The ball’s trajectory gave James Wilder Jr. time to think.
Floated into the air off the fingertips of Ricky Ray to the clear the defender chasing behind his wheel route, Wilder Jr. endured an unnerving split-second. As he waited for the most important ball of the season to descend, there was enough time to recall the down and distance, the clock, the score, the stakes and what sort of harrowing gasp the largest crowd in the history of the Toronto Argonauts at BMO Field would produce if he failed to swallow it.
Nevertheless, Wilder Jr. calmly hauled it in and tumbled to the ground well beyond the sticks on third-and-five, managing to prolong a drive – and subsequently a season – that will now conclude at the 105th Grey Cup in Ottawa after Sunday’s thrilling last-minute 25-21 victory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the East Division Final
“You drop this ball this game is over!” Wilder Jr. laughed when asked to recall the critical pass he enveloped with his arms with the game hanging in the balance just moments before. “You gotta catch it for your brothers, man! They’ve been fighting their butts off!”
Assuring in that moment, then, was the success this play had in practice while the Argonauts prepared to host the Roughriders.
One on one with a linebacker, with Saskatchewan preparing to break up an inside slant, Wilder Jr. confidently ran past Samuel Eguavoen, who lost his coverage cheating toward the backfield to create the window for Ricky Ray.
It was a throw the future Hall of Famer, who passed Henry Burris on the all-time postseason passing yards list, wasn’t going to miss – regardless of the struggle Saskatchewan forced him into on Sunday.
Convinced that Wilder Jr. could run the route, Ray could make the throw, and every other link in the chain could perform their function with the game on the line, head coach Marc Trestman called the perfect play at the perfect time for a franchise that needed a moment like this.
The Argonauts, a team that was without a general manager, or a head coach, or any real direction nine months ago, advanced to the Grey Cup because they all got on the same page.
Well, for the most part.
It turns out there is a minor discrepancy as it pertains to the origin of Sunday’s decisive play.
Wilder Jr. proclaimed in his excitement that it was drawn up this week, “just like that.” He even suggested to ask around, saying that his teammates would vouch. But when Trestman was asked about the critical third-down decision, he dispelled that notion pretty quick.
“It’s always a new play with James,” Trestman smiled.
Perhaps it was innocence that helped Wilder Jr. pull the ball down in that moment.
The Most Outstanding Rookie nominee has just the Coles Notes on the Argonauts’ struggles to gain a foothold in the market. He wasn’t around as recent as the first ever Argos game at BMO Field, and the hype surrounding it, only for the Argos to haphazardly dig an 18-point deficit started with a safety against – the first ever points scored at BMO Field.
When Riders returner Christion Jones ran 79 yards to the endzone to give Saskatchewan the lead with a little over three minutes left – capitalizing on a second half that saw the home side run out of ideas to move the ball after carving out a comfortable lead at half time – the Argonauts were on the verge of trumping their last best chance to make an impact on the first-ever playoff game at BMO Field.
Because the reality is, impressionable moments for the Argonauts are few and far between. But with a crowd only partially bolstered by the rabid Roughriders fan base, the Argonauts had one Sunday, third-and-five from the Saskatchewan 40-yard line.
Fortunately, James Wilder Jr. seized it.
“This is the most fans we’ve ever had,” he said. “It’s big that we came out with the win.”