A gut-ripping defeat suffered by the University of Manitoba Bisons football team nearly 22 months ago feels to receiver Abdul-Karim Gassama like it happened eons ago.
Other times, the anguish still has that yesterday vibe.
"At certain moments, it feels like it's been forever since we went through the game-day routine and competed on that stage. Because last season we didn't even get to put on our jerseys and play, it does feel like forever, to be honest," the 21-year-old University of Manitoba student-athlete said Thursday. "But that Calgary game sticks with you. I feel that every day."
History will show the host Calgary Dinos clipped the Bisons 47-46 in the Canada West conference semifinal game Nov. 2, 2019, the first obstacle cleared by Calgary en route to the Vanier Cup national university football championship.
The dramatics of the final moments of the playoff clash, however, cannot be understated.
With four seconds left on the clock, Manitoba quarterback Des Catellier dropped back and launched a 50-yard 'Hail Mary' toward a crowd of players near the Calgary five-yard line. The ball was batted back by a couple of hands — including those of Gassama — to U of M receiver Trysten Dyce and he dashed in for a touchdown as time expired to pull the visitors to within one.
"... it does feel like forever, to be honest. But that Calgary game sticks with you. I feel that every day." — Abdul-Karim Gassama
Head coach Brian Dobie elected to call for a two-point convert to win, but Catellier’s toss went in and out of the hands of Dyce and was intercepted by Calgary’s Nick Statz.
"We were ready to win it. We wanted to go for it," said Gassama. "We were riding the momentum. It was the right call."
Indeed, neither he nor Dobie, in his 26th campaign running the Bisons program, has any regrets about the manner in which the season came to a screeching halt. But with the entire 2020 season wiped out owing to the COVID-19 pandemic and an impending return to the field, pent-up frustration and wild enthusiasm have collided with extreme force.
"One thousand per cent, this is going to feel good. We've gone through a lot of adversity these past months. Just seeing the province start to open back up and allowing sports back into play, I'm super excited," said Gassama, who had six catches for 71 yards and a TD in that last tilt at McMahon Stadium. "I can't wait to put that brown and gold jersey back on and get to work."
Bisons training camp begins Saturday at U of M's outdoor turf field and wraps up with a preseason clash Sat., Sept. 18 at Saskatoon's Griffiths Stadium against the Huskies.
Manitoba hosts the Regina Rams in the season-opener for both squads on Sat., Sept. 25 at 2 p.m. at IG Field.
"It won't be hard for guys to get pumped up. We've been training for two years for this because we knew eventually football would be back. I feel like the group is closer because everyone missed it so much." — Bisons linebacker Nick Thomas
Each program in the six-team conference will play six games, down two games from previous years. The Bisons face the Rams twice and each of Calgary, Saskatoon, Alberta Golden Bears and University of British Columbia Thunderbirds once. Four teams make the postseason.
A productive start to the schedule has never been more crucial.
"You have to hit the ground running. Every game is so important for us this year," said linebacker Nick Thomas, 22, from Surrey, B.C. "It won't be hard for guys to get pumped up. We've been training for two years for this because we knew eventually football would be back. I feel like the group is closer because everyone missed it so much."
Dobie estimates about 75 per cent of the roster is back, including all-around leader Catellier — who gained 5,500 yards through the air in four previous seasons. Returning, too, are running backs Michael Ritchott and Victor St. Pierre-Laviolette, and receivers such as Gassama and Macho Bockru, while former NCAA II all-star Gavin Cobb from Simon Fraser University has been added to the receiving corps.
Players must be double-vaccinated to compete for the Bisons.
Still, a lack of protection could, in fact, be the undoing of the Bisons. All five of the squad's starters on the offensive line have moved on, leaving a game but inexperienced crew to shield Catellier and create holes for the backs.
"That remains to be seen. We've recruited some good, young players, like Ryder Klisowsky who was the lineman of the year with the national (junior) champion Saskatoon Hilltops. We've brought in some heavy hitters out of junior. Combine that with some guys that are two years older and we feel we have a good group of offensive linemen," said Dobie. "The issue will be how quickly they become a unit. That's the big question. Games can be won or lost on the line."
Defensively, Brock Gowanlock, Samson Abbott and Cole Adamson return to the trenches, while battles are still to be waged for some key jobs alongside Thomas at linebacker.
"Training camp's going to be interesting for us," said Thomas. "There's a lot of energy and, because of what happened in 2019, a lot of guys have chips on their shoulders. The vibe is awesome."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).