Drew Wolitarsky thought he’d be coming to Winnipeg this summer to help the Blue Bombers defend their Grey Cup title. Instead, the receiver made his way here for much different reasons.
The 25-year-old Santa Clarita, Calif., native was driving to Minneapolis — where he played college ball at the University of Minnesota — in May and had planned to stay in the Twin Cities for a bit. But the city he once knew quickly changed when George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who pressed his knee against his neck for several minutes. There were protests, riots and looting and Minneapolis quickly had the entire world’s attention.
“I remember staying up all night four nights in a row looking after some businesses just because looters from out of town were using that time of unrest to come from Chicago, or different cities, and actually come and rob stores and just cause havoc, and these people aren’t even from the city,” said Wolitarsky, whose friend had a car drive through the window of his store, which was looted.
“You just kind of saw a lot of good and evil. You saw a lot of people fighting for a good cause and you saw a lot of people doing it the right way and then you see a lot of people taking advantage of a situation, looting, causing fires, causing havoc just because they can. It was kind of an interesting time, man, because you can see both sides of humanity and that can either be really nice and really powerful or just really frightening.”
The pandemic made it difficult for Wolitarsky to find a place to stay in Minneapolis, but he didn’t want to turn around and head back to sunny California. Wolitarsky, a dual-citizen, decided to drive to Winnipeg.
“I was like ‘You know what man, like COVID is really bad in the states right now. My season hopefully might start, so I’m going to go up north and get a head start on the season,’” Wolitarsky said.
While Wolitarsky was hoping there’d be a season, he admits last week’s announcement that the CFL axed the 2020 campaign didn’t surprise him one bit. He saw the writing on the wall from a mile away.
“I never felt confident. Really, I didn’t feel confident in the fact that there was such little communication with us as players. We really didn’t know what was happening. We honestly still really don’t. We just know that the government decided not to bail out the CFL this year. Other than that, like the hub city, the plan, all that stuff was just rumours. We don’t even really know. I personally don’t know what the exactness of the details were,” said Wolitarsky, who’s renting a place in Winnipeg until December and isn’t sure what he’ll do after that.
“It’s sad, man, because you work your whole life to get to a professional level and to make money at your craft and you work so hard at it from fourth grade and up. So, to have that taken away and not really have a say in that or any power over that, it’s a hard pill to swallow. I know a lot of guys with families are having a hard time finding any job. I think we’re all in the same boat here. It’s an interesting thing to have something you know so well taken away. You kind of go into a little panic for a second and kind of have to reorganize, re-strategize and feel your identity slowly shifting into a new direction, which is always tough.”
Luckily for Wolitarsky, there’s more to his identity than just football.
The same can be said for teammate Brandon Alexander, a 26-year-old safety from Orlando, Fla., who also joined the Blue and Gold in 2017. The duo share a passion for music and with no football, it’s what they’re devoting their time to.
Wolitarsky plays guitar and writes his own tunes. Since returning to Winnipeg, he’s been performing live at Cork and Flame on Portage Avenue, as well as various other gigs around town, and trying to connect with fellow musicians in hopes of launching a music career.
Alexander, a musical artist who prides himself on being able to sing and rap, is building a catalogue of more than 130 songs that will be ready next month. In fact, when Alexander got word on the season cancellation, he was writing music.
“I won’t say that it takes my mind off of football because I equally love football,” said Alexander in a phone interview from Orlando. “I miss being around the game. I miss being around with my guys and you know, it’s different. But it does make me hone into something else that I’d like to do. Instead, right now I’d probably be watching film with a couple of guys after practice. And right now, since I can’t do that, I got some things that I can write and get some stuff off of my mind. It’s a different type of grind. I won’t say it’s easy, though, but I enjoy it nonetheless.”
But studio time isn’t cheap and there’s no football money coming in, so Alexander didn’t waste any time in finding work. He picked up a job loading trucks from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.
“I won’t necessarily say it’s a fun job, but it keeps me motivated and keeps me going. To be honest with you, it humbled me a lot. That job humbles me a lot,” Alexander said.
“I’ve been blessed and fortunate to be able to play sports for most of my life… just because football stopped or sports stopped doesn’t mean that life does. I got that going on and I have another job next week that I’ll be picking up. Life moves on and it has humbled me a lot. I’m appreciative of where I’m at in my life right now.”
Loading trucks might not be as glamourous as riding in the back of a truck down Portage and Main while hoisting the Grey Cup over your head in front of thousands of fans, but Alexander isn’t complaining.
“There’s no shame in going out and working hard… Sometimes you gotta go through a lot of trials and tribulations for you to prevail,” Alexander said.
“You got to go through a lot of that. This is just one of those situations, so why get upset about it?”
He is, however, disappointed that he can’t jam out with Wolitarsky.
“I wish I was up there. We were talking about this before, saying we’re supposed to get up there and make a song together or just vibe together with music,” Alexander said. “We’re gonna have to wait on that.”
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.
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