Shea Emry is set to play in the CFL East Division final for the fourth time in his five seasons as a Montreal Alouette, but this time it means a little more.
The 26-year-old middle linebacker missed most of last season with a concussion that left him wondering if he'd ever play football again.
Not only did Emry recover and attend training camp in the spring, he had a career year and is a finalist for both the CFL Outstanding Defensive Player and Outstanding Canadian Player awards.
"It's something that crossed my mind," Emry said Wednesday of last season's doubts about his football future. "There were a couple of guys dealing with concussions on our team and we got to talking.
"It's part of the game, dealing with concussions. You start thinking 'Can I still do it? Will I have the speed?' I had to break down those barriers through training camp and the first couple of games. It's nice to get some accolades, knowing I went through a lot. I'm just glad we're here now, playing an Eastern final at home."
Big crowd expected at 'The Big O'
The Alouettes (11-7) will play host to the Toronto Argonauts (9-9) in the East final Sunday afternoon at Olympic Stadium. The team says more than 42,000 tickets have been sold.
While the Alouettes' defence drew criticism for allowing 27 points per game, fifth-best in an eight-team league, Emry was a standout.
The Richmond, B.C., native led the team with 87 defensive tackles, the second highest total in Alouettes history behind Tracy Gravely's 110 in 1996. He ended star linebacker Chip Cox's three-year reign as the Alouettes top tackler, dropping him to second with 82.
"I've just taken every moment, every play, and embraced it," he said. "I'm excited to be on the field again.
"When you get something taken away from you that you love so much, there's nothing holding you back when you get it back. I've slipped up a couple of times this year. It's a thin line I've been walking on. But I'm just excited to be out there playing football."
What Emry calls slip-ups were nasty plays that saw him fined three times by the league. It is remarkable he was never suspended.
The first was a late hit on Calgary quarterback Drew Tate in the season opener on July 1. Then he was nailed for an illegal block on special teams against Toronto on July 27.
The last was a punch below the belt that floored Saskatchewan lineman Brendon LaBatte on Oct. 20.
Emry may have been a little too charged up in some games. He apologized each time, but didn't let up in intensity the next time out.
"It's part of the learning process, coming off a concussion and basically, missing an entire season — not playing football for 11 months," he said. "You have to come back and show your toughness and that's what I was trying to do.
"Some of the plays were just playing football and those split-second decisions that were made incorrectly. I've got to move on from that. I played well the rest of the year."
The linebacker with the Fu Manchu moustache is not the favourite to pick up either individual trophy during Grey Cup week in Toronto. He's up against players who set league records.
The favourite for the defensive award is Edmonton's J.C. Sherritt, who had a record 130 tackles, while his rival for top Canadian, Calgary's Jon Cornish, set a new standard for home-grown running backs with 1,457 rushing yards.
"They both broke records in the same game," said Emry. "I was watching it and thinking 'it's going to be difficult to get those awards.'
"But I'm so happy with the nominations and the acknowledgment for what I've gone through this year and what I've done on the field. I'm just excited to have an opportunity to go to the awards [ceremony] and be a part of that and represent the Alouettes."
Hoping for another title
Emry hopes to be gunning for a third Grey Cup to go with his titles in 2009 and 2010.
The Alouettes have moved into Olympic Stadium to get ready for the East final and are hoping the bye week they got for finishing first in the division will help them heal some wounds.
That plan may have hit a snag Wednesday when safety Kyries Hebert limped off the field with a possible left ankle sprain that he jokingly called a bug bite.
"I'm OK. I think an ant bit me," Hebert said. "I'm going to get some Neosporin and get the bump down. It'll itch and I'll be all right."
Coach Marc Trestman said Hebert suffered "a little sprain.
"He appears to be OK but we've got to see how much it swells up. We'll see [Thursday]."
Hebert had 48 defensive tackles and led the CFL in special teams tackles with 28 this season.
Running back Victor Anderson, out with a concussion in the final month of the season, was back practising but won't be ready to play on Sunday. Trestman said he should be ready to go if Montreal reaches the Grey Cup game.
There was hope that injured linebacker Rod Davis would be ready to return, but the coach ruled him out for the rest of the post-season.
Defensive end Aaron Lavarias is expected to come off the practice roster to see his first action for the Alouettes and shore up an injury-plagued defensive line. That may force import receiver Bo Bowling to sit out.