First & 10 | Couture reflects on the last year

Another week has passed in the lives of those involved with the Canadian Football League. Another week of rumours and speculation, another week without any clarity about when a 2021 season might start.

It can all be so frustrating and maddening at times. And it can also elicit a wide range of emotions, from anger to sadness to fear and worry.

It’s during those moments when Winnipeg Blue Bombers centre Michael Couture often finds himself resetting mentally before taking a big-picture look at the world.

He’s done a lot of that over the last 17 months – the time which has passed since an ankle injury in the last regular season game of 2019 forced him to miss the playoffs. Then there was the passing of his father last June.

That’s an awful lot to process, even before the global pandemic cancelled the 2020 CFL season and kept him from a return to the field and what he loves.

“A lot of this is about just trying to see things in a positive way,” began Couture this week in a conversation with bluebombers.com. “And so the way I look at it sometimes is if it wasn’t for me having this year off and seeing what happened in this world… I mean, it’s about perspective. I spent more time with my dad in his last four months of life than I ever had in the last 10 years.

“That was really a great opportunity for us to spend some real quality time together. I’m so appreciative of that.”

Dan Couture passed away after a battle with cancer and he and his son were more than close – they were constantly texting and calling each other. There was a father so proud of his son for fulfilling his dream of playing football professionally. And the son beaming he was able to make his dad feel that pride.

“I remember after our last regular season game against Calgary we had a bye week and I wasn’t going to be able to fly home because of my injury,” Couture recalled. “So, that night after the game I was driving home and I was on the phone with my dad and I said, ‘I just screwed my ankle up and I’m going to need surgery in two days.’ It was on that drive when he informed me his cancer was terminal. That was not the best conversation I ever had.

“But I did eventually get to go home and talk to my dad. We didn’t know what the landscape was going to look like going forward, but once we made it to the Grey Cup game he was feeling good enough that he was able to make the trip.

“He flew out on game day and a friend of mine on the Stampeders (Ante Milanovic-Litre) picked him up at the airport and then the four of us – including my girlfriend – had breakfast together. Right after the game I hobbled over to the stands and I was screaming for him to come down. People realized he was my dad and everyone parted to let him through. I gave him a big hug after. It was pretty emotional.

“To have him there… it was outrageous. it’s hard to put into words. It was everything.”

That moment is forever locked in his memory bank, and often brought back to life when he holds his championship ring with ‘C-O-U-T-U-R-E’ engraved on the one shank.

“It’s definitely special to see that name on there,” he said. “We were able to put whatever we wanted engraved on the inside of the ring. I’ve got his initials there, along with my stepmom and my mom. That’s definitely my most prized possession.”

More on my conversation with the Bombers centre and other notes and quotes in this week’s 1st & 10…

1. Let’s put a number to just how much Couture is missing the game. The number of days passed since the Bombers last played a game – the Grey Cup, of course – is 489. The last time Couture suited up was 519 days ago. That’s a long stretch for a guy who had waited so long to take over the starting centre chores at the start of 2019 following the retirement of Matthias Goossen.

“It was tough in the beginning, when I was starting to understand the extent of the injury quite quickly after it happened,” Couture said. “I was the sixth man for three years leading up to me starting at centre in 2019, so to not miss a snap and then start all 18 regular season games was a big accomplishment for me.

“So, for me to have that injury was definitely difficult at the time. But I had to quickly change my mindset to working with whatever situation I was in, whether it was helping out other guys in the room with film or at practice. It was embracing my role, even though it changed, and enjoying being with the guys you had grinded with all those months and all those games.”

Just FYI, Couture suffered a high-ankle tear and tore the medial ligament in his ankle in the fourth quarter of that regular season finale win over Calgary.

“Somebody fell on me and I heard about three pops,” he said. “By the time I got to the locker room they had pretty much said it was going to need surgery. It was that apparent at the time.

“I’ve been 100 percent for a while now. I forget sometimes which ankle it was at this point. The recovery process took a little bit longer, honestly, than I was expecting. My physio I was working with out here in Coquitlam… I told him I was getting frustrated and that I was expecting to be running at this point and doing O-line work by then. He said, ‘Well, if you weren’t 300 pounds we might be further along.’ He’s straight up and real. I was like, ‘OK, that’s fair.’”

2. Listening to Couture during our 30-minute conversation, I was struck with how positive he remains despite what he has been through over the last little while. And he was very upfront about his grieving process following the passing of his father.

“I’m staying positive. I’ve got to be that way,” Couture said. “There are definitely dark times throughout this process and there’s no timeline to grieve. I will always grieve the loss of my dad.

“I was driving down the street the other day and a song came on the radio – I don’t even remember what song it was – but it took me to a memory of him and then all of a sudden I’m bawling at a red light. It’s best to face those feelings when they happen because you know they’re going to come up eventually and sometimes they come up in ways you don’t want them to. But you can’t hide from that stuff.

“My dad taught me that: if you’re pushing things down and bottling them in, they’re still in that bottle and they’re going to have to come out at some point. It’s taking it day by day and processing it as it comes.”

