The end of the regular season for the Canadian Football League’s West Division was somewhat anti-climactic. But for a pair of former Eastern Washington University quarterbacks, there were some late-season dramatics.
Vernon Adams Jr. and Bo Levi Mitchell will be uncustomarily on the sidelines this Sunday when their respective teams – the British Columbia Lions and the Calgary Stampeders – pair off in the CFL’s West Division semifinal. Another former Eagle, T.J. Lee, will be in the secondary for the Lions as the two teams play at 1:30 p.m. Pacific time on ESPN2 for the right to take on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the two-time defending Grey Cup champions.
“We know each other very well and it’s going to be a battle,” said Lee, mentioning that several other former Eagles now living in the Puget Sound area plan on attending the game. “They have a lot of assets on their team, and we have a lot of star power. We just have to impose our will at home – B.C. Place is going to be packed. That’s an experience I want for my career.”
Adams, who was an All-American for the Eagles in 2013 and 2014 before transferring to Oregon, began the season in Montreal. But after a foot injury sidelined B.C. starter Nathan Rourke for an extended period of time, Adams was traded to the Lions and started much of the remainder of the regular season.
“Vernon did exactly what he was sent here to do,” says Lee. “I know what Vernon is capable of, and our team needs what he brings – the energy and the positivity. He just needs to keep getting to know the plays better for him to gel well with our receiving corp – we have damn good receivers.”
Adams has returned to his backup role – Rourke returned as the starter on Oct. 28 in B.C.’s meaningless 24-9 loss to Winnipeg. The playoff pairings had already been determined by that time, with the top three teams in the West Division having better records than any squad in the East.
“It’s been a tricky one, and a real roller coaster type of season,” said Adams, who has lived for about four years in Tacoma – about a 3-hour drive from Vancouver. “I started in Montreal and now I’m over here playing. Nathan is back, so I’m just staying ready now.”
Mitchell, Calgary’s all-time leading passer, will also be on the sidelines for Sunday’s game in Vancouver, B.C. After he led the team to a 5-0 start, the Stamps lost four of their next six games and Mitchell was ousted as the starter in favor of former UC Davis standout Jake Maier, who has held onto the job the rest of the year.
“It’s different for sure,” Mitchell said of coming off the bench. “But I’ll be prepared – I’m one play away from getting into the game, God forbid something happens to Jake. I’ll be ready for whatever comes my way. I’ve been a part of this Calgary team for a long time, so I want to help and support Jake and our team in any way I can.”
Earlier in the season, Mitchell became the all-time leading passer at Calgary, and now has a total of 32,541 yards in 10 years with the team. The 2011 Walter Payton Award winner led EWU to the 2010 NCAA Division I Championship, and has earned the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player honor twice in his illustrious career. He also led Calgary to a pair of Grey Cup titles and was the game’s MVP in both.
So, not surprisingly, he was cheered vociferously when he entered the game in the closing minutes of the win over Saskatchewan, in what could very well be his last game in Calgary. Later, coach Dave Dickenson – a former standout quarterback at Montana – said he regretted not calling a timeout and taking Mitchell out of the game to give him a proverbial “curtain call.”
“It was a great moment,” said Mitchell, who expects to be playing for a new team next season. “A lot of times when you end your career at a place you get traded or released, so it was special to go out that way.”
Lee has been waiting for this opportunity to contend for a championship, since, well, he was at EWU when he helped lead the Eagles to the national title and a trio of Big Sky Conference titles.
An All-American and three-time first team All-Big Sky Conference cornerback at EWU from 2010-13, Lee has had 57 tackles and three interceptions in 15 games this season, skipping the regular-season finale to rest up for the playoffs.
“I’m lucky to be a part of this experience,” he says. “I’m taking it all in because you never know how much longer I’ll be able to play. I’m closer to the end of my career than the beginning. So I’m going to enjoy all of it and give it my all.”
In a significant 40-32 victory over Winnipeg on Oct. 15, Lee had a 102-yard interception return for a touchdown to give the Lions a 16-point cushion in the fourth quarter. Adams passed for 138 yards in the win, including a second-quarter touchdown.
Adams started the season in Montreal, and was a backup at the time he was traded on Aug. 31. He closed the regular season 139-of-219 (63%) for 1,798 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions, plus another 162 yards and TD rushing.
“In my time being in the CFL, this is the best B.C. team,” says Adams. “They may have the best defense I’ve ever been a part of in my entire career in football. On offense we have three 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard running back. So if we can just finish the season strong we’ll be alright.
“A few weeks we had a win over Winnipeg, and if we handle business this week, we’ll see them again in the finals to go to the Grey Cup.”
Both Lee and Adams are in their eighth seasons in the league, with Lee playing 109 games and having totals of 467 tackles, with 23 interceptions, eight forced fumbles and four sacks. Adams has played in 75 games and has completed 62% of his 1,000 pass attempts for 8,992 yards, 49 scores and 27 picks.
“This is the best team I’ve been on,” Lee said. “I’m a veteran and have grown to be a leader on this team with not-so-good records to this point. I have to do all I can to ensure we have success – and everybody else too. The communication and the time we’ve spent together all adds up. It’s the mix of all those things that make us who we are. It’s pretty cool.”
The Grey Cup, the CFL’s equivalent of the Super Bowl, will be played Nov. 20 at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, Saskatchewan.
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