It hasn’t been the same. There’s no way it could have been after the cancellation of the Canadian Football League season back in August.
Still, I’ll say this after gobbling up virtually all of the events on this week’s Grey Cup Unite schedule as part of the league’s plan to keep the spirit of the week alive even with stadiums silent: Thanks to everyone involved and all those who participated, because I needed this mental medicine – an antidote of sorts after spending months lamenting what has been lost.
One of the truly awesome things about Grey Cup week – even if your favourite team isn’t participating – are all the various gatherings leading up to game day. Touchdown Manitoba, the Spirit of Edmonton, Riderville, the Lion’s Den, Stamps House, the Atlantic Schooners Kitchen Party and all the various team events are just part of what gives the week such a spirited sense of community.
And if you think that sounds hokey, you either haven’t attended a Grey Cup festival week or are the type who boos a rainbow and a sunny day.
Sure, doing some of this stuff virtually this week can make those social interactions seem stale, but they can be therapeutic, too. Fans are missing their seat mates, their tailgate sessions, and emptying their lungs after every touchdown or cursing every loss.
The players are craving it all, too. We got a sense of that Friday afternoon as Andrew Harris, Zach Collaros, Stanley Bryant, Pat Neufeld and Jermarcus Hardrick got together for the latest virtual huddle as part of the Grey Cup Unite festivities.
It was a highly entertaining session that offered a glimpse at some of the locker-room banter all players are craving right now, from teammates teasing Collaros about his hair or the recruiting video they played from his days at the University of Cincinnati, to Hardrick imitating how he calls a batter out now as a youth umpire, to the shots at Bryant likely not beginning his training for 2021 until about a week before the first preseason game.
And, frankly, watching it brought a size-large grin on this grizzled old mug.
Nobody asked me, but we need some of that right now, what with the Coronavirus still having the planet in a headlock. Some may view that kind of thinking as naïve, but it says here we could all use a little hope, too. As Bombers coach Mike O’Shea said earlier this week in a coach’s conference call with the media: “Let’s get some positivity generated here. Let’s move forward and get a season underway.”
The same sentiments came from Bombers President & CEO Wade Miller Friday afternoon, not long after the 2021 schedule was released.
“Grey Cup Unite has been great to talk about CFL football and releasing the schedule gives us something to look forward to in what is going to be a tough winter,” he said. “We need to come out on the other side of this, and we will.
“We’re going to have to get back to normalcy. (The planned start of a ’21 season) is seven months away – we can get wrapped up in the doom and gloom, or we can look forward to getting through this spike right now and getting back to CFL football in the summer.
“We know things can change very quickly,” Miller added. “But we’re going to focus on the positive as we head toward the summer next year. There are some great things happening with the vaccine announcements we’ve heard recently. Again, we’ve got to work to do to bend the curve the right way in this country and let’s focus on something positive.”
As much as I’ve gushed about how important this week has been for my psyche as a CFL fan and employee, it’s not officially over yet. Just a reminder that a rebroadcast of the 2019 Grey Cup – with live commentary from members of the squad – goes at 5:30 p.m. Sunday on the Blue Bombers Facebook page.
More notes and quotes in this week’s 1st & 10:
1. We outlined some of the various aspects of the Blue Bombers ’21 schedule here in a straightforward take on what is ahead for the Grey Cup champions. Miller said season tickets are on sale now and that renewals for ’21 are going well. He also explained why the schedule was released now.
“Our fans really stressed a few years back that they wanted the schedule out before Christmas,” he said. “And we’ve managed to be able to do that in the last few years. This year is a little earlier because we weren’t playing and we were able to get it done prior to when it was released in years past.”
2. Worth repeating from this perch: yours truly is lucky to be surrounded by some very creative people in our building, including Rhéanne Marcoux, Riley Marra, Sam Calvert and Carrie Berndsen.
And Riley – ‘Young Scorcese’, as I call him – killed it Friday with the club’s 2021 schedule drop.
— Winnipeg Blue Bombers (@Wpg_BlueBombers) November 20, 2020
There’s a lot of love in the replies to the tweet, including:
Find me a better schedule reveal. You can’t. https://t.co/UUAZ0SLcXp
— Chris O’Leary (@olearychris) November 20, 2020
And one more from Canadian Football and Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Famer Doug Brown:
Best. Schedule. Release. Ever. https://t.co/qW7oH0Fzof
— Doug Brown (@DougBrown97) November 20, 2020
3. One more schedule related note…
The quarterbacks from all nine CFL teams were part of three separate media Zoom calls on Thursday and there was some reluctance to get too excited about the release of the schedule, which came the following day.
That’s understandable, of course, given the rollercoaster ride these guys were on last summer when the season was rumoured to be on and off a number of times before the plug was eventually pulled.
Again, though, it does help – even a teeny-tiny bit – in clearing a very fuzzy picture right now for the league.
“To have some kind of clarity, sooner than later, for the players would be nice,” said Collaros, the day before the schedule was announced. “I haven’t watched or read what Commissioner Ambrosie said, but there’s been some encouraging things in the last couple of days with the vaccine. I don’t know the economics of the league as well as the people who are making these decisions, but it’s tough when you’re kind of told you’re just waiting around to see if the vaccine is going to be made.
