First & 10 | An introspective talk with Wolitarsky

It began as a casual, catching-up conversation fresh with a bit of news.

Drew Wolitarsky was on the phone and, first thing’s first, he has a gig he wanted to promote.

So, let’s deal with that upfront: the Winnipeg Blue Bombers receiver/musician will be performing live at Quest Music Store on Osborne on May 30th. The details are here:

Still, it seems that whenever the two of us converse – whether it be formally for a story about the Xs and Os of an offensive game plan, the vibe in the Bombers’ locker room or, more often than not during this blasted pandemic, just casually about music – the chats hit on a number of different topics and veer off onto some interesting tangents.

It was during this recent convo – which pushed the 40-minute mark, by the way – that Wolitarsky continued to reveal himself in ways that so few of us do, especially for a professional athlete with a public profile in this town.

I’ve said this before and I’ll mention it again: in 34 years of sports writing I’ve come across some intriguing characters. Some who were flat-out hilarious, others very business-like, a few who seemed to want to strangle me and many, many of them just normal people who happen to have exceptional sporting skills.

Wolitarsky, it should be said here, might be the most introspective athlete I’ve ever interviewed.

Sure, he’s got that chill California/surfer personality where every sentence is punctuated with a ‘bro’ or ‘dude.’ But his understanding of who he is and the world around him is, frankly, exceptionally unique.

And so it was this week that I asked him how his passion for music might have helped him – ‘saved’ is the word I used – over the last year or so when he had broken up with a girlfriend, lost a grandfather and saw the 2020 Canadian Football League season flushed due to the pandemic.

“Honestly, ‘saved’ might be the right word,” Wolitarsky began. “What was hard for me when you lose something or someone is you feel like you lost a part of yourself. It’s a scary feeling. It’s ‘Wow… I thought I knew who I was, but then I discovered who I was seemed so dependent on what I did as an athlete.’ That is a cataclysmic feeling. It’s like you’re floating in the abyss and… where do I go? Who am I? What am I doing? How do people see me? How do I see myself? All these questions are floating around.

“For some reason, music was the pull for me, this way to focus on something. I just knew I wanted to make an EP. It was a goal to take my mind from wandering.”

Wolitarsky’s road to self-discovery really started in full last summer when he hopped in his car for a road trip and made stops along the way to visit Chris Streveler in Phoenix and family in Denver. Some of the details of that trek are featured in the ‘Handled Internally’ podcast Bombers’ Senior Director of Player and Public Relations/Chief Consigliere Darren Cameron and I did with him earlier this month.

He had planned on setting up an offseason base in Minneapolis, but arrived around the time of the protests last summer following the murder of George Floyd. At the same time there was also this – as Wolitarsky called it – ‘pull’ that brought him to Winnipeg, where he has spent almost a year diving further into his music ambitions and fine-tuning his craft.

“It’s just like football and staying in shape. I’m in music shape right now,” he said with a chuckle. “The moment I get that opportunity, bro, I’m ready to go. Music has saved me because it’s given me a direction.

“What’s beautiful about the music and how it has progressed is with each release, with each song I make, it just becomes more true to myself. When I play a song that doesn’t feel real, I feel like I’m lying, if that makes sense.

“There’s a trueness and vulnerability about being human, about being true, about being yourself, dude. It took me awhile to remember who I am and to remember who I want to be in this life. I had to make a choice: who do I want to be and how do I want this music to be felt? I could try to mimic what is popular or other artists, or I could just say, I’m going to do my music and if people don’t like it or respond to it or not like me or whatever the fear I had or insecurity I had is, I had to let that go. That’s the been the biggest thing music has done. It’s made realize that when people say, ‘That’s not the right music’ or ‘That’s not the right way’ it doesn’t matter.

“Everyone lives a different life and I’m just being honest about my life and what I choose to be and who I want to be,” he added. “The moment I chose that, the music became better. The music continues to push me into the direction of how I can be my better self. How can I be vulnerable and not be afraid of things, of life, of my insecurities?

