HAMILTON — After enduring a loss in his Montreal debut, linebacker Darnell Sankey vowed the Alouettes wouldn't lose again in the 2023 CFL season.
Sankey was a man of his word Sunday. He anchored a Montreal defence that was key in the Alouettes' stunning 28-24 Grey Cup victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Tim Hortons Field.
"I said it, I said, 'We're not going to lose another game,'" a jubilant Sankey said after hoisting the Grey Cup during Montreal's post-game celebration. "We believed.
"My team had my back, we had faith and that's all that mattered."
Sankey signed with Montreal on Sept. 11 and started four days later in a 23-20 home loss to Toronto that secured the Argonauts (then 11-1) first in the East Division. The Als, meanwhile, fell to 6-7.
Montreal finished its regular season with five straight wins to take second in the East. After dispatching the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 27-12 in the conference semifinal, the Alouettes upset Toronto (16-2) in the division final 38-17 at BMO Field.
Montreal didn't allow a touchdown against Hamilton. Then it forced nine turnovers (four interceptions, four times on downs, fumble) versus Toronto, returning two interceptions for TDs.
Montreal ended '23 with eight straight wins. The last two came over the CFL's top two teams as the Alouettes captured first Grey Cup title since 2010.
The six-foot-one, 245-pound Sankey had 31 tackles, a sack and interception in six regular-season games. But he was a force in the playoffs, recording 22 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble in Montreal's three contests.
Sankey had eight tackles and a sack Sunday to earn his first career Grey Cup championship.
"All glory be to God, but it's not just me," he said. "My calling is to lead."
Sankey combined with veteran defensive end Shawn Lemon to provide leadership for Montreal's defence, especially down the stretch. The well-travelled Lemon — Hamilton is the only CFL club he's not been with — joined the Als in July, registering nine sacks in 13 regular-season games.
Like Sankey, Lemon cranked it up in the playoffs. The 35-year-old American had a combined 10 tackles, four sacks and a fumble recovery to earn his third career Grey Cup win (2014 with Calgary, '17 with Toronto).
"We just came in and did what we always do," said Lemon. "We produce and we lead by example.
"This team is full of guys who've been overlooked or passed over or teams have said were the problem. We just came together, we're here for a reason. I'm just happy for this city."
Little was expected from Montreal this season. The CFL took over operating the franchise in February, hours before the start of free agency, to financially handcuff general manager Danny Maciocia.
Quarterback Trevor Harris and receiver Eugene Lewis left as free agents before the situation stabilized in March when businessman Pierre Karl Péladeau bought the club.
In December, Maciocia hired Jason Maas as head coach — he had been fired the month before as Saskatchewan's offensive co-ordinator — then signed former Roughriders quarterback Cody Fajardo to a two-year deal on the first day of free agency.
On Sunday, Fajardo capped a key seven-play, 83-yard drive with a 19-yard TD strike to Canadian Tyson Philpot with 15 seconds remaining to put Montreal ahead 28-24. The march included a clutch 31-yard completion to Cole Spieker on third-and-five as Fajardo (290 yards passing, three TDs) was named the game MVP while Philpot secured top Canadian honours.
"Cody is a great quarterback," Sankey said. "It's not surprising to us, it certainly didn't surprise me."
Fajardo and Philpot also had help. Montreal allowed 61 sacks during the regular season (second-most) and seven versus Toronto but surrendered just two against Winnipeg's top-ranked defence.
Maas praised Sankey and Lemon, saying both fit in immediately.
"That's what people don't understand," Maas said. "We already had a great locker room and we wanted them to fit into what we were doing and make us better.
"They're tremendous people, workers and teammates. They just made us better . . . I can't say enough about either one."
The '23 season will certainly be one to remember for Sankey. In May, he was a member of an Arlington Renegades team that upset the D.C. Defenders 35-26 in the XFL final. Arlington finished the regular season with a 4-6 record compared to 9-1 for the Defenders.
Sankey, 29, joined the Renegades following two productive seasons in Canada. The San Jose, Calif., native was the CFL's leading tackler with Calgary (98 in '21) and Saskatchewan (122 in '22) before signing with Arlington.
Sankey is slated to become a free agent in February but said it's way too early to ponder what might lie ahead.
"Wherever God sends me, I'm down with," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 20, 2023.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press