Johnny Reagan arrived in Winnipeg in the summer of 1947, just a few months after Jackie Robinson had made history by suiting up for the Brooklyn Dodgers to become the first Black player in Major League Baseball history.
Reagan was a gifted halfback from Montana State and joining him at Blue Bombers training camp that year was Bob Smith, a big tackle from Tuskegee.
We bring this up after stumbling across the movie ‘42’ the other night and re-watching the Robinson biographical sports film from 2013 that pops up every February during Black History Month.
It was with that mind that earlier in the week yours truly reached out to Chris Sinclair – AKA @Stats_Junkie on Twitter – the Vancouver-based historian whose encyclopedic knowledge of Canadian football has proven invaluable whenever bluebombers.com dusts off the archives.
Chances are most fans don’t know or remember the names of Johnny Reagan and Bob Smith but, according to Sinclair, they were the first Black players in the long history of the Blue Bombers.
Both men played pivotal roles in the 1947 season as the Bombers finished first in the Western Interprovincial Football Union with a 5-3 record, then knocked off the Calgary Stampeders in a three-game total point series to advance to the Grey Cup, where they fell 10-9 to the Toronto Argonauts.
Smith would be named a WIFU All-Star at tackle that season, his last with the Bombers. It was also the only season Reagan played for the Bombers, but in doing a little more research on the man, his is a fascinating back story.
A nationally-acclaimed high school athlete in Chicago where he was known as ‘Silent John’, Reagan headed to Missoula and Montana State to play football after starring in several sports, including wrestling, boxing and track and field. He was in the middle of his schooling at Montana State when Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941.
Reagan had hoped to become a pilot, but ended up in the Navy where he also began training as an electrician. In 1944 he became one of the first black officers on duty with the U.S. Navy, serving overseas on Okinawa and Guam.
Reagan was recruited by the Bombers after WW II and early in ’47 a report in The Winnipeg Tribune noted “… just as it was of the great Fritz Hanson, he looks better losing 10 yards than most backs do in gaining five.”
Reagan attended summer school at the University of Manitoba and then also worked wiring buses in an automotive shop. His wife, Lillian, worked as a nurse at the Winnipeg General hospital.
After his one season playing professional football, he was recalled to active service to help recruit Blacks into the Navy and remained on duty during the Korean War – eventually becoming the officer of an amphibious boat unit.
Returning to civilian life, Reagan had a career in real estate in Southern California and passed away in 1994. Tragically, his only son – John Reagan, Jr. – was killed in the Vietnam War.
More Bombers historical notes in honour of Black History Month and other items in this week’s edition of First & 10…
1. There are so many Black players who have made or are continuing to make an impact on the Bombers franchise, but one of the first to come along after Smith and Reagan was Tom ‘Citation’ Casey.
Casey played running back and halfback for the Bombers from 1950-55, was an all-star each season, was named Winnipeg’s ‘Citizen of the Year’ in 1956 and was the first Black player inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1964.
He was also among the first group inducted into the Winnipeg Football Club hall of fame when it was established in 1984.
2. A couple other Bomber notes related to Black History Month, courtesy Chris Sinclair…
- The first Black quarterback to sign with the Bombers was Willie Thrower in 1954, but he was released in late July of that year. The second was Vincent Drake, who threw a TD pass to Bud Grant in an exhibition game later that summer, but was released in late August.
- Chuck Ealey was the first Black quarterback to start a game for the Bombers, in 1974, after being acquired from Toronto in a trade for Don Jonas. Ealey didn’t last long, as the Bombers had a hard-throwing future star on their roster at the time in Ralph Brock.
- And one more… Chris informs that the first Black player to play in Winnipeg was Robert ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, who played with St. John’s in 1932. He was also the first Black player to suit up for a Grey Cup, doing so with the Regina Roughriders in 1930.
Here endeth the lesson. There will be no quiz.
3. The CFL free agent market is almost upon us, with the doors swinging open to the annual talent grab at 11 a.m. next Tuesday.
It figures to be a much different – perhaps subdued – free agent signing period as teams work to spend closer to the salary-cap floor.
The Bombers re-signed three players this week in advance of free agency in receiver Kenny Lawler, receiver/returner Janarion Grant and defensive tackle Steven Richardson. That continues what has been a busy month or so for GM Kyle Walters & Co as 22 players have been brought back, while Cody Speller was traded to Toronto and Micah Awe released after signing as a free agent last winter.
Kicker Justin Medlock is the biggest of the 11 remaining names on this list, along with special teams ace Kerfalla Exumé, Canadian veterans John Rush, Thomas Miles, Daniel Petermann, Brandon Calver, long-snappers Chad Rempel and Maxime Latour and receiver/returner Lucky Whitehead, whom Walters said late last month is still exploring NFL options.
Also on the list are Julian Feoli-Gudino and Chris Lyles, who signed as free agents last winter and are inching closer to having those contracts expire.
4. I spoke to Grant about his return earlier in the week and his desire to get more work in the Bombers offence. With Grant and Charles Nelson already under contract – Nelson was a star returner at Oregon and flashed the same skills last year in just four games before injuring his knee – the Bombers have two deadly returners on their roster. If Whitehead re-signs, that talent pool grows even more.
Grant played in just 11 games in 2019 after being picked up following his release from Hamilton and set a club single-game record for 222 punt-return yards in his first game as a Bomber – a total that is third-most in CFL history.
5. A leftover note from Kenny Lawler’s session with the media from earlier in the week…
Lawler was asked about veteran QB Zach Collaros in his four games at the controls of the Bombers’ attack. If you recall, Lawler pulled in a TD pass from Collaros in the West Final victory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders and in those four starts – in less than ideal passing conditions – the two connected on 15 passes for 185 yards and two scores.
“I see an experienced, fiery guy that is a true competitor and wants to show he still has more left in the tank,” said Lawler of Collaros. “That four-game stretch, he definitely showed that. He wants more. He’s a guy that wants to get it down the field, throw it down the field and he’s a guy also that wants you to be on the same page as him. Man, I couldn’t be more excited to go into the season because I know what he’s capable of and he definitely showed that in the four-game stretch.
“It’s going to be different. I feel like we’re going to be dynamic in the passing game and you guys already know what we do in the run game. It’s going to be a show at IG Field.”
6. One more on Collaros and his friendship with Kansas City Chiefs star tight end Travis Kelci, courtesy Sportsnet’s Arash Madani.
7. Good interview by Rod Pederson on his show with Bombers Assistant GM/Director of Player Personnel Ted Goveia this week about free agency, scouting and other issues.
Goveia just recently returned from scouting the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. for the Bombers and was back at his home base in Ontario when Pederson caught up with him. Check that out here.
8. The CFL announced details this week for its second Global Draft for players outside of the U.S. and Canada. It will go Thursday, April 15 at noon.
The draft order was determined by a random draw, giving each team an equal chance at the first overall pick. The subsequent rounds follow the ‘snake’. The Global Draft will feature four rounds with the Bombers selecting 4th, 15th, 22ndand 33rd. The B.C. Lions will pick first overall.
9. Attention amateur football coaches…
Bombers position coaches are doing virtual chalk-talk sessions over the next month or so and the first one with receivers coach Kevin Bourgoin drew rave reviews.
For more details, click here and the next session, FYI, goes February 9 at 7 p.m. with defensive backs coach Jordan Younger.
- And, finally, for what it’s worth I’ve got Kansas City in the Super Bowl, 37-24. I’m always there for the commercials, too and here’s a sneak peek.
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