HAMILTON - He's a multiple all-star, been the recipient of outstanding lineman and Canadian nominations and last year was named the top centre in the Hamilton Tiger-Cats' illustrious CFL history.
But on Sunday, Marwan Hage will experience a career first: playing in an East Division final. The Ticats face the defending-champion Toronto Argonauts at Rogers Centre with the winner advancing to the Grey Cup game in Regina on Nov. 24.
"You just have to cherish the opportunity and give it the best shot you've got every time because it might not come around for another five-to-10 years," Hage said Thursday. "I can attest to that."
Hamilton's back in the East Division final for the first time since dropping a 19-3 decision to Winnipeg in 2011. But the six-foot-two, 291-pound Hage didn't play in that game due to injury.
A healthy Hage certainly enhances Hamilton's chances for success Sunday. The 32-year-old centre is responsible for calling the offensive line's blocking assignments. Hage must recognize defensive fronts and quickly figure out how to best neutralize the rush or oncoming blitz packages.
That's a challenge most games but becomes even more difficult when facing a Toronto defence headed by Argos defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones. Jones has a well-earned reputation of being very imaginative in designing blitzes to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
"He's going to switch looks on you, he's going to bring blitzes from a lot of angles and put pressure with a lot of fronts and a lot of looks," Hage said. "I rely a lot on my experience and what I've seen.
"I've faced (Jones) a lot in the past, I study the tapes every time we play him but I have the utmost respect for his defence and some of the crazy stuff you see out there."
It's easy to understand why Toronto would want to attack the Ticats' offence. The unit surrendered a CFL-high 65 sacks this season and pressuring league passing leader Henry Burris could help ground the league's second-ranked aerial attack (299.7 yards per game).
But Hamilton coach Kent Austin said the sack total is deceiving.
"We were obviously not good early and some of that had to do with trying to figure out what was the best lineup," Austin said. "We've modified what we've done offensively to play more to the strengths of those guys, identify what we don't do as well and stay out of those situations as much as we can.
"Just like other positions, we've improved over the course of the season. There's a lot of reasons why (sacks) occur and they're not all due to just one position."
Austin said having a veteran like Hage at centre certainly anchors the offensive line.
"He's got a ton of experience, he's very bright," Austin said. "He gets our guys in position to be successful, he makes all the calls for us.
"He's a good, veteran, savvy presence that plays well."
Austin has been innovative in designing Hamilton's offensive gameplan, using all three quarterbacks — starter Henry Burris and backups Dan LeFevour and Jeremiah Masoli — at different times of games. But Hage said having multiple players under centre hasn't created challenges for Hamilton's offensive line.
"We're used to all the quarterbacks . . . it works very well for us," he said.
Hamilton and Toronto have been long-time CFL rivals but will meet in the East Division final for the first time since '86. Many of Hage's current teammates weren't even born then.
"I understand the rivalry, I've been part of it for along time," Hage said. "But we can't play the past . . . we play for the present.
"The important thing is to get to the dance, get to the championship. The Argos are the team we've got to face . . . right now, I see us doing what we have to do to try to get to the championship game."