HAMILTON — Zach Collaros was holding back tears and barely able to speak above a whisper.
Brady Oliveira tried to give his thoughts, but couldn’t do it, instead beginning to sob uncontrollably.
The heartbreak was just too much after the Winnipeg Blue Bombers lost the Grey Cup for the second year in a row, this time to the underdog Montreal Alouettes in front of 28,808 fans at Tim Hortons Field on Sunday.
The Alouettes scored a touchdown with just 13 seconds left in the fourth quarter to beat the Bombers 28-24 in stunning fashion.
“Just sad, disappointed,” said Collaros, whose team went 14-4 in the regular season but ended on a loss, just as it did in the 2022 Grey Cup against the underdog Toronto Argonauts.
“You play to win the game, you play to win the last one, and we came up short. Montreal, as a team, played better than us. I’m really sad cause there’s a lot of good guys in the locker room and you don’t want to let people down. It’s terrible.”
For all their greatness over the last five years, the Bombers will still be left to wonder what might have been.
Winnipeg has played in four straight CFL championships game — a great feat in itself — but they’ve only won half them and on Sunday, they had to watch as another team hoisted the Cup, standing in the flying confetti and screamed joyously into microphones on the CFL’s most important stage.
Had the Bombers won, many people would have described this franchise as a dynasty. Four Grey Cup appearances, two wins, and a 48-12 record, including regular season and playoffs, since 2019 still sounds pretty good in the big picture, but does nothing to ease the crushing disappointment right now.
“I feel like it’s all a waste,” said Oliveira, when he was finally able to compose himself.
He was the CFL’s rushing leader and Most Outstanding Canadian this season, but those meant nothing to him in the moment.
“My season that I had this year, it’s a waste,” he said. “I didn’t accomplish what I wanted to accomplish. I didn’t have any individual goals set. I want to help my team, help my city win a championship, and we didn’t get it done.”
The Alouettes got a game-winning touchdown from Canadian receiver Tyson Philpot with 13 seconds left in the fourth quarter to steal the game from the Bombers, who were one play away from winning, but couldn’t get a stop on third down on the final drive.
The Bombers were eight-point favourites in Sunday’s game, but it was always evident that they were in for a tough game against a ferocious Montreal defence.
Indeed the Alouettes forced two turnovers when Winnipeg was in the red zone and quarterback Cody Fajardo had the game of his life, completing 21 of 26 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns, with just one interception.
He led the Alouettes 78 yards down the field in the final two minutes to give his team the win. The key plays were a 13-yard Fajardo run on second-and-18, and a 31-yard pass to Cody Spieker on third-and-five. With the Bombers needing to make just one play to win, Fajardo showed strong scrambling ability and then threw a great pass that capped the drive and put his team ahead.
He threw the game-winning pass to Philpot and almost couldn’t believe it when the clock hit zero and he became a Grey Cup champion.
“I’m just so proud of this team, so proud of the guys,” said Fajardo, who also hit Spieker and Austin Mack for touchdowns.
“The biggest thing tonight was everybody, all year long, talked about our offensive line and they played incredible tonight. They stopped two of the best pass rushers in the league.
“Everyone wanted to talk about how bad our receivers were going into this year. After tonight you’re going to remember those guys because they truly played out of their minds and I wouldn’t want to be a quarterback for any other team.”
Fajardo outplayed Collaros to win his first Grey Cup as a starting quarterback, a great story of redemption for a player who was essentially dumped by the Saskatchewan Roughriders before last season even ended.
Fajardo was on the losing end of West finals against the Bombers in 2019 and 2021 and he finally broke through the heartbreak with the Alouettes, a team he joined as a free agent this past off-season.
“It’s just one of those things that felt like a movie,” Fajardo said.
“When I took the field, I thought about those two times, and I thought ‘This time’s got to be the charm,” Fajardo said. “When I think back to 2019, hitting the crossbar, to 2021 having a pass broken up right at the end. I just kept telling myself ‘Third time’s a charm, third time’s a charm,’ and all of a sudden we were champions.”
