REGINA — With 11 years between Grey Cup appearances, Toronto Argonauts linebacker Henoc Muamba isn't taking anything for granted as he heads into the CFL championship game on Sunday.
Muamba is in his 11th season of professional football, 10 in the CFL with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Montreal Alouettes, Saskatchewan Roughriders and Argos and one with the NFL's Indianapolis Colts. The first overall selection in the 2011 CFL draft by the Alouettes, Muamba's rookie season included a trip to the Grey Cup where the B.C. Lions defeated Montreal 34-23.
With the optimism of youth, Muamba felt playing in the Grey Cup would be a regular occurrence in his career. The sobering reality of pro football was much different.
"I told myself after the (2011 Grey Cup) game that I can really do this over and over again. And after my first season, as especially when we got to the Grey Cup, I told myself that I can do this and especially coming back to the Grey Cup, it's going to happen every year," said Muamba. "You start to expect it and think it's going to happen every year, but it's not the case. That speaks to the level of competition in this league and speaks to the way that you have to achieve greatness in order to be in that game."
The six foot, 230-pound Muamba is trying to stay in the moment and focus on the game but he also recognizes the uniqueness of the Grey Cup game. He's soaking in all that makes the game great.
"It's unique in the sense that there's no other week that's like this in a football season. This is the biggest game, it's the biggest stage at this level. You've got to enjoy it," said Muamba. "The thing that's special and that's unique for me is that it's not promised. Eleven years ago was the last time I was at this game . . . For me, there's no other week that's comparable to this so you enjoy it."
Despite winning the East Division with an 11-7-0 record, the Argos enter Sunday’s game as the underdog to the two-time defending Grey Cup champion Bombers, who topped the West Division with a 15-3-0 mark.
The teams met once in the regular season with the Bombers edging the Argos 23-22 on July 4 in Toronto. The Argos limited the Bombers to 275 yards of total offence while Toronto totalled 426 yards of total offence, including 314 passing yards from quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson.
Muamba believes that game indicates the Argos are capable of beating the Bombers.
"We have a lot of confidence in ourselves, we know what we are capable of. We did have some highs and some lows (in the regular season) and that was one of the games where we felt like we should have won. We were really close to winning," Muamba said. "I was just watching the game last night with coach (Kevin) Eiben and coach (Corey) Mace and we were impressed with the level of physicality that we showed on the field in that week. We know that if we can duplicate that on Sunday, it will give us such a good chance."
The Argos will be without linebacker Wynton McManis who suffered a torn bicep in the East Division final on Nov. 13 against the Alouettes. McManis, Toronto's nominee for most outstanding defensive player, had just returned to the lineup after missing four weeks because of a knee injury against the Calgary Stampeders on Oct. 1.
McManis led the Argos with 88 tackles in the regular season and Muamba realizes it will be a challenge to replace him Sunday.
"It's impossible to replace Wynton, not just with the play that he has that he brings to the field, but the type of energy and how he transforms a room and the atmosphere and how he affects it. It's impossible to replace him but we have guys that are behind him that are extremely capable by committee. I think that they'll do a really good job," said Muamba. "We've got guys that are ready, they've been paid a lot of attention and this is their moment. I'm excited for them."
Playing in their third straight Grey Cup game, the Bombers have an edge in experience over the Argos. The Winnipeg roster includes a total of 68 Grey Cup game appearances while the Toronto lineup has just 24 Grey Cup game appearances.
Veterans like Muamba, Ja’Gared Davis, Brandon Banks and Bethel-Thompson have spent the past week stressing to their teammates to stay in the moment and remained focused on the game.
Argos head coach Ryan Dinwiddie has been downplaying the enormity of the game, instead characterizing to his squad as just another game.
"What we've been saying all week is you don't have to win the Grey Cup, you just have to win the game and they hand you the Grey Cup," said Dinwiddie. "That’s our focus, to win a game . . . I think the guys are loose, they're comfortable in the environment and I think they're ready for the stage."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2022.
Jeff DeDekker, The Canadian Press