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First & 10 | A positive mindset

Life has served up this meal before to Jermarcus Hardrick. It’s a big, fat s—t sandwich. It’s nasty and, no, it just doesn’t seem fair.

The Canadian Football League had its 2020 season officially cancelled earlier this week after the federal government backed away from funding the bubble-city concept here in Winnipeg.

As late as last weekend, there was a quiet-but-growing optimism a condensed CFL season was a go. That notion was perfectly captured by Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea earlier this week during in his address to the media, when he admitted he was blindsided by the sudden change in events, with Monday being “one of the saddest days I’ve had in a long, long time.”

It’s news that has impacted many and will impact many more that are/were employed by the teams and the league. And so in that sense, it’s been not just a crappy week, but makes for some very uncertain times ahead.

It was against that backdrop that I asked Darren Cameron, the Bombers’ Senior Director of Public & Player Relations and Chief Consigliere if Hardrick, the likable veteran right tackle, might be available for an interview on Friday.

Part of me was bracing for a thumbs down on the request, as a lot of people in the organization and in the league have used the last few days to decompress.

But part of me was also hoping he would agree to chat and we could then provide a look at the human side on the past week. And Hardrick, a husband and father of three who has come to love playing in Winnipeg, is also one that depends on the league to provide for his family.

“I feel like complaining,” began Hardrick from his offseason home in Lincoln, Nebraska, “but then that wouldn’t help the situation and half of this is having a positive mindset.

“That news on Monday… Monday hurt, man. I thought Coach O’Shea put it in perfect words (in his address to the team via Zoom) when he said it was kind of like a death in the family, but it wasn’t.”

“But this is hard. This is something I’ve been doing since I was 13-14. I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t playing football at this time of year, being sweaty and being around my guys.

“Without that in my life… look, it’s great to know I can live without it and be successful without it and still be a great husband and father. But, man, I miss it.”

We’ve told Hardrick’s story before and I frequently share the link because it’s the kind of tale that can not only provide perspective, but offer a reminder to appreciate what you have when things are sour.

That’s the thing about any conversation with Hardrick – invariably you feel uplifted afterward. It’s what O’Shea mentioned the other day, both to the team and to the media later – now is the time more than ever to be a good teammate.

And that might just best describe Hardrick.

“With how bad this year has been you’re going to need somebody to lean on, you’re going to need positivity from somebody,” he said. “You need to talk to someone who is going through the same situation you are to keep you uplifted and get motivated.

“They key is staying positive. This happened. None of us planned for this, but it happened and we can’t change it now. Now we’ve got to attack it. Any time adversity comes, you’ve got to bring it. That’s my mindset.

“And if somebody needs help, we’re a band of brothers, man. Let’s make it happen.”

More notes, quotes, links and other ponderings in this week’s 1st & 10…

1. A couple more notes from our conversation with Hardrick…

The big man has been working for the YMCA in Lincoln, umpiring baseball and softball games and officiating football. He’s also recently landed a gig as the regional manager with Little Rookies, an organization that helps teach baseball to kids.

During the tough times this offseason he also took a job working for UPS and recently was delivering newspapers.

“The job with UPS I thought it was going perfect because i I thought football was coming back,” he said. “And then the last two weeks I was out delivering papers from two in the morning until five. I thought, ‘Man, this sounds easy… I’ll be delivering papers from 2-5. I had 138 papers. I had to bag them, put the coupon in every paper. I thought I would just be driving and letting them go out the window, but you have to put them on every porch. That turned into some work there.”

2. During our conversation both Jermarcus and I spoke of how our body clocks are messed up right now with no football. The Bombers were to have played in Calgary this week in what would have been the halfway mark of their schedule.

Instead, nada.

“The thing I miss most right now is waking up the day after a game and feeling like I’ve been in a car crash, going to watch the film, taking two days after the game to get your body back to normal after being sore,” said Hardrick. “That’s like a clock. It’s muscle memory and my body knows when May hits I’m probably a little more grumpy around the house, I’m probably not taking my dishes to the sink but my body knows I’m getting ready to go to camp.

“It’s kind of weird right now. We’re nearing the end of August and that’s when you’d start to be seeing a little bit of the playoff picture and you start to gel as a team. Sukh Chungh called me last night and we stayed on the phone for three hours… we just talked and talked. We miss it.”

This much is certain: he’s not alone in that regard. And with what would have been the Labour Day Classic, Banjo Bowl and fall football now denied, those emotions are only going to become more profound.

“What I’d like to know is, what is this ‘new normal’ going to look like?” said Hardrick. “I know things might never be the way they were again or it might take a while, but I just want fast-forward to the new normal and get back to what we were doing. I want to get back to doing what we do, get back to practising, get back to having interviews with you guys, get back to the plane rides, the hotels… everything. I love everything about football. Man, I just miss it all.”

3. So, what’s next for the Bombers and the CFL?

It’s a good question as the league now plans to take the time to regroup for 2021, not knowing whether there will be a Coronavirus vaccine in circulation by next season or if this gate-driven league will be able to allow fans into the stands.

