It was just over a week ago when I stumbled across one of my favourite movies of all time while scrolling through the channels – ‘The Shawshank Redemption.’
The 1994 classic, starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman and based on a Steven King novella, had already started. But, as is often the case for many of us with our go-to flicks, I was once again pulled in and watched the rest of the thing right to the final credits.
Now, even though I’ve seen the movie in whole or in part approximately 20 times, there was a scene near the end that struck me as if I was taking it in at the movie theatre back during its original release.
And it’s here where I’ll attempt to bring this all around and make it relevant to both the Canadian Football League and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
The details of the script don’t need explaining here – I mean, if you haven’t seen the movie you need to do so ASAP – but the quote that resonated goes like this:
‘… Remember, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.’
That message really hit home because it was delivered just a day or so before last Monday’s critical CFL Board of Governors vote that gave the thumbs up to a revised 2021 season, to start August 5th.
The CFL has taken some shots over the years – many of them deserved, many of them, it says here, just because in some circles mocking the ol’ league has become the thing to do.
But this last year has arguably been the most excruciatingly painful, most frustrating and most worrisome in the CFL’s long history. It wasn’t just about the examination and criticisms of the league’s business model or the rumours of a possible merger with the XFL. It was, simply, about whether this league would survive the cancellation of the 2020 season and the massive financial impact that shutdown had on all the franchises. And it was about whether this gate-driven league could exist without fans in 2021.
That narrative has always been at or near the front of my little brain over the last year as so many of us who love this league worried about whether we’d ever see a game again.
And yet, I also kept hearing from the people that matter most in my life to try not to fixate on those negative thoughts because the CFL has survived crises before and somehow always managed to get back up off the mat.
Easier said than done on some days, of course, but still good advice. And then along comes Shawshank to reinforce things.
‘… Remember, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.’
I’m going to work to remember that quote as we roll toward August 5th and the return of the Blue Bombers. And I’m going to take time this season to remember those many, many aspects about the CFL that make it such a good thing, a good thing that never dies.
More reaction to the CFL’s restart plan and other notes, quotes and links in this week’s edition of 1st & 10…
1. Over the last year we’ve done dozens upon dozens of interviews with players and coaches for this weekly column and other stories, all of them coming with that big, black cloud about the CFL’s future hanging overhead.
So it truly was energizing earlier this week to speak to the likes of Zach Collaros, Pat Neufeld, Willie Jefferson, Adam Bighill and Mike O’Shea is part of media availabilities after last Monday’s announcement. There was a genuine excitement/let’s get to work tone in everyone’s voice that is contagious.
A common question came up during the interviews that is indirectly related to the intro to this week’s column above – were you worried about the CFL’s future?
“I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t difficult, not just from staying ready from a physical standpoint, but just from a mental standpoint not knowing if you’re going to work again,” Collaros said. “This is a game, but it is our livelihood… a lot of guys, their only livelihood. So, we’re excited to get back out there.
“I can’t speak for everybody else — I think I’m a little more cynical than the majority of athletes — but I was cautiously optimistic this was going to happen. But it’s something I was thinking about every day, ‘What if this doesn’t happen? Should I look into doing something else? What is my next step?’
“It’s something every guy in the league thinks about, especially in a profession like football and how volatile it is, no guarantees on contracts. Nobody in the league is making money you can retire on, so you’re always thinking about that next step. How can I feed my family? How can you support everybody?”
2. And this answer from Bighill to the same question, we thought, was absolutely brilliant:
“I never thought the CFL would be done. I think there’s too much tradition, I think there’s too much history and too many people that care about the CFL. So, I never thought it would be done. I just always wondered up to this point how much would be sacrificed in order to keep it going as is or what we know it to be. That’s always been my thought process over this period of time.
“We can only see the things ahead and the CFL is brighter than ever coming out of this pandemic and going forward with opportunities that will be presented to the CFL moving forward.”
3. Late last month we spoke to Jefferson for one of our 1st & 10 columns and in that piece he mentioned about how the first day of training camp was going to be emotional.
When talking to him again this week we revisited that theme asking him what he was looking forward to the most, knowing now that the return is official.
“Day 1 is just about seeing my guys. I haven’t seen any of these guys except Jackson (Jeffcoat, who is also based in Texas in the offseason) face to face, giving hugs or handshakes, since the Grey Cup and the parade,” said Jefferson. “So, just to get back to seeing my guys, talking to my guys face-to-face and shaking their hands… that’s going to be the biggest thing.
“Competing, showing the younger guys being on the field for their first time with the team, being at a CFL practice… just how to be a pro. That’s something I can’t wait to show the young guys. There’s going to be rookies from two years that we drafted that didn’t get to play in 2020 that are going to get to step in the organization, the stadium, the facility.
“Stepping on the field, putting my cleats, putting my helmet on, putting my jersey on… I just can’t wait to do all of that. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to step on that field and just be like, ‘I’m home.’ That’s going to be one of most-memorable things I will do when I get back – just walk into the stadium, see my locker, see Coach O’Shea, see Coach Rich (Hall), the other coaches, the players, the training staff, the equipment staff and just walking through the tunnel and out onto the field.”
4. Athletes and coaches are creatures of habit and of a daily routine, so getting back to the grind of a season is something many missed – above and beyond what Jefferson touched on with respect to teammates.
Bighill gave a dandy answer to that this week when I asked him about missing the physical component of the game.
“The thing I would say is while having another career and being in the office and doing that stuff has been good and training, I always love training, but I honestly just miss hitting people,” he said.
“People ask me that all that time, ‘What do you miss?’ Honestly, I miss the physical contact of playing football. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed and when you don’t have it for a year and it’s gone for a bit, you really feel that even more so. I’m used to hitting my teammates day to day and then I go to the office and I can’t do that.
“So I send around the office videos of Terry Tate the office linebacker and let them know that if things get out of control maybe I’ll come back and let them know they’ve got to get back in line.”
5. We wrote earlier in the week about the Bombers now working to defend their 2019 Grey Cup title – a feat that hasn’t been achieved since the 2009-10 Montreal Alouettes.
Expect that narrative to hit a brick wall with Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea, who always focusses on having his team working in the here and now.
The other topic that will be discussed continuously over the next few months is the idea of an XFL merger. That is a big-picture concept that won’t be front and centre when camps open, but will hover over the league until a decision is made one way or another.
“To me it’s all speculation and it’s not what I’m focussed on at all, to be honest with you,” said Pat Neufeld. “Whatever happens with that, happens with it. My mentality has been focussing on getting ready for a football season.”
Bighill offered this when asked if that topic might be a distraction this season:
“I don’t know if it’s going to be much of a distraction this year because I don’t think anybody really wants too much of the plans coming out ahead of the close of a CFL regular season. There’s always going to be in the back of people’s minds speculation about what’s going on.
“As far as what it means, it’s too early to say. I can only guess that it’s probably not going to be better for the players, just off what I can foresee at this point. The Rock said he cares about players and this and that… but the XFL didn’t have a union, no?
“Depending on how things move forward and not getting into too much speculation… taking care of players means having a union and having fair agreements and collective bargaining agreements. Before I project too much on what it could look like, those are things that for me are top of mind to make sure things are going to work out if they ever are to be a major consideration.”
6. This week’s announcement and the revised schedule release on Tuesday showcased just how many talented social media/video people there are working in our league – including Riley Mara, the Bombers ‘Young Scorcese’.
“?ℎ??’? ?ℎ? ???? ???ℎ ?ℎ? ???? ??????? 2021 ??ℎ??????” – Jerry Seinfeld, probably..
— Winnipeg Blue Bombers (@Wpg_BlueBombers) June 15, 2021
Riley also put together this dandy:
— Winnipeg Blue Bombers (@Wpg_BlueBombers) June 14, 2021
These two were also clever:
Welcome to Hot R’ Ones, the show with hot schedule releases and even hotter wings.? pic.twitter.com/TNtvd1575x
— Ottawa REDBLACKS (@REDBLACKS) June 15, 2021
— Edmonton Elks (@elks) June 15, 2021
7. ICYMI, we examined the Bombers schedule a little more in detail here.
8. Liam Dobson hasn’t taken a snap yet since transferring from Maine to Texas State, but the Blue Bombers’ ’21 first-round draft choice continues to garner attention down south.
We told you previously about how Dobson – the mammoth O-lineman – made Bruce Feldman of The Athletic’s ‘Freaks List.’ Well, Feldman is back with another list that features Dobson. After polling coaches he came up with ‘College football’s top 35 breakout player picks.’
Dobson, FYI, comes in at No. 35.
Here’s what Feldman said about him:
“The Canadian folk hero who transferred from Maine and was a member of last year’s Freaks List, backed up the hype after joining the Bobcats. Dobson has stunning athleticism for a 360-pounder and probably could play all five O-line positions for Texas State, but he is likely to be the starting right tackle.”
9. FYI… Bombers coaches and staffers just completed a second two-hour ‘Diversity and Inclusion Fundamentals’ seminar hosted by Mark Peters of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion. It was both helpful, educational and educational and well worth the time.
For more info, click here.
This is interesting, too. On Thursday the CFL announced it is working with Health Canada to make rapid testing a ‘key part of its health and safety protocols’ as teams return to play this summer.
That includes the Government of Canada providing 60,000 rapid tests for use by players, coaches, officials and staff. More on that is here.
10. And, finally, one more gem from Bighill and his session with the media this week. The Bombers veteran linebacker has been in Winnipeg throughout the pandemic as he continues his career as a investment advisor. That’s given him a different perspective from some of his teammates who have been in the U.S. or other provinces.
“Being in the city, it is a bit different than maybe being in the States,” he said. “Things have been open there for a while now and there’s a much different situation than in the States. And being in a city where we just won a Grey Cup and haven’t been able to play and defend that for 2020… people here are missing normal life, people here are missing sports, they’re missing events, they’re missing friends, they’re missing normal life. So, getting this back is a huge step in feeling like things are getting back to a bit of normal.
“Overall the passion in this city and this province for Bomber football is so, so high that this honestly is a huge deal. Seeing and talking to people, it seems like every conversation was, ‘Hey, when are we coming back?’ We’ve been champs two years in a row, but we want to come back and win it again. I can’t go anywhere any day without that being the conversation.”
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