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If Matt Dunigan had his way, the BC Lions chapter of his illustrious 14-year CFL career would have been much longer.
“I never thought I’d leave after becoming a BC Lion, never had intentions to,” said Dunigan on Wednesday from his home in Rockwall, Texas.
Football can be a cruel and surprising business after all. Dunigan came to the Lions from Edmonton in a rather rare seven for one swap prior to the 1988 season.
After just two years in orange he was traded to Toronto.
He later suited up for Winnipeg, Birmingham and Hamilton before being forced to retire due to concussion issues in 1996.
“Things were left out of my hands,” added the four-time all-star.
“I was traded and I’m anxious to get back to the province any time I can, particularly in this format of giving back to amateur football.”
Indeed his next visit is for a great cause. Dunigan is the keynote speaker for Friday’s Orange Helmet Awards Dinner at the Westin Bayshore. As you might guess, plenty of memories from his two-year stint in orange are flooding back. Not all of them are treasured.
“1988 is a thorn in my side with the way it ended,” proclaimed Dunigan.
He is of course referring to the 1988 Grey Cup loss to the Blue Bombers. It looked promising as Dunigan and the offence were set up on the Blue Bombers’ seven- yard line with 1:45 to go. A field goal would have tied it, but they were thinking major.
That’s when the football gods, and they can be funny, took over. Dunigan’s pass was tipped high in the air and intercepted by Michael Gray. Dunigan was denied a second Grey Cup ring and the Lions would have to wait six more years for number three.
“That game was extremely windy. Bob Cameron (Bombers Punter) was a weapon and he kept them in it,” recalled Dunigan.
“They had one first down in the second half of that game and still found a way to beat us. That sticks with you, as you can probably tell. It’s one of those things where you get so close to a dream and you know the importance of it to all the people who support the BC Lions.”
“There is no way in hell we should have lost that game,” added Orange Helmet chief organizer Jamie Taras.
“It was my rookie year. On the interception I remember David Williams was wide open, but fell down. Jan Carinci was also open, but Gray somehow made the play.
The worst part was a bunch of us single guys took a trip to Mexico and it seemed every tourist we ran into was from Winnipeg, ” explained Tara’s with a laugh.
Despite not finishing the job, the versatile quarterback considers that 1988 squad one of the best he ever called signals for.
“We had tremendous talent across the board, a talented offensive line and my favourite receiver of all-time to throw to, David Williams. There were also guys like Tony Cherry, Gerald Roper and Lui Passaglia. It was my pleasure being at the helm of that football team.”
Perhaps the Louisiana Tech product sees similar traits in this current Lions squad. One thing is certain: he believes they are in great hands with a young Jonathon Jennings at the helm.
“I have said several times since Jonathon took over that he is my favourite to watch, “ said the 1989 Tom Pate Memorial Award winner.
“His ability to run the football, push it down the field and his love of doing that excites the heck out of me. It reminds me of how I attacked the game; I loved pushing it down the field the way Jonathon does. He makes running look a whole lot easier than I did. He has so much fluidity to his game.”
“He’s a gunslinger with a card player’s mentality.”
Dunigan now represents one of the best examples of ex-players transitioning smoothly into the world of media. His stellar work on the CFL on TSN Panel is yet another element that makes him a natural for Friday’s annual salute to amateur football.
Dunigan jumped at the opportunity and his charismatic nature will no doubt play well to the crowd. The former Lions’ pivot also understands how special it is to support an event created by the late Bob Ackles.
“When you talk about Bobby Ackles you think football from a grassroots level,” said Dunigan. “He wasn’t shy about getting his hands dirty and building a strong foundation. That’s what he was able to do in his 40-plus years of service to football in the province.”
Having someone who understands Ackles’ legacy with the perfect amount of charisma was important to Taras when finding a speaker for the 14th annual salute to amateur football.
“Leadership, on and off the field, was always Matt’s greatest quality,” said the Lions Director of Community Relations.
“One time we were on a fishing trip at Pemberton and ran into a bear. We had so many fish on ice in the cooler and Matt was right there to protect us. That’s the kind of guy he is,” chuckled the former offensive lineman.
“What he is doing now to help concussion awareness is also very strong. He will really engage our audience at the dinner.”
The concussion issue remains near and dear to Dunigan’s heart. In 2011 he announced he would donate his brain for further research.
In an era where head injuries are talked about more and many parents are not allowing their kids to pursue football careers, Dunigan admits encouraging youngsters to pursue their football dreams can be tricky. He is also confident the proper safety measures for prevention are being taken at all ages.
“People like myself will continue to fight that fight, push forward and educate folks on how to deal with it properly,” said Dunigan.
“We’re talking about recognition, diagnosis, treatment and hopefully a cure so people won’t be suffering these injuries. The big wheel turns slowly, but it’s turning.”
He was a great quarterback. Perhaps his legacy will wind up being even more significant off the field. His mark will always be on the Lions franchise, Grey Cup or not.
Matt Baker: firstname.lastname@example.org