A few years ago, Mike O’Shea and his Winnipeg Blue Bombers had settled into Regina on the eve of the 2014 Labour Day Classic.
This was to be O’Shea’s first experience of the Prairie version of the Canadian Football League’s second-best weekend – trumped only by the Grey Cup – after he had been on both sides of the historic Toronto Argonauts vs. Hamilton Tiger-Cats annual throw-down in Steel Town.
And stepping outside the team’s hotel, O’Shea instantly got a profound visual image of what the game means to fans from Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
“I saw a really sweet Saskatchewan Roughriders beer fridge in the back of a pick-up truck right by our hotel,” O’Shea said at the time, “and the driver managed to roll down the window and yell at me.”
When quizzed as to whether the fan had offered a warm welcome to the Saskatchewan capital, O’Shea grinned and added:
“Sort of… not really in those terms. It was a Regina welcome. It’s all good. They buy tickets and support their team. It’s all good fun.”
We open this week’s First & 10 column reliving this tale because a few days ago, yours truly was asked to explain Labour Day weekend by a fan who had hoped to experience it for the first time in 2020.
And “It’s all good fun” might just describe the whole event perfectly, although there are certainly levels of that depending on your level of fanaticism and alcohol consumption over the weekend.
Oh, and it certainly helps the Bombers fans who venture west if the visitors exit with a win, although that had been extremely rare over the last 15 years.
There’s no getting around this: the cancellation of the 2020 Canadian Football League season a few weeks ago really stung us three-down diehards. And this weekend will be like opening up a wound that had just started to heal because the Labour Day Classics – Winnipeg-Saskatchewan, Toronto-Hamilton and the Battle of Alberta between the Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Eskimos – has always been a showcase of the CFL at its finest.
Even in years when franchises had needed offseason telethons to stay alive, when the U.S. expansion concept had failed and the league was on life support, fans flocked to stadiums on Labour Day weekend.
It made you wish the league could somehow bottle those vibes and sprinkle it over the other weeks of the schedule. And it made even the most-hardened cynic believe this league’s roots were firm and strong, even if the plant itself looked dry and wilted.
So, how do you explain the Bombers-Riders Labour Day Classic to somehow who has yet to experience it?
There are so many layers to it, from the CFL’s best rivalry, to the fan experience throughout the weekend, to the overwhelming sense that the league’s heart does beat loudest here on the Prairies.
And to not have those experiences this year is, quite frankly, devastating for fans and – quite clearly – for the players.
“I’ll miss the Labour Day Classic so much,” said Bombers defensive end Jefferson in a phone interview with bluebombers.com this week. “I’m getting memories on my phone from the last couple of years… I’m just glad I have those games to watch on my hard drive.
“But to not be there this year and see the fans and experience that atmosphere… that’s hard, man.”
More Labour Day Classic related notes and other tidbits in this week’s 1st & 10…
1. While we’re bemoaning the loss of the Labour Day Classic and the entire CFL season, I suggest you take a moment to read this heartfelt piece from Dr. Chantale Lussier, who was supposed to be working inside the CFL bubble to help players if there had been a season.
This part stood out for me…
“It’s worth mentioning that it hasn’t been easy to advocate for and creat opportunities for mental health and mental performance in pro sports, let alone do it as a woman. But football, and the CFL have been different.
“Here, I’ve finally been welcomed, embraced and have become a part of the great CFL family. Here, I have been valued for the knowledge and expertise I bring to our collective journeys of excellence. Here, diversity has been our strength, and my gender, mostly a non-issue. I am but one small piece of evidence of this, in the great tapestry that makes up this special league. Our CFL.”
2. One more from Willie who, as the CFL’s reigning Most Outstanding Defensive Player, figured to have drawn interest had he chosen to opt out of his contract to pursue a look from the NFL.
Thursday was the deadline for the opt out, as set by the CFL and the CFL Players’ Association, and Jefferson – despite rumours – decided to stay put.
He’s 29 now and signed a new two-year contract with the Bombers in February. CFL veterans are to receive government wage subsidies from July through to the end of December, with their medical coverage extended until the start of training camp in 2021. Those were critical factors for Jefferson.
“With me signing a two-year deal and that I have a contract for 2021, that gives me security,” he said. “Plus, if you chose to opt out of your contract and you don’t get picked up by an NFL team, you’re losing out on the medical benefits and other things. For me, I need those things. I need the money the league is providing for the next couple of months and the coverage. It would have made no sense for me to opt out of my contract.”
“With all the things going on right now, that medical coverage is one of the most important things you can have. To leave that without knowing what might be out there for me, that would have been irresponsible.”
Jefferson is hopeful for his brethren who are getting their shot, specifically mentioning Calgary Stampeders linebacker and CFL Most Outstanding Rookie Nate Holley who is now with the Miami Dolphins.
“Nate… he was rookie of the year and with what’s going on in the league this is a perfect opportunity for him,” Jefferson said. “The other guys that have got picked up by teams, this is giving them another shot. Being young and getting into a camp is huge for them.
“(Opting out) would have been something to talk about for me if some opportunities had come. But now this gives me more time to focus on me, focus on my family. I’ll focus on my health and get ready for next season.
“It’s tough right now with it being so late in NFL camps and games going to be played next week. Bringing a guy in now who hasn’t been in camp and have him learn the system, that’s hard.”
3. FYI, the Bombers saw 20 players opt out for their contracts – all imports – including veterans Kenny Lawler, Janarion Grant, Mercy Maston and Thiadric Hansen.