“I’m excited to go into this football season because I have a way different mindset.”

As I indicated in prefacing this, the man thinks on a different wavelength. He calls himself an ‘old soul’ who lists among his friends an 80-year-old man – check that, ‘dude’ – in Los Angeles.

“We just have this honest vibe where it’s almost like we’re the same age. It’s just so funny,” said Wolitarsky. “I like wisdom and listening to people who have lived and have experiences.”

Interestingly, in diving into his music Wolitarsky has also spent hours upon hours examining himself. It’s refreshingly honest and, even in listening to him, it can be therapeutic.

“We’re all facing struggles, man,” he said. “We’re all facing our own tests. Who knows what’s next? I’m not a naïve guy. I know there’s other stuff I’m going to have to do in this life. Music may just end up being a major pathway to that. We don’t know.

“All I know is right now I’m loving this and this is helping me get to the place I need to be.”

More from Wolitarsky and other notes and links in this week’s edition of First & 10…

1. There’s a football connection to this, of course, even if it’s taken a while for me to get to it. Wolitarsky said having the game he loved taken away last year was obviously difficult.

But the music wasn’t just a vehicle to help distract him, it’s provided him with a new focus and an outlook on his ‘other’ craft – football.

“When we get something taken from us I think there’s an immediate panic,” he said. “But maybe that also helps you realize that thing is not entirely who you are and even though you put your care and love into it, it doesn’t define who you actually are. I talked to (Bombers’ offensive coordinator) Buck Pierce about that and how we all lived with that initial panic for months. Eventually it was, ‘I can’t live like this. This is unhealthy.’ That’s the moment it broke.

“I was so worried my whole life about stats,” he added. “How many touchdowns do I have? How many yards do I have? Am I better than this guy? Am I going to get cut? All these thoughts that consumed me, they don’t matter, dude.

“We won the Grey Cup and there were some games that season where I didn’t see the ball, where I didn’t get a pass thrown to me. That used to get me down. Dude, it doesn’t matter. Football is a team sport and that is a strange thing because rarely in life, I’m realizing, are you part of a team where you genuinely have the same goal. I miss that  team.

“And so when I am with that team again it’s not going to be about me. It’s not about touchdowns or yards. I will always remember the Grey Cup. I will always remember Darvin Adams or what Weston Dressler did to help me as a rookie. That’s what I care about. I’ve made that choice not to care about that other stuff. When I get on that football field again my intention is good.

“I’m coming at life with this question every day I leave my door: ‘What is my intention today? How am I doing things and why am I doing things?’ That’s how I want to come at life. When you meet me I want you to feel my energy. I want you to know I’m there with a purpose.”

2. One more from Wolitarsky that truly reveals his uniqueness. In discussing his football side and music side being like two separate personalities – I referred to it as the ‘two Drews’ – he mentioned he has a Reiki Zen meditation teacher in Montreal that he speaks to regularly.

Then, to hammer home what makes Wolitarsky so intriguing, this story…

“I was talking to my Reiki teacher and I got to this point in the meditation where she had me looking at a mirror,” he said. “On the left is the football side and on the right side is the music Drew and I’m in the middle. And the teacher says, ‘What do you want to say to these parts of yourself?’

“To my football side I said, ‘You don’t have to be afraid. You don’t have to play in fear.’ To my music self I said, ‘Don’t get too big-headed. Don’t let this shit get to your head.’

“Music means a lot to me because it’s from me, personally. Football is this cool team game, almost like this sacrificial war and I dig that about it. With football I don’t want to play afraid and with music I don’t want to get too big-headed about it because the moment that happens I lose that trueness and vulnerability. Then it becomes about, what, being popular? Being famous? I’m sitting in the middle of this and thought, ‘This is where Drew needs to be. Not Drew William. Not Drew Wolitarsky.’

