. After an incomplete pass on first down at the Gaels’ 25-yardline, Western fans gaped with fear. Faulds was down. His wonky knee had given out.

Faulds had to be helped to the sideline by his teammates, virtually unable to walk. It was hard to tell if the pain on his face was because of his knee, or because he could no longer help his team win.

With Faulds on the sideline, backup quarterback Donnie Marshall was in for four plays and struggled to take the Mustangs any further. Meanwhile, Faulds watched in agony on the sidelines, wondering if his record-setting career would really end like this.

Faulds pleaded with his head coach, Greg Marshall, begging for just one more chance to go back in. Marshall appeared reluctant to risk further injury.

Down to their last chance, needing to score on a 3rd-and-20 play with just 17 seconds left, Marshall caved and out trotted Michael Faulds. Except Michael Faulds didn’t jog out to the huddle. He limped.

Unable to put virtually any weight on his left knee, the Mustangs leader could barely stand. Watching the game on television, the stories I’d heard about Baun raced through my head and a lump formed in my throat. This was truly sports heroism at its finest.

As Faulds took the snap, he tried to go into his usual five-step drop into the pocket. The Gaels’ pass rush burst through the line and got a hold of Faulds’ leg. With a desperate heave, Faulds fearlessly threw the ball downfield, barely out of reach of wide receiver Zach Bull. The game was over. Western was defeated. Michael Faulds had replayed the football version of the Bobby Baun story, and the only thing missing was the happy ending.

As a tireless Gryphon supporter, I felt strange cheering for Michael Faulds on Saturday. I’ve cheered against him for five years when the Mustangs visited Alumni Stadium to take on the Gryphs. But for this brief moment in time, he had my support. For all things that are good in sports, I wanted him to succeed. I wanted that happy ending, but it just wasn’t meant to be.

In future years, people will look at this game and may only remember it for the fact that it was the Gaels’ first Yates Cup victory in 31 years. With all due respect to Queen’s, however, this game belonged to Michael Faulds – Mustang quarterback and a gridiron warrior.

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