When he was younger and making a splash as one of the Canadian Football League's more dynamic quarterbacks, the losses and the mistakes would eat at Tracy Ham.
How much has he grown up over his productive, nine-year career? When he played in his first Grey Cup in 1990 with the Edmonton Eskimos, Ham remembers being crushed by the defeat, a feeling he had trouble shaking long after the final gun sounded.
Ham recalled a similar feeling in the aftermath of last year's Grey Cup. He played his worst game of an otherwise fine 1994 season with Baltimore, throwing two interceptions and losing a critical fumble, all of which contributed to British Columbia's last-second 26-23 victory. This time, the post-game emotions did not linger as long.
"I was very disappointed after the game in myself and for the fans in this city," Ham said. "Then, I went back to my room and picked up my son, and he didn't even know a game had been going on. All he knew was Daddy was back. Those things really put football in perspective.
"I've learned how to handle winning and losing better," he added. "If you take losing to an extreme, that means football is in control of your life. It's very important that I play as hard as I can play, but football does not control my life."
But don't think Ham, 31, is not burning for the chance at Grey Cup redemption. When the Stallions take the field at Memorial Stadium for Sunday's Southern Division final against the San Antonio Texans, Ham will be one victory away from his third Grey Cup.
Ham, 5 feet 11, 200 pounds, has reached this point with the same weapons he has used to become one of the top quarterbacks in CFL history. The right arm that has enabled him to throw for 29,092 yards and 201 touchdowns, ninth- and fifth-best in league history, is not as strong as it used to be. Neither are the legs that have helped Ham rush for 6,266 yards, No. 2 in the CFL record books.
But the ability to make a big play at a crucial time is a knack Ham retains. Like the game-winning, 45-yard scramble for a touchdown last month in Saskatchewan to avert an upset. Or the two fourth-quarter touchdown passes he threw to lead the Stallions to a come-from-behind victory over Birmingham in September.
More than anything, Ham's 1995 season has been a study in restraint. The CFL is unquestionably a passing league, but Ham has turned that trend on its ear this year.
His regular-season numbers were solid -- a career-best 58.7 percent completion rate, 3,357 yards, 21 touchdowns, only 14 interceptions in 395 attempts -- although Baltimore finished with the league's lowest-ranked passing game. That's because the Stallions boast the CFL's top ground attack and rushing champion Mike Pringle (1,791 yards), the guy Ham has handed the ball to for much of the past two years. Ham calls his own plays.
"Mike Pringle wouldn't have as many yards without Tracy handing the ball to him. He's unselfish enough to do that," Baltimore coach Don Matthews said. "Tracy understands what it takes to win a game. A lot of things he does to help you win are not in the stats."
Ham was sacked 51 times during the regular season, and at times has been booed for eating the ball. Ham's answer: Why take a chance when you've got a punter like Josh Miller to take care of the field position for you?
"There's too much talent on this team for me to try being the hero. At certain times, I've had to step up," Ham said. "It's a matter of maintaining your composure. If you think a mistake is going to rattle me, you're mistaken."
The same goes for injuries. Quibble about his decision-making, but it's pointless to question Ham's toughness. Not after the injuries he has played through during his two years with Baltimore.
This season, Ham suffered two concussions and injuries to his ribs, ankle and foot, but has yet to miss a game.
His season nearly ended during the Stallions' three-game, nine-day road trip three months ago. He could barely walk after Baltimore's 19-12 victory over Edmonton. Four days later, Matthews started backup Shawn Jones against then-unbeaten Calgary. After Jones struggled early, Matthews turned to Ham. He could not prevent a 29-15 loss, but his performance earned Ham the added respect of his teammates.
"It's hard to have respect for a quarterback who goes down with a little dink, but Tracy's not a lay-down type of guy. He's going to get up and keep playing," offensive lineman Mike Withycombe said. "I like playing with him. He's a cool customer. If things aren't happening, he settles us down. He helps us find our groove."
Ham said he learned about toughness while leading Georgia Southern to Division I-AA championships in 1985 and 1986. He remains the only player in college football history to top 3,000 yards rushing and 5,000 yards passing.
"The old option mentality, getting hit on every play," Ham said. "When they put me on the shelf, they have to take the pads off to keep me on the shelf."
Ham wonders when it will be time to put himself on the shelf. He said when the injuries become unbearable, and the thought of training camp and, above all, winning a Grey Cup, doesn't excite him anymore, he'll walk away from the game. But don't expect that hunger to subside anytime soon.
"I'm the healthiest this late in the season than I've ever been, and I'm still having too much fun," Ham said. "Once you lose the desire to be a champion, you lose the desire to be a professional athlete."