VANCOUVER - With a 1-6 record, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were a long way from the Grey Cup in August.
But the team never panicked. Head coach Kent Austin saw success ahead.
"When we were 1-6, our head coach, our defensive co-ordinator (Orlondo Steinauer) said, 'This is a Grey Cup team.' It just wasn't our time yet," said sumo-sized defensive lineman Ted Laurent.
Linebacker Simoni Lawrence remembers the words Austin used. "It's going to be an amazing story when it's all said and done."
The last chapter will be written Sunday at B.C. Place Stadium when the Tiger-Cats play the powerful Calgary Stampeders.
The Ticats, 45-23 losers to the hometown Saskatchewan Roughriders in last year's championship game, go into the game brimming with belief.
It's been a signpost of their season, no matter where they were in the standings.
"We knew we weren't a 1-6 team," said offensive lineman Peter Dyakowski.
"I've played on basket-case teams and we weren't that," he added. "You could look at every position group and know that we had it, that we were close. And if we just stuck with it, we were going to get it turned around.
"And that belief was through the organization, top to bottom, throughout the team ... no one shut it down, no one thought that this is going to be the story of our season. Everyone knew we had a team that could make a run."
"This team was extremely resilient inside, where it's most important," said Jeff Reinebold, Hamilton's special teams co-ordinator and linebackers coach.
Reinebold has seen more than a few teams in a coaching career that has stretched from Amsterdam to Las Vegas with CFL stops in B.C., Edmonton, Hamilton, Montreal and Winnipeg.
"Every team is unique but this team is extra-special to me," he said.
"They never wavered," he added. "They never flinched. They never backed off their beliefs, they never pointed fingers at one another. All of the things that can happen when you don't have success in professional sports — all the 'Me guys' take over, all the finger-pointing begins, all the blame gets spread around.
"This team never took part in that. And a lot of that comes from Coach Austin and his unshakable belief in his principles and then that got disseminated among the assistant coaches. And the message was always consistent."
Hamilton (9-9) went on to win eight of its next 11 games and finish first in the East. Hamilton then thumped Montreal 40-24 in the East final.
"The thing that was most regarding after the win (over the Als) last week was not the win, was not the money, was not the fact even that they were going to go play for a championship," said Reinebold. "It was the fact that they all got to stay together one more week.
"Because the reality of it is in this business when a season ends, whether it ends at the end of the regular season or after a championship game, that team will never be the same again. Never will all those coaches, all those players, all those personalities be together one more time. There are always transitions, particularly in pro sports today.
"This team has blessed itself because it competed so hard last week against Montreal, with the opportunity to experience this and to be together as brothers one more week. That's fantastic."
On Friday, the Ticats showed that by ending practice in a huddle that turned into a gyrating, dancing and chanting mass of bodies.
"We love each other," said Dyakowski. "We've got a fantastic team, a great locker-room. This is a squad where every guy on it plays for each other. We don't have anyone who's in it for themselves. We're all in it together and it shows."
Hamilton is still standing — and grooving — after a season that saw quarterback Zach Collaros miss five games with concussion-like symptoms (the team went 1-4 without him). The players also had to wait for Tim Hortons Field to finally open before reeling off seven straight wins at home to get here.
"You can't get those games back," Austin said of the early-season losses. "But what you can do is learn from those games in such a way that the next time you take the field, you're better. You're better for that experience. And then just stay the course.
"We have a great staff of guys that are completely authentic in that approach. And the players trust that."
While the Ticats are the feel-good story, the Stampeders (15-3) are 7 1/2-point favourites to spoil their happy ending.
Austin, like his players, relishes the challenge.
"We tell the guys all the time if it was easy, it wouldn't mean as much."
Notes: Austin says receiver Andy Fantuz has "looked good" this week after seeing limited action last weekend upon his return from a hamstring issue. "He's running better this week. I think there's a noticeable difference."
Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter.