First & 10 | On the CFHOF, Lawler and more

A receiver lives for these moments, those times when the game slows down, when there is an almost-ESP connection with the quarterback, when the routes are crisp and quick and the defender is in full chase mode.

Kenny Lawler had a lot of those moments last year with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, a season in which he led the club in receiving yards with 637 and had four touchdowns among his 43 receptions.

He was also the Bombers’ Most Outstanding Rookie and there was a very real sense all of those numbers – and, as a result, his impact on every game – were going to see a big-time boost in 2020.

“Going into Year 2, it’s definitely a contract season for me and me being the competitor I am, I want to take that next step and showcase my skills,” began Lawler from his home in Riverside, CA. “I want to showcase to the league that I can be one of the best receivers… I know I can be one of the best receivers in the league. So, not being able to show that with everything up in the air, it’s hard to get my head around that sometimes because I want to be out there and competing at a high level.

“I just want to be out there and shred defences. Our team did such a great job in the offseason of keeping a lot of us together we have a great opportunity to repeat. That’s being paused with COVID. It’s sad, man. It’s sad.”

And so Lawler, like everyone else in the Canadian Football League, waits and waits and waits for some sort of clarity. Now 26, he is in his prime after being drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in 2016, attending training camp with the B.C. Lions in 2018 before being added to the Bombers practice roster late that same season.

Yes, if last year was his coming-out party then there was a sense that his TD catch from Zach Collaros in the West Final was just a snippet of what was to come in 2020

“Right now I’m coping with everything by just continuing to work out and being with my family. They’re getting me through it,” he said as his three-year old son Kenny Lawler II could be heard playing in the background.

“Some days it’s discouraging because it’s like, ‘Am I working? Is there going to be a season? What’s the percentage of us having a season?’ Hopefully some of this will be out in the open because it’s hard for the players and we’re not getting paid. Some of us got offseason bonuses, but for the most part, we’re not getting paid. We just want to get back to be able to support our families the way we were used to doing.

“I guess you have to look at it like all the hard work we put in as athletes is going to pay off somehow. As long as you are staying prepared for the moment that’s positive. But there are days when you’re thinking and hoping we could somehow get the season kicked off. That’s out of my control. The only thing I can control is working out and being ready for when the opportunity presents itself.”

The Bombers would be six weeks and five games into their 2020 schedule if the season hadn’t been postponed and were to have hosted the Lions last Thursday. Lawler misses those game day/game night experiences and emotions, obviously. But he also misses being in the locker room, the road trips, the…

“You miss everything right now. Everything, “ he said. “You miss practice. You miss being with your teammates and just talking and laughing with them. Going over the gameplan, lifting weights… everything football has to offer I miss.

“It’s a family in the building and we’re missing that. I just missing going out there and going to war with my brothers on game day. But this is where we’re at right now. I have hope it’s all going to come together. This is like a test.”

Here are the rest of our notes, quotes, links and other ponderings in this week’s First & 10…

1. A couple more items from our conversation with Lawler…

We chatted for quite a length of time about the CFL’s hub city concept and what life might be like in a bubble.

“The hub city, the bubble… there’s a lot of uncertainty with that right now,” he said. “There are a lot of questions. I mean, if all teams are in one city and practising, how do you maintain your privacy and practice your gameplan?

“When they say we’re going to be ‘living’ in a bubble, Is it just the team and the staff? Are we in hotels? And how does that work for guys like Andrew Harris or Nic Demski who live in town if the hub is Winnipeg? Are you telling me they can’t go home to their families? C’mon now. That’s tough.

“My family was going to come up to Winnipeg this season because I wanted to have them with me just to have that experience. But if we’re going to be in a bubble will they be allowed in?

“I was talking with my girl (Myannah Jacobs) about this yesterday,” added Lawler with a chuckle, “again when they say bubble, is it going to be like The Simpsons movie where they put a whole bubble over the town?”

“We’re all hoping we get some answers within the next two weeks.”

2. Lawler is set up about 90 miles east of Los Angeles and said the recent spike in California has the state in what The Los Angeles Times is referring to as ‘Coronavirus Shutdown, 2.0.’

The Bombers receiver works out with his father – Kenneth Lawler – who is not only his personal trainer, but the defensive coordinator at San Bernardino Valley College. Lawler has also been working with the quarterbacks at San Bernardino to stay sharp with his route running, catching and conditioning.

It turns out not having access to a gym because of the shutdown isn’t a problem.

“He has me going through a whole bunch of speed training and then we get into some other workouts,” said Lawler. “We don’t really have a weight room with everything going on, so what we do is get on pull-up bars and monkey bars, get some dips in… it’s some real raw workouts.

“We call them ‘jailhouse workouts.’ We’re making the most out of what we have and I feel like it’s working and it’s definitely going to pay off.”

3. Congrats to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame 2020 induction class, announced this week, that includes CFLers Henry Burris, John Hufnagel, Freddie Childress and Clyde Brock and, from U Sports, former St. Mary’s University legend Larry Uteck and Calgary Dinos quarterback Greg Vavra.

To read the full press release, click here.

And if you can spare a few moments, check out how Burris found out in his very heartwarming video featuring hall of famer Damon Allen and Mark DeNoble, the CFHOF’s Executive Director.

4. Most know John Hufnagel for his work as an offensive coordinator, head coach, GM and team president during his days with the Calgary Stampeders and he was a slam dunk choice in the ‘builder’ category.

But he’s got some big-time connections to the Bombers as a player as well that shouldn’t be overlooked. Hufnagel suited up for three teams during his playing days – Calgary (1976-79), Saskatchewan (1980-83; 1987) and Winnipeg (1983-86).

He was traded to the Bombers in October of 1983 – a year in which the club swapped Dieter Brock to Hamilton for Tom Clements and then made a separate deal with Saskatchewan for Hufnagel.

That trade, FYI, saw the Bombers acquire Hufnagel and defensive end J.C. Pelusi for quarterback Nickie Hall, receiver Nate Johnson, defensive lineman Jason Riley and a fourth-round draft pick.

Hufnagel was part of the Bombers’ Grey Cup squad of 1984 – his first of five championships and only one as a player – and served as the club’s 1A QB in tandem with Clements. The trade for Hufnagel proved to be critical for the club as he ended up leading the team in passing in 1986 – his best year as a pro – when he threw for 3,394 yards and 21 TDs. In fact, Hufnagel’s 6,804 yards passing in his 54 games as a Bomber had him in the club’s Top 10 list until he was bumped out by Matt Nichols, who moved all the way up to the fifth spot last season and is now with Toronto.

5. Interestingly, there’s no mention of Freddie Childress and his connection with the Bombers, but he did start his CFL career in Winnipeg.

Childress was a find of Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Famer Paul Jones, then the club’s director of player personnel, who is now the Assistant GM of the Roughriders. He suited up at guard for two games to start the 1995 season for Winnipeg, but then finished the season with the Birmingham Barracudas before going on to play with Shreveport, Calgary and Saskatchewan.

The Bombers’ O-line was stacked in ’95 with an all-Canadian crew of Chris Walby and Miles Gorrell at tackle, David Black and Brett MacNeil at guard and Dave Vankoughnett at centre.

Out of curiosity, I checked in with Mike Kelly – the Bombers offensive coordinator at the time – as to the circumstances behind the exit of Childress and he offered this:

“… We couldn’t afford to keep him around as a back-up American and he wanted out. If we had had another Canadian receiver step up at the time we might have considered reconfiguring things.”

6. Last week Fred Weinrauch, the agent for Bombers’ 2020 draft pick Marc Liegghio, posted a video of the club’s kicking prospect crushing a 70-yard field goal in practice.

It’s an impressive kick, to be sure, and gives further evidence to the claim by Bombers GM Kyle Walters that Liegghio is one of the better kicking prospects to become available in the CFL Draft in the last few years.

It also drew some interesting reactions from fellow kickers in the CFL, including Sean Whyte of Edmonton, Tyler Crapinga on Montreal and recently-retired Rob Maver of Calgary.

7. On Friday we ran the last in a series of four players from the Bombers’ 2019 Grey Cup team who are headed to NFL camps this week, this one with Jonathan Kongbo, who was very honest about his battle to recover from knee surgery during his senior season with Tennessee and how last year with Winnipeg really helped him heal physically and emotionally.

You can read that story here.

And the others: Chris Streveler, Marcus SaylesWinston Rose

There seems to be a certain fascination down south with all the players, particularly Streveler because of his comparisons to Taysom Hill of the New Orleans Saints and Kongbo, because of his high ceiling.

Here’s another link to a piece on Kongbo from this week.

8. There has been a lot of chatter since the pandemic hit about possible rash of injuries to players if there is a return to play and a condensed training camp. That’s always a concern heading into any camp, shortened or not. But a quick tour of some player Instagram pages gives evidence many Bombers have been using the extra time to stay sharp.

Check these out:

Meanwhile, Bombers No. 2 QB Sean McGuire is working at a camp in his home state in Wisconsin.

9. All this time without CFL football has given so many in the media the opportunity to stroll down nostalgia lane with stories about past games and moments and legendary players.

One of the best in the biz at this is Rob Vanstone, the columnist at The Regina Leader-Post and a man as well versed in the history of the Roughriders as any walking this planet.

He revisited an interview with Kent Austin – the former Rider pivot who played with the Bombers in 1996 and authored another fine read. (I was apparently in the scrum with Austin but, truthfully, have no recollection of it).

10. And, finally, Bombers Senior Director of Public & Player Relations and Chief Consigliere, Darren Cameron, and I had the chance to record another ‘Handled Internally’ podcast this week with our special guest Doug Brown.

The podcast and our weekly Top 10 – among other goodies – are part of our new ‘W Hub’ which is exclusive to season ticket members or anyone who wishes to subscribe.

A tease, from the Brown podcast when he tells the story of tracking down a dine-and-dasher who had raced out of Earl’s Polo Park without paying his bill…

“… I just started running down Portage after this guy,” said Brown, “and if you guys can remember I could sprint well, but I wasn’t exactly a long distance runner. He made it down to Rae and Jerry’s and was starting to cross Portage in traffic. It’s snowy, it’s 11 o’clock at night in January and February. So I stop for a second and think, ‘I’ve got to bluff this guy because I can’t keep doing this.’ I was like ‘I could do this all night!’, trying to bluff him because I was going to give up on this.

“I start to catch up to the guy and I think, ‘I am just going to lay this guy out.’ I’ve hit some quarterbacks in my life but I was so mad I had run so far… and just before I was going to run this guy through, he just lied down on the sidewalk.’

Brown apprehended the guy, but more details on that story and other fun stuff will be available soon on Episode 2.

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