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May 3, 2016

Hefney’s Story

It was shortly before 7 pm on Thursday, October 1, 2015 and I had just returned home in time to catch the Montreal vs Ottawa game. I sat back on the couch and watched Ottawa’s Patrick Lavoie take a quick pass and turn up field. As I had been accustomed to seeing over four years working with him every day (and another two watching from afar) in came #23 to make the tackle with complete disregard for his own body.

I had witnessed this dozens of times, and in certain moments, it would almost make me laugh. Jonathan Hefney played defensive back the way it’s supposed to be played; he would do whatever he had to do to make the tackle while trying his absolute best to hit as hard as he possibly could. This time was like every other, until his entire body went limp before falling to the turf at TD Place.

Working in football, I’ve seen many guys get hurt, and it’s never fun to watch. Torn ACLs, fractured elbows, torn Achilles, the list goes on and on. But when it’s a guy you know well, it sucks just a little bit more. But that night in Ottawa, an accidental helmet-to-helmet shot had the entire stadium holding its breath and Henry Burris looking skyward after watching the replay on the videoboards.

My heart dropped for minutes, and I immediately sent him a text, as if he was going to reply right there; “get up Heff.”

About half an hour later, my phone lit up with the name ‘Jonathan Hefney’ across the screen. I opened the message fearing the worst, but it read “lol I’m good D.” That encapsulates what this player is about. He may not have known his career had come to an end at that moment, but even after telling me it was one the scariest moments of his life, he was still in good spirits. I could see him smiling from a province over.

Heff, as he was known his entire CFL career, started in 56 games over four seasons in Winnipeg, and may very well be the most energetic player I’ve ever worked with. He danced after almost every play. He talked A LOT on the field and made no apologies for it. His play would back his ‘swagger’, and as member of the infamous Swaggerville, he knew a thing or two about that. And most importantly, he loved it here in Winnipeg.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive back Jonathan Hefney, defensive back Johnny Sears and defensive end Odell Willis, left to right, ham it up during a walk through Saturday November 26, 2011 in Vancouver. The Blue Bombers will face the B.C. Lions in the 99th Grey Cup CFL football final Sunday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

In 2009, after our home preseason game, I was leaving the stadium when a young rookie (I’ll be honest, I didn’t even remember his name at first), asked if I was heading downtown and if so, if I’d mind dropping him off so he could get something to eat. I was new to the organization as well and didn’t yet know many people. As we drove down Portage we made small talk – what Winnipeg was like, how he liked playing at Tennessee, how he felt in his first CFL action just an hour earlier. I don’t remember most of his answers, but I definitely didn’t think that eight years later, he would send me a Sunday morning text message asking if he could retire a Blue Bomber so he could “go out a Bomber with my brothers.”

When he was released in 2013, our regime at the time had decided his best days were behind him. So when he signed in Calgary shortly after, we talked for a few minutes. “Look forward, not backwards, when talking with the media there,” I remember telling him. “Huff won’t put up with you taking any parting shots at your old team.” Look, this wasn’t the first time I had given him advice on what to say. Did he always listen? Ha. No. But most times he would understand, much like he did a year earlier when he took to Twitter to criticize some offseason decisions our GM had made. At the time, our management was so angry there was some talk of releasing him right on the spot. I remember saying, “are we crazy? We can move past this. Yes, it was stupid, but don’t get rid of him for it.”

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Jonathan Hefney (23) gets the crowd going during fourth quarter CFL action on in Winnipeg on Thursday, July 28, 2011. (CFL PHOTO - MARIANNE HELM)It eventually blew over (but not before landing on the front page of a Winnipeg newspaper with a damning headline). I told him I wanted to use that front cover as an example of why players need to be careful on social media. He laughed, and not only agreed but offered to speak during our media session with the entire organization on how he learned the hard way what athletes deal with on social media in the new world. Ultimately, that’s the type of guy Jonathan Hefney is.

When he told me last spring that he was going to give it one more shot at Montreal mini camp (he attended without any sort of contract), he was sure he could make a good impression. And when they told him he was going to get an offer to come to camp and ‘compete’, he said “I felt like I did when Winnipeg made me an offer way back when (2009), just so grateful to get another shot.” He was having a great season last year before that horrific injury, and as I write this, he still relies on his left arm for almost everything, as his right arm continues to heal.

Jonathan Hefney is a character. A guy that, if you didn’t know him, is hard to fully describe. All of us at the Blue Bombers are honoured he wanted to retire as member of this organization. We wish you all the best and hope that you continue healing and get better. Thanks for the memories, Heff.