CFL football is back in the ‘Peg

There were guys throwing balls and catching them. Others were knocking down passes or focusing on footwork. Still more basked in the late-morning sun, stretching muscles.

It was all fairly mundane on the surface, and yet there was something special about the moment. That’s because after a long wait, nearly 20 months, CFL football is back in Winnipeg.

The Blue Bombers opened training camp Saturday, with the first two-hour session of what will be three weeks of workouts leading up to the season-opener Aug. 5. That’s when Winnipeg welcomes the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to town, in a rematch of the 2019 Grey Cup — the last CFL game played.

‘I’m not going out there going guns blazing right away. I really have nothing to prove’‐ Running back Andrew Harris on the importance of easing back into action after the long layoff

Just being out on the practice field, though, was enough for most guys to summon the surreal feeling of being back to normal. Or as normal as can be, with COVID-19 protocols in effect and the season delayed two months.

The offensive players mingle on Day 1 of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers training camp on a training field near IG Field. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>
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The offensive players mingle on Day 1 of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers training camp on a training field near IG Field. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

“It could be equivalent to like maybe being excited for your first year of going to college. You haven’t seen a friend or maybe your girlfriend or whoever in years, you know? This is a family, and you could feel it from the first day,” Bombers safety Brandon Alexander said through a Zoom availability, as players are still restricted from in-person interviews.

“The fact that I could see my brother right next to me, and be like, ‘wow, we’re here, we’re here now.’ This is real family to me. I have friends that are my family members, for real, and a lot of my friends come from playing football. I missed these guys a lot.”

A total of 100 players were invited to training camp, with just a few exceptions missing Saturday. There were plenty of familiar faces, including 20 of the 24 starters from the Grey Cup. On offence, only centre Cody Speller was missing from that championship game, having signed with the Toronto Argonauts.

Players started arriving in the city earlier this month and faced an immediate seven-day quarantine upon arrival. They were subjected to regular testing over that stretch, needing three negative COVID-19 tests before being allowed to take part in some light conditioning prior to the start of camp.

But it wasn’t until Saturday that everyone came together, forming a group that will eventually be trimmed down by more than half by the time August hits. No one was thinking that far into the future; many were just happy to finish Day 1 and are looking forward to what’s planned over the next few weeks.

Running back Andrew Harris (33) runs a drill. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>
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Running back Andrew Harris (33) runs a drill. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

“I was one of the guys that was 20 minutes early on the field. The way we’re doing things with camp, we’re kind of having an approach that gets us in the swing of things, a walk before you run kind of thing,” Bombers running back Andrew Harris said.

“But today was a great, exciting day to just be throwing balls around, just hearing the call being called in the huddle. Just being around the guys again, it’s definitely an exciting day and looking forward to the rest of camp, for sure.”

Harris is coming off three consecutive seasons as the CFL’s leading rusher and was named the most outstanding Canadian and most valuable player in the Grey Cup. At 34, with more than a decade of experience in the league, he’s acutely aware of what his body needs to get ready for a season. With camp starting two months late, the temperatures much hotter compared to May, he knows the importance of easing back into things after an extended layoff.

That point was reinforced this week when the Saskatchewan Roughriders had four players, including two defensive starters, tear their Achilles before training camp even started. But injuries, Harris said, is something that happens in all sports, especially when you haven’t pushed your body to that required pro level for some time.

“Every league has seen it. You look at the NFL last year, there were tons of injuries. It’s going to happen; anytime you have this long a period off and you’re not training properly due to closures and you’re not getting the right treatment just because of things going on. If anything, the guys gotta listen to their bodies,” said Harris.

The offensive unit get ready to run a play. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>
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The offensive unit get ready to run a play. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

“Personally, I’m not going out there just going guns blazing right away. I really have nothing to prove, I don’t think, and the guys that are trying to make the team, you got to be really smart with your body. At the end of the day, you got to do what’s right to want to make the team or stay on the team, but you’re not gonna make the team if you’re hurt.”

It was no secret the potential for more injuries than usual is a real possibility under the current conditions. Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea has talked at length in recent weeks about coming up with a plan to mitigate some of the more likely injuries, including soft-tissue issues such as pulled hamstrings and quads.

The Bombers are practising earlier than usual and aren’t doing two practices a day. They’ve limited the battle drills early on, with a focus on cardio. Shade and water, staples at every camp, are there to help players retreat from the sun and the CFL Players Association has let its membership know to report any issues with teams that might be putting players at risk.

“Unprecedented is a good word for it,” O’Shea said about the injuries in Saskatchewan.

“The league is full of coaches that care deeply about their players and, for that to happen, we all feel bad. I know we compete against each other on the field and compete fiercely, but in the end all coaches and management teams are feeling the pain that Saskatchewan is going through. We’re very comfortable with our plan.

“Obviously when these things happen, as with a lot of things, you validate your plan, but we haven’t changed anything. We were quite comfortable going in with the plan that (trainers) Al Couture and Brayden Miller and myself and the coaching staff agreed to, so we’ll just continue ahead.”

The Bombers had no new injuries to report on Saturday, with only running back Johnny Augustine out owing to an ailment suffered during the off-season.

twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

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