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October 19, 2019

IRREPLACEABLE

CALGARY, AB - SEPTEMBER 14, 2019: The Calgary Stampeders won 19-18 against the Hamilton Tigercats at McMahon Stadium on Saturday afternoon. (Photo by Angela Burger/Calgary Stampeders)

No matter how dire a situation might seem on the surface, Brandon Smith never lost his bite.

“Smitty, what he gives you is perspective,’’ praises former teammate and current position coach Josh Bell. “You could be wailing, like: ‘Ah, man. My house burned down!’ Or: ‘My car flipped over and I broke my leg!’ Or: ‘I just lost my dog!’

“And he’ll just turn, look at you and say: ‘Could be worse. You could have no teeth.’

“Think about it. No teeth? That’s bad. Man, that means you gotta suck on chips.

“That’s a perspective on life. On the game.

“Sometimes the offence struggles. Sometimes the defence struggles. Sometimes special teams struggle. You (make) a turnover, say, and some guys are screaming: ‘What the …?!

“Smitty just puts on his helmet and says: ‘Let’s do it ourselves.’

“I’ve taken that perspective into my life.”

An accountant by non-football trade, the Oakland-born/Sacramento State-molded mainstay of the Calgary Stampeders’ defensive secondary knows, at 35, the numbers finally make sense.

*12 CFL seasons.

*Soon to be 173 regular-season starts.

*Six (seven?) Grey Cup appearances.

*Three (four?) rings.

*17 (and counting) interceptions.

*Three (and counting) picks for touchdowns.

*615 (and counting) tackles.

*One (soon two?) West and CFL All Star berths.

*An encyclopedic knowledge of the position generously shared.

*A treasure trove of memories meticulously stored.

A one-team man so at odds with a one-man team concept, Smith sprinted out of that big inflatable Stampeder helmet for what could potentially be a final time Saturday, last man to do so, symbolically.

Whenever 2019 ends for the White Horse will be the end for Brandon Smith. That’s official.

“You can’t just call him a ‘staple of the defence’ or anything of that nature,’’ says longtime secondary cohort Jamar Wall. “He’s more than just a statement; something bigger than that. That doesn’t give him enough credit.

“Twelve years shows the value he has, what he brings to the table year-in and year-out. In this business, if someone’s better than you or potentially better than you, especially if you’re older, you get replaced.

“That hasn’t happened with him. For a reason. Because every week he shows you why it’s impossible to replace this man.

“I love him. He’s like a brother to me. My first time travelling to a game, he was my room-mate. We just hit it off. It’s gonna be a sad thing to see him go, but when you go out on your own terms – and he is – it’s a lot easier.”

Michael Smith flew in from Oakland to watch live what could potentially be his son’s final home game in professional football.

“I kinda thought he might retire after last year. I cringe every hit he takes,’’ admits dad. “He’s getting up there, been playing since he was eight years old. As a father, I don’t want to see my kid banged up when he leaves the game.

“He gives me a lot of pride. He’s not a massive-type guy. To make it this far with a small-stature body says a lot.

“Every year he’s left home to come to camp, he tells me: ‘I’ve got to go make the team.’ After the first couple seasons, I thought that was a given. But that’s his mentality – he’s always thought of himself as a rookie. To play as long as he has at this level, he’s had to stay humble and focus on what’s in front of him.

“In the off-season he has his aches and pains and sometimes I’ve wondered if he could even make training camp.

“Once he gets here, something comes over him. Being in the city of Calgary, with his teammates, he’s whole demeanour changes and he seems to be OK.”

For Bell, arriving at McMahon Stadium from B.C. five years ago, No. 28 provided the ideal touchstone to settling in.

“He is one of the men who taught me what it is to be a Stampeder. And it was never a conversation. Smitty taught me by what he does every day, when it’s time to play.

“I learned by watching. He is a Stampeder down to the core. Part of the legacy. One of those guys who when he comes back and walks around this stadium in the years ahead, people will go: ‘Look, that’s Brandon Smith …’

“He’s a good football player but an even better man.”

A man who has made an impact on a franchise and left an imprint on a city.

“He really does consider Calgary his second home,’’ says Michael. “And I have nothing but respect for Calgarians. They’ve treated me very nice here in Canada.

“I’m very grateful to them for embracing him and making him one of their own.”

There remains more to the story, of course. How much more remains to be determined. About the only way to top going out a champion in 2018 in the den of your bitter rivals is going out a champion again on home soil a month and a half from now.

“That,’’ says dad, “is why he came back. He wanted to go out winning the Grey Cup here.”

For what Brandon Smith has done and what he’s meant for so long, a rallying cry if ever there was one.

“I know his decision is even further motivation for me to go get it done one more time,’’ says Wall. “We plan on giving him a farewell tour, getting that Grey Cup, having him lift it here, in Calgary.

“Like I said, he’s family to me. And you always want to see your family off in the best way possible:

“Happy as they can be.”

Jamar Wall is, of course, spot on: It’s impossible to replace this man.

Whatever happens between now and late November, after those dozen seasons of service, it’s a given that the Stampeders will dearly miss Brandon Smith when camp opens late next spring. Miss his quiet yet fierce competitive spirit. Miss his consummate professionalism. Miss his scandalously underrated abilities.

But even he’ll tell you: Could be worse.

Could have no teeth.