“Again, the sooner we get some clarity the better for everybody involved. Obviously the coaches feel that way. Obviously the general managers feel that way. We’re not in the minority there. It’s been tough just waiting around and getting asked everywhere you go or with everybody you talk to, ‘Hey, any CFL news?’ Communication and clarity for us would be huge.”
4. The CFL’s 2021 draft order was revealed Saturday during TSN’s Grey Cup Unite special and the Bombers got a boost – they’ll draft third in the first round, after Hamilton and Saskatchewan.
Overall, the Bombers have the 3rd, 16th, 21st, 34th, 39th and 52nd selections.
The ‘snake’ format draft was determined after meetings by the CFL’s GMs and approved by the league’s management council. Earlier this month Bombers GM Kyle Walters explained how that change does benefit the club.
“I was the one who threw it out there that if we don’t play the 2020 season I don’t know why the draft order would remain the same,” he said. “Every GM has their team’s best interests in mind and when I first floated this there was some opposition. But the consensus is that this seemed like a fair way to go. Everybody was on board with it.”
5. The daily lives have changed for every CFL player, from those now working other jobs to those who have become fathers. Collaros, Matt Nichols of Toronto and Edmonton’s Trevor Harris were all on the Zoom call together and were asked by Edmonton play-by-play man Morley Scott if they are watching more football now that they don’t have film to watch and gameplans to devour on a regular basis.
“It’s been a different year for my wife without there being any CFL games,” said Collaros. “During the season I really didn’t want to watch any kind of football on the TV. But this year she’s learned that Saturdays and Sundays are for football. That’s what we do now: we watch football as fans.
“It’s been quite an adjustment for her, but we’ve been watching. There’s mixed emotions. Obviously you miss playing and you’re frustrated and angry at times, but I love watching the game, I love talking the game.”
6. One aspect of the Bombers’ 2021 schedule I don’t like, for what it’s worth: the only team that won’t visit Winnipeg next season is the Argos, robbing the media of the potential juicy story lines that week and fans of the chance to salute Nichols for his work here from 2015-19.
Nichols, by the way, tried to downplay the notion he’d have something to prove against his old club.
“it seems like it’s so far away to really think too much about it,” he said. “I know that whether it’s a preseason game or a Western Final I’ve always had the same mentality. I don’t think that playing against my old team would change my mindset or anything, but I can tell you that beating them would probably be sweeter than most wins.”
That brought guffaws from Harris and Collaros, with the Bombers QB adding:
“Oh, there’s going to be a chip. There’s going to be a chip on his shoulder. Don’t lie about it. Take it from me.”
Nichols laughed at that, adding:
“You guys think I’m underplaying it?”
7. Part of the Grey Cup Unite events included Thursday’s reveal of the All-Decade Team, as voted on my fans and selected media.
The First Team All-Decade squad included current Bombers Andrew Harris, Stanley Bryant, Adam Bighill, Justin Medlock and Mike Miller and the second team features Willie Jefferson.
Also included are former Bombers Weston Dressler, Adarius Bowman, Brendon LaBatte, Jovon Johnson on the first team and Odell Willis and Henoc Muamba on the second.
Check out the full list here.
8. If you have 28 minutes, check out the Diversity is Strength: Racial Justice Roundtable posted on CFL.ca this week, featuring host Donnovan Bennett and, among others Jackson Jeffcoat of the Bombers and former Bombers QB/Montreal head coach Khari Jones.
It was an important discussion that included Jeffcoat recalling a story of being pulled over by police when he was driving from Colorado to Dallas for having an obscured licence plate.
“It was a case of ‘DWB’, as we call it: Driving While Black,” said Jeffcoat. “As a Black man driving you get pulled over for little things. I saw that a lot with my dad (former NFLer Jim Jeffcoat) when he’d get pulled over.
“He had nice rims on his Lincoln Navigator at the time and he’d get pulled over all the time and they would never tell him why. When they saw it was Jim Jeffcoat it’d be, ‘Sorry, go along with your day.’”
9. Attention Jermarcus Hardrick fans…
The Bombers’ right tackle, one of the most popular men in the locker room and among the fan base for his boundless energy, recently recorded a podcast with cornnation.com.
Many of the stories have been told before, but his fans should check it out here.
10. And, finally, let’s end with this…
We received an e-mail from a long-time Bomber fan this week – 69-year-old Bruce Christie. He’s been around long enough that he said he can recall welcoming the likes of Bud Grant and Kenny Ploen home after the Grey Cup victories of the late 1950s/early 1960s.
Bruce’s passion for the CFL and the Bombers is why so many believe this league can survive what unfolded in 2020 and come out swinging in 2021. His e-mail:
Last year it was our turn to host the Grey Cup party. It was our first, but we had hosted a Jets party in 2018, Game 7, in Nashville — so we had a winning streak of one.
During the game I adjusted the volume of the television to level 33, and told the group I was setting it there for good luck. Then Andrew Harris became the player of the game and the Bombers scored 33 points while maintaining incredible defence against a top-ranked team. As hosts, my wife and I felt like royalty in this atmosphere.
The celebration at The Forks was the best I have experienced and I recall back to 1958. People in the crowd were almost as happy as the Blue Bombers and that grace and confidence carried throughout the city for the rest of the calendar year. That Grey Cup victory surpassed any previous celebration the Bombers or the WHA Jets had achieved. I bet the players hold that victory as one of the huge days in their entire lifetime.
Well said, sir. And let’s try to keep this positive vibe going.
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