For five Canadian Football League seasons — three as a valued member of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers — Jason Vega got used to being recognized when he was out and about as a tenacious defender who wouldn’t take no for an answer in his pursuit of an opposing team’s quarterback or ball carrier.
Lately, however, the 33-year-old married father of three, who retired from the gridiron in 2017, has grown more accustomed to standing in line at Costco or the gas station and answering queries along the lines of, “Hey, aren’t you the guy in those funny car commercials on TV?” At which point Vega, the new car sales manager at Winnipeg Dodge, 3965 Portage Ave., will flash his inquisitor an ear-to-ear grin while responding, “Ha… guilty as charged.”
“Or they’ll repeat a few of my catchphrases back at me, saying something like they know they can’t hug me now but they’ll catch me later,” he says, referring to a spot that began airing at the end of April during which he squeezes the life out of an oversized teddy bear instead of members of his sales team in order to promote social-distancing protocols owing to COVID-19. (Our favourite? The dealership’s latest blurb wherein Vega drops cliché after cliché, quoting lines from sports flicks such as Any Given Sunday and The Mighty Ducks, all the while promoting Jeep Compasses and Dodge Grand Caravans.)
OK, here’s the million-dollar question: as natural as he comes across onscreen — the ex-lineman credits the hours he spent patiently answering reporters’ questions during his professional football career for his comfort level in front of a camera — what’s tougher: taking on a 300-pound offensive guard or trying to peddle a $75,000 Ram 1500 Sport pickup truck?
“To be completely honest, I never found football to be all that difficult. I was blessed with long arms and the ability to do things with them, so playing the game always came pretty easily,” he says, seated on the backyard deck at his home in Southdale, which he shares with his Winnipeg-born wife Brittany and their children, Jazi, 8, Adrian, 3 and Evan, 11 months, as well as a pair of pooches, Mia and Koko.
“So sales is definitely a tougher racket, for sure. Especially these days with the whole COVID thing, when customers’ incomes have been affected, when people might be hesitant to go for a test-drive… the list goes on and on.
“But that’s why I think the commercials have been effective,” he continues, pausing to say, “Hey, killer,” to Adrian, who’s ventured outside in his PJs to wish his dad a good night. “Instead of pounding viewers over the head, saying, ‘Here’s a car, it’s 30 grand, why don’t you buy it?’ we’ve been taking a bit of a softer approach by trying to have a bit of fun. Based on reaction so far, things appear to be working.”
Vega, a standout at Boston’s Northeastern University for five years, had never heard of Winnipeg, or the Canadian Football League for that matter, when he accepted an invitation to try out with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2010. Referring to himself as “that stereotypical American who doesn’t know anything that goes on north of the border,” he recalls participating in one exhibition game that season — against the Blue Bombers, no less — and suffering a knee injury, after which he returned to his alma mater where he had been offered a job as an academic co-ordinator.
In April 2011, the native of Brockton, Mass. — home of boxing legends Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler — received a call from his agent informing him the Bombers were staging a tryout camp in Dallas. Figuring he’d give football one more chance, he hopped on a plane and made his way to the field in question, where he was put through a series of drills. By the time he boarded a return flight to Boston, the Bombers had already reached out, letting him know they liked what they’d seen. Was Vega interested in attending training camp in Winnipeg, they wondered? You betcha, he said.
As fans of the Big Blue remember full well, Vega, a six-foot-four, 250-pound lineman made the team. In July 2011, he and Bryant Turner Jr. — also in his rookie season with the Bombers — headed to the beach at Birds Hill Provincial Park to spend a rare day off. While there they ran into another of their teammates, Dorian Smith, who was with a group of people that included education student named Brittany Mitchell. Vega and Mitchell struck up a conversation. At some point — here’s where things get a little grey — the two exchanged phone numbers.
“Is he telling that story again about how I called him?” Brittany says with a laugh, poking her head outside the patio door. “Because if he is, stop taking notes right now. He definitely reached out to me first.”
Vega spent two seasons anchoring the Bombers’ D — don’t ask him about the 2011 Grey Cup title game, which the Bombers lost 34-23 to the B.C. Lions, it still hurts, he says — before trying his luck in the National Football League. After failing to make the New England Patriots, he was picked up by the Dallas Cowboys in August 2013. He appeared in two games for the Cowboys, registering one tackle, before being released prior to the 2014 campaign. The decision to return to Winnipeg that spring was an easy one, he explains. By then he and Brittany were living together, so he was already considering moving to Canada permanently, a choice made easier when he lost his mother to cancer that same year.
“Before my mom passed I had told her I saw a future here with Brittany. She said I had to do what was good for me and that she wasn’t going to be upset if I left (Brockton),” he says, his voice dropping a bit. “Losing her also changed my perspective in terms of what was important in life. The last thing I used to do before every game was call her from the dressing room to say hi, at which point she would always say, pardon my French, ‘F–k ‘em up!” even though she didn’t know what a sack was if I tried to explain it to her. Everything back then was so weighted into making her happy, making her proud of me that when she wasn’t around anymore I was like, ‘OK, I guess I’ll play,’ but my heart wasn’t in it as much. I felt like I’d lost something.”
