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June 9, 2019

PLENTY LEFT IN THE TANK

Being a 2008 model, there are naturally plenty of clicks on the ol’ odometer. The chassis has seen it’s share of dents and scratches. Tires are a bit worn. Been in the shop a few times.

The engine, though, man, still runs like a top, purrs like a kitten savouring a fluffy catnip toy.

“We all know there’s an expiration date on football,’’ Brandon Smith isn’t too sensitive to acknowledge, less than a week away from the beginning of his 12th season modelling the red-and-white of the Calgary Stampeders.

“As you get closer to that expiration date, you say to yourself: ‘Let me enjoy every bit of this.’ I still do the full experience at camp, staying at the dorm with the new guys in town or the ones who don’t have a place yet. Here early, leave late.

“Take it all in.

“That way when it’s all said and done, there are no regrets. You appreciate everything.

“You don’t want to leave anything undone.

“It’s like that great car you take out for a test-drive, right? And you floored it. You left the gas tank empty.

“I’ve been test-driving this career a long time now.

“But it still runs good.

“Got plenty of life, still. But when it’s over, I want to make sure there isn’t a drop of fuel left.”

Over the passings of the seasons, naturally, Smith has witnessed his share of change, upheaval and success out at McMahon Stadium.

One of only three men to collect three Grey Cup rings as a Stampeder, joining middle linebacker Alondra Johnson and placekicker Mark McLoughlin, Smith, a shade over two months shy of of his 35th birthday, hungers for more.

“I’ve always been self-motivated,’’ he explains, as if that were the most natural, simple thing in the world. “Certain things drive certain people.

“Whatever I’m doing, I’m fully committed. Fully invested. Whether it’s football, whether its accounting work in the off-season, whether it’s training.

“Whether it’s dominoes.”

Especially, it seems, dominoes.

A disgusted waves of hand indicates a short felt-marker-drawn list boxed off on the upper left hand corner of a large white board in the players lounge, located right beside the mounted TV.

“Look up there,’’ Smith sighs. “Me and Bo, we’re together at four. Tied for the lead. That’s the dominoes tally board.

“The last couple years, I’ve been on top. Now I’m tied with Bo.

“I know it’s early but that does not sit well with me. I’m playing to win.

“That’s my competitive nature. I want to be the best at whatever I do. I don’t want to leave a doubt.”

When he arrived to unpack his bags 11 years ago in the late spring of 2008, an unknown quantity late of the Arena League San Jose SaberCats, Smilin’ Hank Burris was still the chucker of choice hereabouts, Nick, Ken-Yon and Cope led the receiving conga line, Juwan Simpson manned the middle of the defensive resistance and a familiar face, John Hufnagel, had just gotten back into town, starting his first year at the head-coaching helm.

Each season, of course, brings its set of unique, fresh challenges.

The opening-day roster now set, the defence dotted with getting-to-know-you faces, plenty of question marks surrounding the reigning champs remain with the Ottawa Redblacks arriving for opening-day Grey Cup rematch on Saturday at McMahon.

Smith, who plans on rolling back the years, not the odometer, doesn’t sound unnerved in the slightest.

“People,’’ he reasons, “are always going to doubt you. I mean, you have to earn respect each and every week. It wasn’t until after the Grey Cup last year that people were willing to say: ‘OK, they are the real deal.’ Well, we knew we were all along.

“So if they’re doubting you, that’s okay.

“We’ve had a good camp. Competed hard. Filled in some spots, hard spots to replace, granted, but we’ve got guys who can step in and do the job.

“They’ll take a little grooming because we’ve been such an experienced squad in the past. And so it’s important that the veteran guys set a this-is-what-it-takes example, every day, practice day or game day.

“This year we’ve got a lot of new blood.

“That’s not a bad thing. A lot of times new blood helps the old blood get flowing again.

“The talent levels are there but we just have to get ‘em up to speed on exactly how the Stampeders play assignment-sound football.

“Once we iron out those kinks we’re going to be a tough team to contend with.

“Like always.”