TORONTO—Keon Raymond has been one of the most crucial defensive players for the Calgary Stampeders this year, doing a little bit of everything from his hybrid linebacker/defensive back role, but it was a play he made in adverse conditions that really stood out. In the famed Snow Bowl II game against Hamilton in October, Raymond picked off a pass from former teammate and current Tiger-Cats' quarterback Henry Burris and returned it 100 yards for what proved to be a crucial touchdown. He said the play was memorable for him because it came against a friend and neighbour in Burris, but also because it illustrated the Stampeders' cohesion as a team, which has been crucial to their run to Sunday's Grey Cup game.
"That was definitely fitting because it was against one of my neighbours, Henry Burris, so I've got some bragging rights during the offseason against him," Raymond said this week. "It was definitely good, but it was my teammates on the field who made some key blocks to spring me. To sit here and say I ran all by myself, man, those guys did a heck of a job. You've got Quincy Butler, who was fighting off Chris Williams and Chevon Walker as I was running down the sidelines. But that's the kind of team we've been all year. We fight for each other week-in and week-out, and it showed. That's why we're here."
Raymond is from St. Louis, Missouri and went to college at Middle Tennessee State, so he hadn't had to play in the snow before coming to the CFL. Even though he arrived in Calgary in 2008, that snow game still marked a first for him.
"That was my first snow game I've ever played in, so it was kind of fun," he said. "You tackle a guy, you just slide in, there's a lot of stuff going on. Probably when I tell that story to my kids or my grandkids, there's probably going to be seven feet of snow, you know, 'There was a blizzard going on, you couldn't see the guy in front of you.' But it was definitely fun. It showed a lot about Canada and how the league is."
In a lot of ways, that game served as a microcosm of the Stampeders' season. Plenty of things went wrong for them, including four Kevin Glenn interceptions and three fumbles from Glenn, Romby Bryant and Bo Levi Mitchell, but they still managed to pull out a victory. Similarly, there have been plenty of people questioning about them all season, especially with Drew Tate's injury and Glenn being tabbed in relief. Mitchell said that team cohesion they showed in the snow has enabled them to persevere despite external doubts, though.
"A lot of teams, they go around and they counted us out," he said. "I felt like we had earned the right to be here, and I think we have."
In fact, Raymond feels it should be the Argonauts facing more questions this week.
"I think a lot of the pressure this week is on the home team," he said. "This is their home game, this is their new quarterback, their new coach...there's a lot riding [on this] for them right now, there's a lot of pressure going on. I think the majority of the pressure's on them. We're going to come out and we're just going to play football, hard-nosed football."
He said he's optimistic about the matchups despite Toronto's talent, including star quarterback Ricky Ray.
"I think we match up well with them," Raymond said. "They have a few pretty explosive guys on their team and their quarterback with his experience, he's been in this game before. Defensively they've got some guys who can run around and play, but with us as well, we're going to run around and play defensively."
Raymond's faced Ray plenty of times before while Ray was with the rival Edmonton Eskimos. He said Ray's motion is still the same, but his offence is a bit different.
"He still has the same kind of mechanics as a quarterback," Raymond said. "I think one of the biggest thing with him now the offence he's in, it's a quick-stretch offence that will allow him to get the ball out a lot faster, but with that being said, we've just got to be sure we play our game. We've got to earn everything and not give them anything and I think we'll be okay."
It would be easy for some to count the Stampeders out. A team playing its backup quarterback, a team that's turned the ball over frequently, a team that has to face an opponent on its own turf, and a team going up against one of the league's greatest quarterbacks in Ray and one of its most explosive players in Chad Owens? That all bodes against them. Then again, they've come through tough situations before, and that Snow Bowl saw them win despite seven turnovers. Raymond said being written off only inspires Calgary even more.
"We've got a good opportunity that's presented itself, because a lot of people didn't pick us to be here," he said. "It's a journey and I think the guys are enjoying this journey. The destiny and the history only begins to be written right now."