The others would have all been first-year CFLers:
- OL Nolan Ulizio
- RB James Williams
- DB Raekwon Williams
- WR Montay Crockett
- WR Doran Grant
- RB Joshua Caldwell
- DB Jhavonte Dean
- LB Jontrell Rocquemore
- DT Christian Ringo
- WR Travin Dural
- DB Isaiah Johnson
- DE David Kenney
- WR Malcolm Lewis
- DB Makinton Dorleant
- WR Deontez Alexander
- DB Ranthony Texada
4. OK, so that intro and the first couple of notes are admittedly a bit of a downer. So here’s an uplifting tale…
Perhaps you’ve heard of the CFL’s Grey Cup Fan Base initiative which offers fans the chance to get their name etched on a new permanent base for the league’s iconic championship trophy.
Critics have called the initiative – the price is $349 for season ticket holders; $399 for others – a ‘cash grab.’ Two responses to that from this perch: first, the league is in complete survival mode, so, heck yeah the potential financial return is critical. And worth noting is that all proceeds go to CFL teams and players.
And, second, don’t ever underestimate the conviction of this league’s fanbase across the country. To that end, let us introduce you to the friends of longtime diehard Bombers fan Brent Shule, who passed away late in 2012. A group of 20 fans got together to pool their money and get Brent’s name on the new Grey Cup base as a memorial.
A bunch of us went together and bought a grey cup fan base for our dear friend who passed away a few years ago! The certificates are beautiful pic.twitter.com/HtWUZkBGlv
— Marni Cramer (@CramerMarni) September 3, 2020
“One of Brent’s friends, John Guelich, put on Facebook one day that this would be a great thing to do if we could do a memorial,” explained Marni Cramer, a long-time Bombers season-ticket holder who lives in Souris. “We researched it and you can do this as a memorial to someone. I offered to help and Brian Edwards in Edmonton offered to help and we just messaged hundreds of people and asked if they wanted to chip in. About 20-25 or so said yes and we were able to get a digital gift certificate to send to his family, too.
“Brent was the biggest Bomber fan I ever met. When John mentioned it we all said, ‘Absolutely. We have to do this.’ Having his named engraved permanently on the Grey Cup base… we just had to do it for him. Brent would have loved it,” Marni added. “I’m sure he’s smiling while looking down on us now.”
5. From the Department of Shameless bluebombers.com Plugs: if you have a moment, please check out the first stage of voting for the Blue Bombers all-time roster. It’s quick, slick and easy to vote.
We also had a good conversation with Canadian Football/Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Famer James Murphy in the first of our fireside chats (coming soon: Troy Westwood and Bob Cameron).
Watch that interview here:
6. We’ve been running Labour Day Classic memories all week on our site and a quick story that popped into my little brain the other day…
A few years ago the legendary Bob Irving asked me to sit in to do the colour of a Labour Day Classic. Now, it says right here that Knuckles is as good as any play-by-play man in the biz and sitting beside him in the booth you really get a feel for both how prepared and passionate he is about the game.
One of his pet-peeves, he’s admitted over the years, is how teams often mismanage the clock at the end of a half or game. This was the case on the Sunday I sat in with him when the Bombers were wasting away precious seconds near the end of the first half.
Frustrated by their lack of urgency, a flabbergasted Knuckles remarked ‘And as time ticks away here are the Bombers lolly-gagging to the line of scrimmage like the New Christy Minstrels!!’
And, yeah, I didn’t get the reference at the time either, but I do remember laughing my backside off on the air, which probably only frustrated Knuckles further.
During a break I asked a simple question.
“New Christy Minstrels? What the…?”
To which Bob replied with a laugh: “I don’t know… sometimes these things just come to me and I can’t control it.”
For the record, The New Christy Minstrels are a folk group from the 1960s.
7. Your weekly Chris Streveler update…
As we mentioned in last week’s First & 10, any time we tweet, mention or pass along links to the former Bombers QB the reaction is enormous.
Just FYI, all NFL teams must declare their 53-man rosters by Sunday and Streveler appears to not only be in good position to lock down a spot, but is said to be challenging Brett Hundley for the No. 2 spot behind starter Kyler Murray.
Cardinals GM Steve Keim spoke Friday with Arizona Sports 98.7 FM and was asked specifically about his QB depth chart and how many pivots the team planned on keeping.
After gushing about Murray, Keim said this about Streveler and Hundley:
“… The other two guys have had nice camps. I mean, certainly Chris Streveler has been a pleasant surprise and a guy that we liked in the evaluation process coming out of the CFL. Not only does he have the ability to throw the football and to do some of those things that have been impressive during camp, but his athleticism… the guy runs in the 4.4s, he’s physical, he’s got nice size and so there’s some potential for him to play on special teams as well.”
To listen to the full interview, click here (Streveler comments around the 10:30 mark).
8. Meanwhile, former Bombers cornerback Winston Rose was released on Saturday by the Cincinnati Bengals but is expected to be added to their practice squad if he clears waivers.
This piece ran earlier in the week, suggesting Rose’s stock had fallen with the Bengals.
FYI, NFL practice squad players who are rookies or with fewer than nine games experience – like Rose – will earn $8,400 in 2020, or $142,800 for 17 weeks.
9. This week’s good read comes from The Regina Leader-Post’s Murray McCormick, who details the story behind Mike O’Shea driving to Saskatchewan to personally deliver the Grey Cup ring to Bombers defensive coordinator Richie Hall.
10. And, finally, one more Labour Day memory…
The final entry in Labour Day Classic memories series goes Sunday and recalls the 2016 game – the only win in the last 15 years and capped with a Justin Medlock field goal with no time remaining.
That day the Bombers lost long-time executive and diehard fan Jerry Maslowsky and we tried to capture the emotion of the moment at the time.
Let’s finish this week by offering this wonderful tribute Jerry’s daughter Tara wrote this week.
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