A year ago, John White was standing on the sidelines watching his Edmonton Eskimos teammates head out on the road to the Grey Cup, frustrated and maybe just a little worried about his future in football.
Today, he is being hailed as the main reason the Eskimos still have a shot at defending the Grey Cup.
The Edmonton running back rushed for 160 yards, scored two touchdowns and basically helped drive the nail into the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ coffin as the Eskimos squeaked out a 24-21 victory at Tim Hortons Field in the CFL East semifinal.
While it could easily be argued that the Ticats were holding the hammer themselves when that nail was being driven, there’s no denying that White was the key to Edmonton’s victory.
“He was phenomenal,” said Edmonton quarterback Mike Reilly. “He did exactly what we needed him to do.
“When it comes to November if you’ve got a good ground game going, you’ve got a chance to be successful. Credit to him and our offensive line.”
On a day when those November winds were howling downfield, White was exactly what the Eskimos needed.
He reeled off run after run against a Hamilton defence that managed to contain him only in the third quarter. And when they needed most to stop him, White came through — even when he had a bit of a scare.
With the score tied 21-21 and the clock ticking toward overtime, Edmonton caught a big break when Hamilton quarterback Zach Collaros was intercepted at his own 20.
Hamilton linebacker Jermaine Robinson hit White five yards behind the line of scrimmage on the next play and forced a fumble.
But White got it back and sealed the deal by taking the next handoff and running 23 yards to the Hamilton 2. Two plays later, Sean Whyte kicked a 9-yard gimme field goal for the win that will set up a Grey Cup rematch in next Sunday’s CFL East final in Ottawa.
White’s performance was enough to erase a year of frustration that started when he ruptured his Achilles tendon during the 2015 training camp. He spent the entire year rehabbing the injury and didn’t quite look like himself when he came back last June.
“Early in training camp, he wasn’t our best back,” admitted Edmonton head coach Jason Maas. “In the course of the first seven games, he wasn’t the back I’d seen two years ago.”
But White improved and turned the corner late in the season. Got better, then turned it around late in the year, running for 100 yards the last time the two teams met.
White, who said he never gave up hope, called Sunday’s win “emotional.”
“There was one dark day and that was the day I got the injury and after that I knew I was a strong guy and I could overcome that,” he said.
Sunday’s performance was almost not to be. He dislocated a finger in the pre-game warmup and it looked like he might have to take a back seat to Shakir Bell.
“They reset it and I was good to go,” he said.
As much as White dominated the game, the fact is that the Ticats could easily have put him in the “great game in a losing cause” category.
Hamilton showed why it lost five of its last six regular-season games and are now on a five-game home losing streak. The game was theirs had it not been for several blown chances, a missed field goal and a missed convert.
“All those plays matter,” said Hamilton head coach Kent Austin, noting that in a close game the decision comes down to seven or eight key plays.
“Who made most of those plays?” he asked.
The answer was Edmonton, or at least not the TIcats.
They failed on a solid opening drive on a third-and-one gamble. Collaros overthrew an open receiver in the end zone.
The most painful came after Terrell Davis blocked a punt at Edmonton’s 27 in the second quarter. Brian Tyms dropped a catchable pass in the end zone before kicker Brett Maher missed a 35-yard field goal.
Maher later went wide on a convert attempt.
They did make some plays, rallying from a 15-point halftime deficit and tying the game with just over four minutes to play.
But the most painful failure came when Collaros, facing second and 14 with little over a minute remaining, tossed an interception deep in his own end. Kenny Ladler made the pick, but your grandmother likely could have made this one.
“I just made a bad pass,” Collaros said.
Of the seven or eight key plays Austin referred to, that was the one that made White’s day more than a footnote.