VANCOUVER - A split-second decision. A fluttering penalty flag. Lives changed.
The Ticats had plenty of chances to win the 102nd Grey Cup on Sunday. But people will point to the illegal block by Hamilton linebacker Taylor Reed that negated a 90-yard Brandon Banks punt return with just 35 seconds remaining as the turning point.
The electric return would have put the Ticats ahead. Instead they lost 20-16 to the Calgary Stampeders, feeling the pain of a Grey Cup defeat for a second year in a row.
Asked about the key play, Hamilton coach Kent Austin stopped just short of pointing the finger at the officials.
Instead he managed to talk in pointed generalities, saying he was on record on what needs to be done "to improve a lot of areas in this league. And I will take it up behind the scenes.
"But it can get a lot better in a lot of different areas," he added. "We can get better as a league. We can. And we should, we need to.
"It changes lives. It's important"
Banks wasn't talking. Wearing gold headphones around is neck, he stormed out of the Hamilton locker-room as the media waited to get in. Several reporters tried to get a comment, but he kept moving. He just looked back and said: "I ain't talking to nobody."
A free agent, the five-foot-seven 149-pounder's future is up in the air.
It marked the second week in a row Banks had had a punt return for touchdown called back. The difference was that last week he ran two more in during a 40-24 win over the Montreal Alouettes in the Eastern final.
Reed, to his credit, faced the music.
"I didn't make my block," he said. "I made it close enough that they called a penalty on it. That's 100 per cent my fault."
"I've got to be better than that," he added.
The block came just feet from Banks at the Hamilton 20-yard line, although it seems unlikely Calgary linebacker Karl McCarthey would have laid a hand on the speedy kick returner. Reed appears to get one hand on the shoulder and the other on the back, sending the Stampeder flying.
McCarthey got up, his hands raised in the air looking for the flag.
There was sympathy from Stamps star running back Jon Cornish.
"Brandon Banks, an amazing returner, but you're depending on your blockers, and when your blocker doesn't block correctly it sucks," he said. "It's one of the worst feelings, because I know it firsthand."
"It would have changed the game — won the game for them ... but it didn't," he added.
Asked again about the play, Austin said he couldn't comment.
"You know I can't answer that. And quite frankly I'm not in a position right now to answer that. That's the honest truth. I have to look at the play. I haven't reviewed it. I haven't looked at it on film.
"But I know a lot of things happen on special teams in this league. A lot of things. Some get called, some don't get called. Almost every single play on special teams, a lot of stuff happen. I will say that."
Austin also gave credit to Calgary and said his team didn't make enough plays. It needed to get better. But he said the loss will haunt him.
"It will stay with me the rest of my life. For the rest of my life. Just like last year," he said. "I hate losing. Just like everybody in that locker-room."
The Hamilton dressing-room was like a funeral home. A feisty one. One player, his language blue, yelled at a cameraman to get his lens away, cursing. A teammate quickly told him to dial it down.
There was shock and pain. For a time, the Ticats had seemed like the team of destiny after rebounding from a 1-6 start to finish first in the East with a 9-9 record.
They outscored Calgary 9-3 in a second half that saw the Stamps defence bend but did not break.
"To lose like that after thinking we won was very tough. Shattering," said Hamilton offensive lineman Peter Dyakowski.
"Knowing that all we needed was one play. And then not getting that one play was really tough," he added.
Quarterback Zach Collaros got stronger as the game wore on, using his mobility to keep plays alive as Stampeders swarmed him.
"I don't think we played a bad game," he said. "We just didn't score the touchdowns."
Austin shared his players' hurt. But he saw the bigger picture.
"Sometimes things don't work out. Welcome to the game of life," said Austin. "It's not always going to go our way."
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