“That’s where I’m trying to reside, not going too far in one direction and realizing, ‘I can be more than one thing.’ I like that. I like just being me and not this or that. My intention when I go on the field is the same as when I make music. It’s not about external stuff. It’s what’s going on inside.”

3. Good to see the Bombers have locked up RB Kyle Borsa this week, as all three players who were drafted this month and are not returning to the NCAA this season are expected to be in training camp this year and have a real shot at cracking the roster.

Here are their back stories:

Kyle Borsa

Redha Kramdi

Robbie Lowes

4. So, yeah, there are a ton of questions still to be answered and a number of hurdles to overcome, but there is also some quiet optimism growing about a ’21 season. And reading stuff like this from Chris O’Leary of CFL.ca has to get fans jacked up… simply put, it’s cool to be reading football-related articles after the last year-plus.

5. One more related to the above, courtesy of Farhan Lalji and Dave Naylor of TSN, who offered some news on a variety of fronts this week. Also, Naylor and Lalji take a big-picture look at how the league might adapt going forward, here.

6. FYI: Good read on Bombers Global Draft pick Les Maruo from the Japan Times can be found here…. Long-time Minnesota Vikings head coach Jerry Burns passed away this week, and he’s got a link to the Bombers – he came to work the Bombers’ training camp as a guest coach under Bud Grant, who later hired him in Minnesota.

7. Watching the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens do their thing in the Stanley Cup playoffs has a lot of folks reminiscing about the old Original Six rivalry.

It also had me thinking again about Gerry James and how incredible his story was during his days with the Blue Bombers and the Leafs. Just think of that now – James starred for the Bombers from 1952-62 and was one of the best players in the league and on a team that captured four Grey Cup titles. He also suited up for 149 NHL games with the Leafs from 1954 to 1960 and appeared in 15 Stanley Cup playoff contests – including the ’60 team that lost in the finals to the Habs.

The fact that he is not in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame is, frankly, astonishing.

8. Darren Cameron and I were joined this week by Paul LaPolice for our latest ‘Handled Internally’ podcast and the long-time Bombers coach – now the boss with the Ottawa RedBlacks – shared some great stories over about 80 minutes.

One of the tales that stood out was what he learned while working under Mike O’Shea and how he will use that to be a better head coach the second time around.

“I was a better coach in ’19 than I was in ’16,” LaPolice said. “If you’re open to getting better and listening and learning you should get better. There are so many scenarios I think about and how I would handle them differently. It’s momentous.

“… I can impart better knowledge now than I did previously. I think I have a way better team vision than I did before. Part of that is having four years of sitting with Osh – that was awesome. Osh sees everything from a player’s perspective much more than any coach I’ve seen while coaching 25 years in the business.

“It was so good to see every conversation in a different way. He and I always spent so much time on situational football. And my learning curve as a leader has jumped… I’ve just been exposed to so many different ways of attacking things. There are so many things where I’m going to be like, ‘that’s not a big deal.’”

9. I first met LaPo when he joined the Bombers’ staff in ’02 as a fresh-faced coach under Dave Ritchie. He was fired two years later despite putting up some prolific numbers – many of them team records that still stand. And, of course, he was fired during the ’12 season – despite having led the club to the ’11 Grey Cup. So, yeah, he had some chips in the game when the Bombers finally ended the championship drought in 2019.

“To be a part of the group that broke the drought… this was not my first time (with the Bombers), this was my third time,” he said. “That was awesome to be a part of doing that.

“I was trying to do that (end the drought) in ’02 and then ’03, then ’10 and ’11. We could have won it in ’11. We would have liked to fix it then, but we didn’t. To leave how I left – to get fired out of a place and come back and help them win a Grey Cup is pretty cool.

“I’ve called myself the Billy Martin of the Blue Bombers. Billy Martin kept getting fired by the Yankees and kept coming back.”

Stay tuned for that podcast as it’s coming soon.

10. And, finally, happy birthday to the ‘Silver Fox’ – the legendary Bud Grant, who turned 94 this past week.

One word: legend.

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