Drew Wolitarsky has gone from looking for a catch before getting hit to hoping his next catchy tune will become a hit.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers receiver took up the guitar since moving to the city in 2017 from Santa Clarita, Calif., and beginning his pro career in the Canadian Football League.
When the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the 2020 CFL season, Wolitarsky decided to set aside his football helmet and the pigskin for a guitar, a microphone and some studio engineering courses that helped him record from his home on St. Anne’s Road.
The result is a three-song EP, Room, which Drew William — Wolitarsky’s stage name — is releasing to streaming services today. His tunes are contemporary folk-rock; among the first songs he learned to play is Angela by the Lumineers before he began writing his own songs, he says.
“I’ve really been following my gut with this, following my intuition and it hasn’t led me astray yet,” he says. “Now it’s become an unlimited potential. I can keep getting better and better and that’s exciting to me.”
Wolitarsky started playing guitar only three years ago when he first joined the Bombers. He was on the team’s practice roster that first year, which meant he didn’t get much playing time, and when the team played road games, he remained in Winnipeg.
So he spent that free time learning the guitar on a beat-up old Yamaha six-string his landlord gave him. He brought his football mindset to his music, which meant total commitment.
“I’m talking hours, hours, hours,” he says of his time learning music. “Football has taught me about the amount of work actually required, not the amount of work you think you have to do. Everything you see people getting is not handed to them.”
Music proved to be the perfect outlet when he wasn’t running pass routes and working on his blocking in practice and during games.
“I love music, man. I’m addicted to the guitar. If it’s in the room, I’m playing it, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “If I was put in prison for some reason, it would be absolute torture not to play. I’m so glad I found it.”
Wolitarsky returned to Winnipeg last June in case there was a CFL season that would give the Bombers a chance to defend their Grey Cup title won in 2019. When the 2020 season was cancelled, Wolitarsky went back to the guitar and played a few small gigs in and around the city when COVID-19 positive cases were low.
“Winnipeg was like this perfect womb for me to sit in and learn and take all the writing I’ve done and apply it to something that I could eventually share,” he says.
His connection with the Bombers — a team riding high in the hearts and minds of Manitobans after they broke a 29-year Grey Cup drought — helped Wolitarsky find an audience last summer when local football fans were starved for anything related to the Blue and Gold.
“As a player, you see (fans) after the games you high-five ’em going to the locker-room,” he says. “You have signings, you have banquets, but you don’t truly sit down with them and see their families and see their kids and see how they live. That’s what’s been really cool about this whole experience.”
Wolitarsky has recorded a few videos as well, but one for his song Standing, Still, which he shot in Minneapolis last June just before arriving in Winnipeg last summer, is the most striking, both for the song’s lyrics about unity and for the video’s setting.
“Football has taught me about the amount of work actually required, not the amount of work you think you have to do”‐ Blue Bombers receiver Drew Wolitarsky, a.k.a. contemporary folk-rocker Drew William
He performs in front of a giant Bob Dylan mural in downtown Minneapolis, a city where emotions were frayed after the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd during an arrest by police. His death led to demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism against Black people, and the incident, and the violent reaction against it captured the attention of people of all races around the world.
“It’s a very daunting mural because on the very left hand side we see a very young Bob Dylan, looking toward the future, so to speak, of his own life. To the very right, you have an old, almost worn down Bob Dylan and above it it says ‘The times they are a-changin’,’” says Wolitarsky, who played college football in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota.
“When you look at Dylan’s eyes, he looks solemn, almost sad. It kind of gives this reflection that the times aren’t changing, man. Nothing has really changed and that’s what the upheaval is about, what this movement is about.”
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.
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