For her part, Brittany wasn’t disappointed in the least when her husband decided to hang up his cleats three years ago after spending his last two seasons in the CFL bouncing between Edmonton and Toronto. (On Feb. 8, 2017, Vega signed a one-day contract with the Blue Bombers, at which point he announced his retirement from the game.)
“I went to (Bombers) games before I met Jason but when you’re in love with somebody on the field, there’s definitely a different perspective involved,” she says, mentioning while her companions routinely headed off the to the Rum Hut, she stayed glued to her seat, not wanting to miss a minute of the action.
“Plus, there was the beating he’d take on the field. I remember one time when he suffered a concussion and the team doctor told to me make sure to wake him up every two hours to make sure he was OK. I was like, are you kidding me? Or all the times he couldn’t fall asleep for five or six hours after a game because he was so amped up. Or the amount of painkillers he went through during the week…”
At this point Vega interjects, saying watching the 2015 film Concussion, starring Will Smith, all about brain injuries associated with playing pro football, was akin to watching a horror flick like Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Stree . For the duration of the movie he sat on the couch, murmuring to himself, ‘Omigosh, what have I been doing to my body for the last 10 years?’
Another reason for trading in his cleats for a salesman’s suit (OK, that’s another lie, he’s most comfortable in a polo shirt and pair of khakis) was his desire to be around his kids while they were growing up. He admits he didn’t spend a lot of time with Jazi, his daughter from a previous relationship, when she was a toddler (she lives in the States with her mother but now spends every summer in Winnipeg) and didn’t want the same scenario to unfold when he and Brittany started a family of their own. (He laughs, saying Jazi’s lone comment when she was old enough to realize her dad once suited up for the Pats was, “Does that mean you know Tom Brady!?”)
“My last year in Edmonton was fun, but it wasn’t more fun than spending time with my kids,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’d already made the transition to sales — I got a job with Jim Gauthier in 2016 during the off-season — so yeah, stepping away from the game wasn’t that hard, to be honest. I knew in my head I was going to be selling cars a lot longer than I was going to be bashing heads on a football field, so I thought, ‘OK, let’s get to it.’”
John Michaud, general sales manager at New Winnipeg Dodge, says it was a no-brainer to make Vega the face of the dealership, via a series of TV and radio commercials.
“I told him I had this marketing idea with him in it, featuring his notoriety as a former pro football player,” Michaud says when reached at work. “I knew he had the personality for it and he has embraced what has been asked of him every time.”
Michaud, who often plays Vega’s foil in the firm’s commercials, says there has been a definite spinoff. A couple of weeks ago he was giving someone a tour of the dealership when somebody yelled out he had better hang onto his coffee mug, citing a spot when Vega knocks Michaud’s cuppa joe out of his hands after overzealously slapping him on the back while running past on his way to greet a customer.
“Almost everyone who comes in comments to us about hugging or the coffee-cup scene,” Michaud says. “We wanted to present a new focus and a reminder that car sales can also be fun. We have had an amazing response.”
Vega, of Puerto Rican descent, doesn’t consider himself a political junkie. Still, he feels he’s in a “better place” in Winnipeg, given what’s been going on “back home” these last few months. Describing Brockton as half-Black, half-white, he says he definitely understands the message the Black Lives Matter movement has been trying to get across.
“I don’t claim to know what life is like as a white person, nor as a Black man,” he says, taking a sip of water. “I’ve always found myself to be somewhere in the middle. But if I was playing football today would I kneel during the anthem? Probably in Canada, but definitely in the States.”
Finally, when asked if, after the better part of nine years, he feels like a true Winnipegger, Vega casts a glance at his wife and laughs. First of all, he still misses Chick-fil-A and the Cheesecake Factory. Secondly, while he’s come to adore Fat Boy burgers, perogies and roti (Brittany, whose mother was Trinidadian, quickly points out roti isn’t a “Winnipeg thing”), he still can’t wrap his head around the manner in which Canadians order Chinese food.
“Back home we had combo plates, where you got rice, shrimp and chow mein and it was all yours,” he says, shaking his head. “Here, Brittany will order six or seven things, put everything in the middle of the table then announce, OK, everybody dig in. I’m like, but I want my own dinner, I don’t want to share.”
“To his credit, he’s getting a little better with the concept of what’s mine is yours,” Brittany pipes in, playfully poking her husband in the ribs. “Seriously though, if you were to ask me which of the two of us says ‘eh’ more often, it’s definitely him.”
“That’s true,” he agrees. “And this whole Winnipeg-as-Slurpee-capital-of-the-world? Yeah, I’ve definitely been able to get behind that, too, no trouble at all.”
Mikaela MacKenzie loves meeting people, experiencing new things, and learning something every day. That’s what drove her to pursue a career as a visual journalist — photographers get a hands-on, boots-on-the-ground look at the world.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
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