May 3, 2016

It All Began in Blue

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Jonathan Hefney (23) during second quarter CFL action in Winnipeg on Sunday, September 11, 2011. (CFL PHOTO - MARIANNE HELM)

He’d been playing the game for more than two decades and, in the course of delivering twice as any hellacious hits as he had ever taken, Jonathan Hefney had never been seriously injured.

He was 30, in the best shape of his professional career and in the midst of a renaissance season in which he was re-establishing himself as one of the Canadian Football League’s toughest competitors.

Hefney’s football career officially ended today when he signed a one-day contract with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in order to retire as part of the team that gave him his first real pro shot.

Training staffs attends to Montreal Alouettes' Jonathan Hefney during first half CFL football action against the Ottawa Redblacks in Ottawa on Thursday Oct. 1, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean KilpatrickBut, technically, Hefney’s career ended last Oct. 1 while being strapped to a stretcher and staring up at the bright lights at TD Place in Ottawa.

Then a member of the Montreal Alouettes, Hefney had been in a helmet-to-helmet collision with REDBLACKS fullback Patrick Lavoie – a hit so violent those on the scene claimed it sounded like two cars crashing into each other.


“I remember everything about the tackle,” began Hefney in an interview with

“My body went stiff, but I remember hitting him, I remember watching him NOT go down and seeing myself going down to the grass. It’s a pretty nasty injury.”

‘Nasty’ doesn’t really even begin to describe it. Hefney suffered a severe complex neck injury that included three fractured vertebrae and nerve damage from which he is still recovering.

His last surgery to deal with the nerve issue was three months ago.

“They cut me around my neck and they cut me under my chest and through the inside of my arm trying to attach the nerves because I had one nerve that came out and it really shut down my whole right arm,” said Hefney.

“I’ve got some small movement going and all the feeling that I thought I had lost, except for my hand and my fingertips are kind of still numb.

“My arm kinda sleeps now, but after three months of therapy my grip strength is getting where it needs to be to be able to hold things. I’m just waiting on my nerves to go where I can get my arm back moving the way I want to.”

But it’s been a slow recovery. Hefney had just finished playing catch with his seven-year-old nephew, Kaiden Watkins, before conducting this interview.

And the lingering issues with the nerves on his right side forced him to throw with his left hand.

“I’ve been dealing with it,” Hefney said. “I think I’ve been positive throughout the whole situation. I understand that playing football, injuries occur. And I avoided a lot of injuries hitting hard and getting hit hard. It happens in the game, I’m just happy to be able to play since I was eight years old and never get hurt until I was 30.”

That’s a perspective that didn’t come over night, but only after some serious discussions about his future with his family and his girlfriend.

Ultimately it led him to today, and the decision to retire as a Bomber.

“I knew it was over,” Hefney said. “But it’s hard to let it go because I felt I was having a good season and I had a lot of football left in me (he was leading the Als in interceptions at the time of the injury).

“So, I just wanted to finish my career and retire as a Blue Bomber because that’s where I did everything, that’s who gave me the opportunity to continue playing football when the NFL didn’t want me.

“That’s where I made a name for myself as far as being a pretty good football player.”

Admittedly, Hefney’s exit from the Bombers hardly featured a parade and a fond farewell. He had been arrested and charged with marijuana possession just prior to training camp in 2013 and was released a couple of weeks before the season was to begin.

It was sudden and abrupt and oh-so emotional.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers DB Jonathan Hefney brings down Montreal Alouettes WR Kerry Watkins during first half CFL action in Winnipeg on Friday, Sept. 30, 2011. THE CANADAIN PRESS/Jason Halstead

“I ended up getting into a little bit of trouble. I hope that wasn’t why I was released,” said Hefney. “I always tried to play hard and give everything I had. I don’t know if the situation just went bad after I got into trouble, but (then GM) Joe Mack and Coach (Tim) Burke just said they didn’t feel like I was good enough to play.

“I loved Winnipeg. They gave me an opportunity. The fans loved me. The exit? I cried with all the guys when I heard. It hurt me. I gave everything I had, the blood, sweat and tears. But, at the same time, I knew what the business was and I tried to move on from it.”

Hefney would suit up for 11 games with Calgary in 2013 and sit out the entire 2014 season after his release from the Stampeders. He was invited to the Alouettes free-agent camp in the winter of 2015 and had found a spot in the Montreal defence when that fateful night last fall brought it all to a crushing conclusion.

And so this is a day as much about remorse as it is about reflection. But Hefney chooses to remember all the good that the game brought him, including being a member of that dominant ‘Swaggerville’ defence that was critical in the Bombers’ run to the 2011 Grey Cup.

“That was the best time of my life,” said Hefney, who hopes to land a coaching gig in the CFL one day. “Winnipeg fans were like Tennessee (where he played college ball) fans. They were always there, they were always loud.

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“Playing with Jovon (Johnson), Alex Suber, Clint Kent, Joe Lobedahn, Doug Brown, Odell Willis, Jason Vega, Phillip Hunt before he went back to the NFL, Ian Logan, Johnny Sears, Deon Beasley… I’ll never forget the guys we had on that defence.

“I loved the game, man. I remember watching film and talking to Conredge Holloway (a Canadian Football Hall of Famer and fellow Tennessee product) before I came to Winnipeg.


“He just told me to do what I always do: fly to the ball, play hard, and make an impact.

“I think I did that and I’m proud of that.”