August 7, 2019

The Pillars

CALGARY, AB - JUNE 29, 2019: The Calgary Stampeders won 36-32 against the BC Lions at McMahon Stadium on Saturday night. (Photo by Candice Ward/Calgary Stampeders)

If the ceremonial firefighter’s helmet didn’t fit snugly on Pierre-Luc Caron’s helmet-less head immediately following its latest presentation shortly after 8 p.m. Saturday, it certainly did after all his buddies had finished open-handed hammering on its top.

In the soft glow of post-combat victory, chants of “P.L! P.L! P.L!” reverberated about the Calgary Stampeders’ dressing room.

The unfiltered joy of hard-to-come-by recognition for the fourth-year long snapper was instantaneous and 100 proof.

Special teams.

Special bond.

“We’ve got such a good group of guys on special teams,’’ says Caron. “We’re really tight. A lot of us have been playing together for a long time.

“We hang out together on the field and off the field.

“In my job, I’m kinda happy when you don’t hear about me. I was lucky enough to get a few (downfield) tackles the other day, so maybe I got a little more recognition.

“But my reward is when I see my guys doing great work on the field. It’s fun when someone makes a good play and we get to celebrate together.”

Unless you’re Terry Williams tearing some opposition return coverage asunder or Rene Parades nailing a walk-off field goal to win, the opportunities for splashy headlines or notoriety on the teams are as rare as a white-peacock sighting.

Largely lost in post-victory discussion are the well-oiled wheels so crucial in Paredes splitting the uprights, say, or that decisive block to set Williams off on his merry way.

Resisting the very natural impulse to risk the same block to the back of an opponent and have a galvanizing return demoralizingly wiped out. A clawing tackle that prevents a damaging opposition take-back or the posse mentality of a gang hunt that stops a returner dead in his tracks. Setting up a forcefield around Rob Maver to allow a coffin-corner beauty. Fighting through your man to block a kick or create a fumble.

“The players see the film,’’ says long-standing special teams maven Mark Kilam. “They know who’s putting in the hard work work. They know who’s all in at the POA.

“They know the type of job P.L. does and the type of the person he is. That’s why they were genuinely happy for him the other night.”

The camaraderie Caron speaks of is instilled from the top down.

“You always need a tight group on special teams,’’ says veteran special teams ace Charlie Power. “Our job maybe isn’t as flashy as on offence or defence, maybe we don’t generate a lot of headlines, but what we do means a lot to the guys in the room.

“That’s our reward.

“Even guys who don’t play a lot get excited when special teamers make plays. In the Canadian Football League, especially, field position is so important and so much of that is special teams.

“You’re on special teams to make the big play, whatever that play may be, but always within the scheme, making sure you don’t give up a big play. It’s a matter of finding that balance, of learning when to take your shot and when not to.

“Our goal every game is to make a positive impact on the game.

“It starts with Kilam. He creates a culture around celebrating our wins and correcting mistakes.

“He has new saying every week. And in his game plans, sometimes between plays he’ll put pictures. And they can get pretty cheesy. A picture of a gladiator, instance.

“But that’s Kilam. He’s an intense dude. Keeps things fresh, changes it around every week. But it’s always about setting that tone, bringing that intensity.”

Specials teams’ excellence is more often than not made up of small, hard-to-spot details to the untrained eye.

“I’ll give you an example from last game,’’ offers Kilam. “We talked about (Eskimo returner) Martese Jackson all week. One of the things he’s best at is escaping to the field. That’s where he wants to run, and he can do a lot of damage in that open space.

“Courtney Stephen, who’s a role player, has embraced that role and brings value to everything he does, played up the field. Martese turned back, then tried to turn back up the field again and that’s when Courtney and Charlie closed at the same time, we got the ball out, Nate Holley recovered and it led to a touchdown.

“That was probably my favourite play in the whole game because it was something we’d identified during the week in practice and we executed it.”

Thursday, for the Stampeders to vault ahead of the Blue Bombers in the West standings and take two points out of IG Field, QB Nick Arbuckle will have to efficient, the offensive line stout-hearted and Eric Rogers acrobatic. The defence, meanwhile, is entrusted with limiting tailback Andrew Harris, making Matt Nichols’ night miserable and suffocating Winnipeg’s fleet of receivers.

As well, as always, the special teams will need to be airtight, impactful in their customary near-invisible-to-the-untrained-eye kinda way.

“They may be the unheralded, per se, in the media and in the spotlight. But great organizations are built on those types of guys,’’ says Kilam in a proudly parental way.

“They play hard. They play hurt. And they play unselfishly.

“I love and respect each and every one of these guys. To be good on special teams you have to be fully – and I mean fully – committed.

“Look, we have a lot of great, great players, both on offence and defence, who have contributed so much to our success over the years.

“But to be a good organization, you have to have strong pillars underneath.

“Those guys are the pillars.”