The idea of ‘podding’ – clustering fans who are attending the game together in safely-distanced ‘pods’ – is being explored by the Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots.

It’s a concept the CFL will undoubtedly be monitoring.

Check out this story from Yahoo sports on the podding idea.

4. Bombers President & CEO Wade Miller was front and centre on the Winnipeg hub city efforts and was understandably disappointed, like so many others in the CFL, that the idea never got off the ground.

He spoke with Brodie Lawson of CFL.ca this week for ‘The Waggle’ podcast.

He said this when asked what the next six months might look like for the league.

“Now we have undivided attention and focus to be put on that season, which we will all do at a team level and as a league. We’ll work together collectively off the field, which this group has always done very well, the nine teams and the league.

“We’ll continue to do that and build on that and make our business model more efficient, find ways to generate additional revenue and increase that fan experience when we have our fans back in the stadiums.”

5. It’s impossible not to feel for the players with the season shutdown, as they are this league’s stars yet their window for making this game a career isn’t open for long.

The frustration they are feeling right now is obvious and we got a taste of it earlier this week in a conference call with Zach Collaros and Adam Bighill of the Bombers.

This story, written by free-agent receiver Nate Behar, also offers a heartfelt perspective.

6. Now that the CFL is going into regroup mode, let’s hope the discussions on how to improve the league are productive. Social media can be a cesspool at times and the trolls have been out in full force mocking this league, well, since the whole pandemic started.

Every option/idea should be discussed, it says here. And the reactions to a tweet from Dusty Nielson of TSN 1260 in Edmonton – also a rising star in the CFL’s play-by-play booth – were intriguing. Hopefully someone at league headquarters jotted some of this down.

7. One of the kickers to this pandemic has been the screech to a full stop in the momentum that was gaining for a 10th franchise in Halifax-Dartmouth. It meant the cancellation of the Touchdown Atlantic game between Saskatchewan and Toronto at St. Mary’s University Huskies Stadium and it’s certainly impacted plans for a new stadium.

8. Tough news for Marcus Sayles this week, as he was let go by the Minnesota Vikings after signing with the squad this offseason. A West Division All-Star last season, Sayles said last month he felt like the Vikings were going to give him a real shot during camp.

“After my workout they brought me upstairs and said they liked me and said they thought I could come into their system and compete to play or even start,” Sayles said. “They said they liked my skillset and they knew at the time that some of their DBs weren’t going to be on the roster any more.

“I just got a good feeling talking with them… Going into their system I just felt like I would have an opportunity to play and be on their roster and contribute. That’s really all I wanted. I didn’t want to be in a situation where they were telling me I was going to be a practice squad guy or a guy that would just help fill up numbers at camp.

“All I want is an opportunity.”

The reality is Sayles likely needed a mini-camp or two, or at least a preseason game to showcase his value to the team. The Vikings drafted three corners and two safeties in 2020 and draft picks always get the benefit of the doubt in a camp. Undrafted free agents like Sayles are in tough, but it’s a shame Vikings camp has just gotten underway and he’s been released.

Related to that is this piece from NFL.com where New England Patriots boss Bill Belichick speaks of how rookies and young players were going to be in tough at training camp because COVID-19 had killed mini-camps.

9. This week’s good read, ICYMI, comes from Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun/Postmedia , who offers his perspective on the CFL season being cancelled.

The paragraph that jumped out to me:

“The CFL won’t play this season, and maybe that doesn’t mean much to most people in Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver. But it matters everywhere else. Even in the large markets, the giant Canadian cities where established franchises fight for fans in the stands, my history is that the fan base, small as it might be, is as rabid and as loyal and as emotionally involved as any in sports.”

10. And, finally, yours truly and Darren Cameron recorded our third ‘Handled Internally’ podcast this week for ‘The W Hub’, available to Bombers season ticket holders and Bomber for Life members.

This week’s guest was Andrew Harris and, like Buck Pierce and Doug Brown before him, the Bombers running back told some stories that had yet to be shared previously including his first camp in Winnipeg in 2016 when he missed a day of training camp and was warned by his agent that he was close to being cut – before even playing a game with his hometown team.

“I basically had a situation where I fell off the face of the earth for a good 12 hours and I missed a full day of training camp and no one really knew where I was,” Harris told us. “I remember my agent calling me and saying, ‘What happened? You gotta go talk to the coaching staff.’ I just said, ‘I can’t really talk about it. I’d rather just forget about it, move on and tell you guys this is never going to happen again and I’m extremely sorry.’”

Making matters worse was a couple days later Harris was late for a practice. As we all know now, the club and Harris worked things out, but not before his teammates, unbeknownst to him, had a package delivered to him – during a team meeting.

“I open it up and it’s this big clock with a rope around it, Flavor-Flav style,” Harris recalled. “Everyone just burst out laughing, I laughed and at that moment it let me breathe a little bit. I thought, ‘OK, we can have some fun with this.’ Now the clock is a staple. It’s still around and if guys are late, it’s in their locker.”

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