January 23, 2018

Kid from Cochrane stood test of time

Rob Cote led the team out on Nov. 3, 2017 - his last regular-season game at McMahon (Photo by David Moll)

Oddly, the kid from Cochrane’s launch-pad as a Calgary Stampeder began, of all places, in Houston, Tex.

“They flew me down to a mini-camp,’’ Rob Cote, who announced his retirement Tuesday morning at McMahon Stadium, reminisced.

“I remember that vividly.

“I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why I was doing all this … flying to work out for a team based, y’know, here. I was attending U of C at the time and wondering: ‘Well, why don’t I just park in the usual lot and walk across the street to McMahon if they want to take a look at me?’

“I was a junior kid. My only goal was to not be the worst guy out there. I didn’t want to embarrass myself. So I’d trained my butt off.

“Anyway, I get down to Houston, to this high school – can’t remember the name – and after Day One, I was like: ‘Know what? That was all right. I wasn’t too bad. I didn’t embarrass myself.’

“After Day Two: ‘Okay, I’m holding my own here …’

“After Day Three, the end of the weekend, I’m thinking: ‘Hey, I can play with these guys!’ I wasn’t the best guy out there but I wasn’t the worst, either.

“That was a pretty cool moment, to feel like: ‘Let’s get to work and really chase this thing.’ ”

Photo by David Moll

Eleven seasons, two Grey Cup titles and 179 games later, the chase has ended for Cote.

Unsurprisingly, given the post-Grey Cup flares he was sending up.

Still, today does actually represent that most overused of sports cliches: The end of an era.

Rarely the headliner, invariably the advance man for glamour-pusses the profile of Joffrey Reynolds, Jon Cornish and Jerome Messam, Cote nonetheless carved out a unique niche for himself in an organization, and a city.

He exits the longest-serving current Stampeder.

The plan all along, he can reveal now, was to move on at season’s close.

“Something very dramatic,’’ he adds, “would’ve had to change for me to continue.”

In retrospect, from the outside looking in, that something very dramatic did, in fact, happen. The gut-wrenching 27-24 Grey Cup loss to the Argos in Ottawa. So, in sifting through his ambitions and emotions, did the thought of one more crack at adding a third ring to the collection exert any unexpected pull?

Cote hoists the 2014 Grey Cup (Photo by David Moll)

“If we’d won last year (2016), I wouldn’t have come back,’’ is the honest reply. “After falling short this year, again under difficult circumstances, there’s about 10% of you saying: ‘We’ve got a good team, let’s take another swing at this …’ and 90% of you saying: ‘That’s what you did last year, dummy.’

“There are no guarantees in sports.

“If I’m being totally honest, it’s the 18 regular-season games that convinced me. If I could just suit up for playoffs, I could do another 10 years. Easy.

“It’s when you’re in the dog-days, the middle of the season, Game 10 or 11. I’m kinda looking around at the young guys, and this is what they’re living for. This game. This next game. Not last week. Not next week. Not the playoffs. This game.

“I still had the passion, still gave it my all every time I stepped on the field, but that was kind of a sign to me: It’s for these guys now.

“You’re not meant to play this game forever.”

Upon reflection, and he’s had plenty of time for that, an easy high-water mark to single out would be 2014, drifting ever-so-slightly into ’15.

In 2014, he and Natalie were married. In 2014, he won both the Presidents’ Ring and the Herm Harrison Memorial Award. In 2014, he and the Stamps outlasted Hamilton 20-16 in the Grey Cup game. Then, five months into 2015, he and his wife welcomed son Miller to the family.

“The joke was: ‘It only goes downhill from here. We have reached the top’,’’ says Cote. “Pretty spectacular run of good things, right?

“But looking back, winning the 2012 West final in B.C. Place ranks high. We were not the best team in the league. We were certainly the underdog in that game. We’d won it all in ’08 and then lost three years in a row. It seemed we’d reached a peak, then heart-breaking loss after heart-breaking loss. Then Drew Tate throws that pass in the semi against Saskatchewan and we follow it up by beating the defending champs right in B.C. Place.

“I remember talking with Brad Sinopoli in the airport after that game and telling him: ‘This is one of the happiest moments of my life.’ Just … happy. Pure … happy. The birth of a child is a wondrous thing, but it isn’t just happy, it’s complex. There’s worry. There’s wonder.

“This was just just unadulterated joy.

“Then the last game at McMahon, the West final this year, knowing it would be my last game playing in that stadium. I had tears in my eyes, let me tell you.”

Cote and his son, Miller, after the 2016 Western Final (Photo by David Moll)

Asked for a proudest accomplishment over his time wearing No. 26, Cote says:

“If I had to choose one, it would be the impact football has allowed me to give and receive from the community of Calgary and area.

“I’m just a guy. Then you throw on this jersey and people care what I have to say. This jersey allows me to go out and help really, really cool charitable causes that not everybody gets to, and I wouldn’t have been able to without playing football.

“That struck me early, when people were happy that I was at different places, different functions, and I’m like: ‘Well, I’m happy that you’re happy …’

“After 11 years of doing it, I like to think I’ve got a little piece of the city in me and I’ve given a little piece of myself to the city.”

No need to fret on that score.

Those 179 starts tie Cote for eighth all-time among Stamps, alongside Nik Lewis (“Couldn’t get past Nik,’’ he teases, “but I did get the one to pass Chevy (Randy Chevrier). He’s still at 178”).

The four Grey Cup appearances. Those two wins. A playoff team every year of his tenure. The good, solid play on the field. The good, solid citizenship off it.

“It’s all more,’’ is his frank admission, “than I ever could’ve dreamed of.”

Certainly not all those years ago, at some long-forgotten Houston high school, when a kid from Cochrane’s goal was nothing grander than simply trying not to be the worst guy out there.