In storybook end, slipper winds up on other foot

November 28, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- This was football's version, a modern sequel, to Cinderella and the storied golden slipper. Only this time the shoe was on the other foot -- of a 40-year-old veteran who has kicked more points than any man in all the history of the sport, be it in Canada or America.

The kicking deed by Lui Passaglia, with precious time running out and the ball 38 yards away, prevented the Grey Cup from going south of the border -- which would have been looked upon by the sensitive and strongly provincial Canadians as a national disgrace.

For the new Baltimore representatives to the Canadian Football League it was a painful demise to what seemed an almost fantasy-laced season of stupendous successes that put it within one play of unprecedented attainment. But the B.C. Lions and their kicking specialist for 19 years, the highly proficient Passaglia, made good when the verdict was his to be sealed and delivered.

With the ball spinning on its way through the uprights, the clock was on zero. Much of Canada went temporarily insane. British Columbia had beaten Baltimore, 26-23, in what was a gripping battle that took the Grey Cup classic to new heights and, at the same time, created an international disagreement as to the validity of a catch by wide receiver Ray Alexander.

But Baltimore's season-long Cinderella-like climb, applicable to the achievements of a fairy tale that almost came true, was destined to be bashed into the reality of a painful defeat. Coach Don Matthews said: "This hurts as badly as any game could, more than any I have been involved with."

A crowd of 55,097, seated in a dome held up by hot air in one of the most scenic cities of the world, created a din that was prompted by more than the usual emotion associated with a football game.

This was an all-out mission for Canada. It was protecting its turf, even though artificial, against the invaders from the south. Why a sporting event has to be linked with such intense nationalistic pride borders on being farcical.

But the Canadians waved their distinctive maple-leaf flag, had the same identifying mark painted on their faces and posted banners that revealed their feelings about the possibility of a team from the U.S.A. carrying off the Grey Cup, even if it was only going to be a one-year loan.

Too bad the Canadians feel that way about us. The American interest to be a part of the CFL is a compliment and they should accept it as such. It's also a stimulus for a league that had gone stagnant until a wise young commissioner, Larry Smith, devised the only plan -- U.S. expansion -- that will allow it to survive.

Such placards as "Kick Butts, Keep The Cup in Canada," "Where's Baltimore?" "No Name, No Cup," "Canada Beats The Colts," "The Grey Cup Won By Baltimore -- You Must Be Crazy" revealed the depth of the animosity.

But the best thing that could have happened would have been if the Baltimore representative had prevailed. It would have brought far more attention to the CFL than a Vancouver victory, even though this was an extraordinary performance.

The visitors from Baltimore were outplayed, had numerous chances to forge ahead and to put the game out of reach but failed. They were disturbed that a vital call went against them when Alexander went up for a pass with less than two minutes remaining and a seemingly standout defensive play by Irvin Smith was nullified.

Alexander didn't hold the ball but he was granted possession at the 37-yard line with less than two minutes remaining. An inadvertent gift? Maybe so, but Baltimore, overall, didn't deliver the kind of performance that was expected.

On the controversial reception, it allowed Vancouver to control the ball and assert its position. Even though Passaglia missed the subsequent field goal try, he got another chance, the one that ended it, after Baltimore found itself backed up at its own 2-yard line.

Punter Josh Miller, a solid weapon for Baltimore, kicked out to his own 42, but an 8-yard return put the Lions in good field location. They nudged it to the 31 on two runs and then Passaglia hit the winning thrust with a 38-yard field goal, a yard longer than the one he had missed less than a minute earlier.

About the "catch that wasn't a catch," Irvin Smith said, "I was in the act of going off the field after I broke it up and I was stunned when it was called a good reception; it was a bad, bad call."

The Baltimore dressing room was rampant with indignation. Shar Pourdanesh, the giant offensive lineman, complained bitterly. "It's difficult for me to be quiet," he said. "If they are going to sell this game in the U.S., they've got to get better officials."

But where? The officials are as competent as the players, maybe more so, and harping on their work comes off as sounding the part of a cop-out or alibi. Tracy Ham, the Baltimore QB, had good and bad moments and fumbled at the 1-yard line when a touchdown would have put Baltimore up by at least three points.

The losers had opportunities to win and complete what would have been a notable achievement but it wasn't to be. Baltimore's CFL adventure was replete with action, enthusiasm, excitement and pleasure.

It came down to the last play of the final game, the championship Grey Cup hour, for Baltimore to lose in its bid to author a chapter that had never been written before. But it wasn't to be.

There's no reason to celebrate or, by the same measure, to lament. The CFL was a momentous experience. Too bad the Canadians, with so much to be proud of, are beset by a staggering inferiority complex.

There's reason to be happy they have allowed, even though reluctantly, the opportunity for American teams to join their league. The CFL is a joy to watch, win or lose, and the natives should feel it's a compliment, not an indictment.

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