3. One more from Couture… I asked him what he was missing most right now. He mentioned the games, of course, but also touched on what so many have said before.

“It sounds so cliché, but I miss the locker room and BS-ing with the guys, bumping shoulders with the coaches in the hallway, deciphering film… all the little stuff that is part of the process,” he said.

“It’s telling jokes with all the assistant trainers in the training room while you are getting taped. It’s the small stuff you really miss. I miss watching Yosh (Jermarcus Hardrick) dripping in sweat while playing basketball on the little six-inch basketball hoop (at Darvin Adams’ locker) in between meetings. We have a five-minute break and he’s got a full game of ‘21’ going. I miss that a lot.”

4. ICYMI, the Bombers got a call this week from receiver Bryant Mitchell – the club’s big addition in free agency this winter – indicating he was choosing to retire.

It’s an absolutely disappointing development given the explosiveness Mitchell was expected to bring to the passing game. That said, the same receiving crew that started in the 2019 Grey Cup returns, along with the usual assortment of players signed by the scouting department.

The hope now is one of the club’s newcomers pops off the page when training camp might start and push the regulars for work.

5. We’re into the scouting combine part of the CFL calendar although, as expected, this year’s proceedings have been severely impacted by the pandemic.

All testing, football drills and interviews with combine participants will be done remotely. Global prospects must have submitted their footage by the end of March, with the Global Draft going April 15th at noon. Canadian prospects have until April 10th to submit their footage, with the CFL Draft to be held in early May (the official date has yet to be announced).

For those interested, the CFL Combine list of participants is here. And the list of CFL Global Combine participants can be found here.

The Global list includes players from the following countries: Germany, Great Britain, Bahamas, Mexico, Japan, Austria, Denmark, New Zealand, Italy, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, China, Australia, Finland, Japan, France, South Africa, Brazil, the Netherlands, Poland, Ukraine and Spain.

6. Further to the above, the Bombers have six picks in the CFL Draft – 3rd, 16th, 21st, 34th, 39th and 48th. Winnipeg will pick 4th, 15th, 22nd and 33rd in the Global Draft. And if you’re in to mock draft’s here’s one Marshall Ferguson did for CFL.ca.

7. Just my opinion – I’m not sure if the rumoured CFL-XFL merger moves the needle at all in a city like Toronto in terms of attendance, but it is an important talking point in the overall debate about how to help make the game relevant in Canada’s biggest city again.

Closer to home, the question might be would you rather the Bombers play a rival like the Saskatchewan Roughriders three times in the regular season, or just twice with games against XFL teams then on the schedule? And would that mean a boost in attendance?

Consider that in 1993 – the first year of the CFL’s U.S. expansion experiment – the Sacramento Gold Miners were the only American team added to the league after San Antonio bailed in the winter before even playing a game. The Gold Miners drew 27,541 fans at Winnipeg Stadium for an October game that year – the second-largest home crowd to a September 12th date, pre-Banjo Bowl, against Saskatchewan.

In 1994, Baltimore drew 22,398 fans for a late July date – plus 25,067 for the East Final – while the Gold Miners pulled in 21,804, the Shreveport Pirates 20,426. Those crowds ranked 4th, 5th and last for attendance that season.

And in the final year of the U.S. expansion attendance for the games against U.S. teams ranked 6th (Birmingham, 22,208), 8th (San Antonio, 20,961) and 9th (Shreveport, 20,449) in the nine dates at Winnipeg Stadium.

Just for comparison, in ’93 the Gold Miners attracted 28,612 to SkyDome – the Argos’ third-highest crowd after Winnipeg (29,915) and Saskatchewan (29,348). A year later the U.S. team visits ranked 2nd (Shreveport, 20,328), 6th (Las Vegas, 14,296) and 9th (Baltimore, 13,101) in overall home game attendance totals in Toronto.

Rivalries still sell, but the problem with the failed U.S. expansion is those which might have been percolating with American clubs died in a hurry. The Stallions and Bombers, for example, were developing a healthy rivalry before the plugged was pulled after the ’95 season.

Anyway, discuss amongst yourselves.

8. The attendance numbers are just part of what could be impacted in a rumoured merger. Bigger than that, even in a gate-driven league, is what a merger might bring in opening the U.S. market to Canada.

Postmedia’s Dan Barnes has an intriguing read on that subject here with a media rights consultant in New York suggesting a CFL-XFL merger could be worth $100 million US annually.

9. This week’s other interesting reads..

From the xflnewsroom.com

From Rob Vanstone of The Regina Leader-Post

From Nevadasportsnet.com and an interview with Saskatchewan QB Cody Fajardo

10. And, finally, flying somewhat under the radar with all the CFL-XFL talk and the uncertainty as to when the 2021 season might start is potentially massive news for the CFL.

Bill C-218, the safe and regulated sports betting act introduced by Saskatoon-Grasswood MP Kevin Waugh, moved through a second stage on Thursday after a vote of 303-15 in the House of Commons. A third reading in the House of Commons is the final hurdle before the bill is passed. The bill would allow for single-even sports betting and could be a financial boon for the CFL as well as the NHL, NBA, MLB and MLS.

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