Fajardo was named the Most Outstanding Player in the Grey Cup, while Philpot took Most Outstanding Canadian honours. Philpot caught six passes for 63 yards, and also had 63 return yards, while Mack caught six passes for 103 yards.
Fajardo’s solid play complemented the bone-jarring performance of the defence, which punished the Bombers on virtually every play, drawing collective gasps from the crowd.
Defensive back Kabion Ento forced a red zone fumble and picked off Winnipeg quarterback Zach Collaros in the end zone.
“I had a turnover in the red zone, we turned the ball over earlier in the game and there there were things that were left out there that we could have executed better,” Collaros said. “I don’t want to take anything away from Montreal. They played better and they deserved the win.”
Collaros finished with 226 passing yards, no touchdowns and threw the one interception.
Winnipeggers Oliveira and Nic Demski did everything they could to put the Bombers on top, with the former rushing for 119 yards and a touchdown, and the latter catching eight passes for 74 yards. Winnipegger Mike Benson, the Bombers’ long-snapper, also had a fumble recovery.
Short-yardage quarterback Dakota Prukop scored two touchdowns for Winnipeg, one with 5:31 left to put his team ahead 24-21, and Sergio Castillo kicked a 25-yard field goals.
Winnipeg forced three turnovers, including one on special teams as Benson recovered a fumble forced by Brandon Alexander, one on an interception, as Evan Holm picked off Fajardo on a long pass attempt to Mack, and one on downs, as the Bombers stuffed the Alouettes on the Winnipeg one-yard line late in the first half.
The Bombers lost despite surprisingly having stars Adam Bighill and Dalton Schoen in the lineup. Schoen played despite not practicing since injuring his ankle on Oct. 6, while Bighill tried to play through a torn calf that he suffered during a Western Final win over the B.C. Lions.
“Early in the week, I didn’t even pack a bag,” Bighill said. “(Equipment manager Brad) Fotty packed a bag for me. I didn’t really give myself much chance of playing, but it was as pretty miraculous week.”
It wasn’t the dream ending everyone wanted though.
“It’s like a kick in the gut,” Bighill said. “It’s not the way it’s supposed to happen. We just didn’t make enough plays tonight. You get here, all the hard work is for this moment, and it sucks when it doesn’t go your way.”
Schoen managed to make three catches for 36 yards even though he clearly wasn’t close to 100%.
“It’s frustrating when it’s the most important game of my career and I wasn’t able to practice for the last few weeks,” Schoen said. “I was super grateful for the opportunity to play. Our training staff did an incredible job of getting me ready to get out on the field and thanks to (head coach Mike O’Shea) for giving me a chance. It means the world. I don’t know many coaches out there that would be OK with a player not practising for six weeks and then throwing him into a championship game. But he believes in us.”
Schoen has played two seasons in Winnipeg and has been one of the best players in the CFL, but he’s now suffered losses in both his Grey Cup appearances.
“It’s pain,” he said. “And it doesn’t get easier. We obviously had this last year and it hurts just as bad now. Watching another team celebrate, it hurts.”
Though the Bombers moved the ball well early, they were not able to do much in the second half.
Fittingly for such a close game that featured two late scores, the Bombers had 368 yards of offence, the Alouettes 373.
In those situations, it’s always going to come down to a few plays and the Alouettes made more on this night.
“For them, the touchdown at the beginning of the second half and the touchdown at the end of the second half, those were the two plays that won them the game,” Bombers defensive end Willie Jefferson said. “You’ve got to give credit where credit is due.
“We’ve got to be better on defence. We had opportunities to finish the game on defence, give our offence a chance to kneel out the win, in that last minute that we were on the field. We just couldn’t make plays, couldn’t get off the field.”
So instead of having a parade for the third time in four years, the Bombers will clean out their lockers this week and ponder just how great this era of Winnipeg football might have been.