It's quiet in the bowels of Tim Hortons Field. The final whistle has just blown, signalling the end of another Vanier Cup. The Western Mustangs have just defeated the Laval Rouge et Or 39–17. A long line of players walk through the hallway, heads bowed in defeat.
Some of them cry. None of them smile. All of them look shell-shocked, as if what has just hit them came from their worst, most unimaginable nightmares. This is the feeling they have inflicted on so many for nearly two decades. It's supposed to be them out there on that field, hoisting that trophy, cheering with fans.
Instead, they leave the field after meeting a swarm of purple and white with a 22-year vendetta and an intensity so ferocious, no team in the country could stand in their wake.
The Western Mustangs were so thoroughly dominant, so perfect in all aspects of the game of football, that it didn't matter that they were facing the "Alabama of Canada." It didn't matter that the team they were going up against was 9–1 in Vanier Cup appearances. It didn't matter that they hadn't won a national title since 1994.
What mattered was that they were unstoppable. Literally. Not even the flagship program for Canadian university football programs, the Laval Rouge et Or, could compete with them.
All season long, this Mustangs team was questioned. And all season long, they responded in the most emphatic of fashions.
They were asked whether they could overcome last November's heartbreaking loss to Laurier in the Yates Cup.
They responded with a 75–32 demolition of the Golden Hawks to claim their first Yates Cup since 2013.
They were asked if they could really perform on the national stage, where, in recent memory, they often fell short.
They responded with a record-breaking, jaw-dropping 81–3 win over Acadia on the Axemen's home field in the Uteck Bowl.
And then, finally, they were asked if they really had it in them to take this national title. So many didn't believe. So many refused to pay heed to their accomplishments.
They responded with the game of the ages, on the grandest of stages.
And here's the thing: It didn't surprise them in the slightest.
"No, it didn't," says receiver Harry McMaster when asked if he was shocked at how his team performed in the biggest game of their lives. "We watched film, and we knew we could beat them. They're obviously good. But we knew, if we played like we did today, we could win this game."
They could and they did. When they lost the Yates Cup to Laurier last season, linebacker Jean-Gabriel Poulin insisted, along with his teammates, that they wouldn't lose a game ever again.
In the moment, it was probably a figure of speech. But now, after a 12–0 season, Poulin might just have the gift of prophecy.
"We knew it would be like this. In the locker room before the game, we knew,” Poulin says. “We’ve known for weeks. People doubted us, saying we don’t have any opposition; we don’t play strong teams. We showed today no one can play with us.”
So many members of the team faced adversity throughout their careers. It was that adversity that built them into a powerhouse this season.
They had the head coach, beset with difficulties and decorated with accolades, save for the greatest of them all. They had the starting quarterback who tried to make it big south of the border, only to return home to truly find himself and fulfill his potential. And they had the backup running back, who finally got his time in the sun and made the most of his opportunity.
That quarterback, Chris Merchant, dreamt of this day ever since he transferred to Western University from the University at Buffalo. The successor of all-time greats like Michael Faulds and Will Finch was the one who finally took the program to new heights.
"This is a credit to our team and the hard work put in," says Merchant. "I like playing under pressure, and playing on a big stage is the best thing in the world. Obviously, this is one of the most historic trophies in Canada. So growing up as a kid, watching it on TV and playing football since I was eight years old makes this a dream come true."
Merchant's first drive — an eight-play 84-yard masterpiece that culminated in a 13-yard touchdown run for Merchant — set the tone for the rest of the game. The Mustangs offence wasn't going to be intimidated.
They had Merchant behind center, as calm and collected as he'd been all season. They had Cedric Joseph running the ball, pounding in two more touchdowns in what has been a historically great post-season. They had Alex Taylor back in the lineup, contributing in the way that only a high-end CFL draft pick can do.
And they had an offensive coordinator in Steve Snyder, whose balanced play-calling left Laval's defence reeling.
On the defensive end, the Mustangs hit hard and they hit often, limiting Laval to only 277 yards of total offence. The list of defensive contributors went on and on.
Fraser Sopik and Jessie McNair. Mackenzie Ferguson and Jean-Gabriel Poulin. If this wasn't the greatest defensive unit to ever wear the purple and white, they'd be darn near close.
In the end, they are too much to handle. So as the confetti rains down and the Mustangs sing that victory song, an elated Greg Marshall looks like a man on top of the world.
"For me, it’s a special day," says Marshall, after winning his first Vanier Cup as a head coach. "I’ve been working hard at this for a lot of years. I really think this is one of the best teams I’ve ever coached and certainly one of the best teams that’s played U Sports football. This is a dominant team. To win the way we won, going undefeated and doing what we did in the playoffs, I’m really proud of this team.”
Maybe they are the greatest team in program history. Maybe this win will kick off a dynasty like Laval has had for so many years.
But in that moment, as their fans storm the field and they lift their trophy, the Western Mustangs are the last team standing. Throughout August training camp, rainy days in September and cold November practices, this is what they expected themselves to be.