There’s always a temptation in football to make this simply about the black and white, especially in the wake of a preseason game.
It’s pass/fail; keep/cut; starter/back-up.
That’s an approach which isn’t wrong or necessarily cut-throat or callous, but simply part of life in the camp of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the goal of getting ready for the start of the 2019 Canadian Football League regular season.
But what it eliminates from the equation in all this is the human element and the emotional investment that is often forgotten in the physical battles.
And it was a stroll through the Bombers locker room after their 20-3 win over the Edmonton Eskimos at IG Field Friday night that revealed so much of that emotion and reinforced how much a simple preseason game meant to so many.
Take Dylan Schrot, as an example. The University of Manitoba receiver wasn’t drafted last month, and was only added to the Bombers rookie camp after an injury to Malik Richards, a fifth-round pick by the club.
Schrot not only scored the game’s only touchdown, but made a touchdown-saving tackle on a kickoff. Those two moments came with his mom, grandparents and friends from school all in attendance.
“It’s really cliché to say, but I really trusted the process and never really lost belief in myself,” said Schrot. “I just focused on getting better every day. All I wanted was an opportunity. I didn’t really care if I was drafted or undrafted, I just wanted my foot in the door and the rest is on me. I’m just happy I was able to showcase what I was able to do.”
It wasn’t just a preseason game for Brady Oliveira, either. The Oak Park High School/North Dakota product cranked out a 15-yard run on his first carry and finished with four carries for 17 yards behind a makeshift offensive line. And he too did it in front of friends and family.
“I had so much fun out there, running down on special teams, getting in there when my number was called on offence and getting some carries and making the most of it and I think I did that,” Oliveira said afterward, a huge grin dominating his face. “Everyone after the game was trying to pull me this way, pull me that way. I’m going to go see them after this.”
Just a preseason game? Consider what rookie defensive back Joe Este – the man who became the legal guardian to his sister’s sons while still in university – and is simply trying to carve out a career in the game.
“It’s just great to be back out there on the grass, to put the cleats on, the helmet, the shoulder pads and just run around playing and doing something I love to do,” said Este, who began the interview by thanking the organization, the coaches and his teammates just for giving him an opportunity to play again. “It’s something we worked hard for, practised long for and it feels great to be out there in a game.
“Everybody’s competing for a job in here. A lot of people say it’s just preseason, but in this locker room it’s a job to us. This is how we’ve got to feed our families and so we don’t go out there and treat it like a preseason, we treat it like it’s a real game.”
There were the three members of the Winnipeg Rifles junior team – running back Brandon Urciuoli, linebacker Cole Sneesby and defensive back Troy Wilson – all of whom got into the game in front of their family and friends.
“I couldn’t promise them all opportunities,” said head coach Mike O’Shea afterward. “They get here and they appreciate being here, but what I liked is they wanted reps. They’re not just saying, ‘Hey, thanks, no problem coach.’ They want to be out there and they should want that. I thought they did a good job.”
And then there is German linebacker Thiadric Hansen, one of four ‘Global’ players in the game. We told his story earlier in the week and how he was just thrilled to have a chance to play again after almost giving up the game.
“It’s mind blowing, what an experience,” said Hansen inside a cramped and raucous Bombers locker room. “All the fans that were here… the guys told me there’s going to be more and more, but it was crazy. Those fans gave us great energy.
“Sometimes it’s funny how things work. I have to give big thanks to my friend who convinced me to play one more year, just for a moment like that. It’s already worth it.”
More on Friday’s preseason win in our weekly post-game collection of notes and quotes we call UPON FURTHER REVIEW…
THERE’S SO MUCH TO DIGEST… from a preseason game, especially with over 80 Bombers players suiting up and then needing to be evaluated. And so when Mike O’Shea said he needs to ‘look at the film’, before making any concrete statements, it resonates.
We mentioned in our game story Friday a number of players who had a solid day, including Schrot, quarterback Bryan Bennett, defensive end Alex McCalister, defensive backs like Joe Este and Malik Boynton, and a number of receivers like Kenny Walker, Daniel Petermann and Kenny Lawler.
Lawler, FYI, led all Bombers receivers with four catches for 52 yards.
“I believe I left some on the field, but I believe I also made a couple of good catches today, a couple of good contested ones,” he said. “I hope I showed them that I know my assignments, that I can make good catches and contested catches and that I could just be a player the quarterbacks can trust to throw the ball to me.”
THAT ‘TRUST’ COMPONENT IS A KEY ONE… because coaches want to know they can put players in positions to make plays, but know they have a comfort level with the playbook. As Este explained, “it’s knowing what you are supposed to do, be where you are supposed to be and then making a play.”
“When you watch the film you want the coaches to maybe say, ‘OK, you missed a tackle here or he might have caught the ball on you, but you were in the right spot at the right time.’ The coach wants to know that you know how to line up and communicate to those next to you. It’s about establishing a trust, that the coaches know they can trust you out on the field.”
INTERESTINGLY, O’SHEA AND THE COACHING STAFF AREN’T JUST LOOKING AT… the numbers on the stats sheets to make their evaluations. Asked after the game what other intangibles he might be looking for, the Bombers boss offered this:
“It’s all general team stuff. It’s looking at how guys interact on the field with each other, good play, bad play, their play, somebody else’s play. It’s not that it’s a main focal point of the evaluation, but it’s something I just happen to notice on every play as we watch the film. I love taking note of how guys carry themselves because the further you go down the road maybe the more important that becomes and if you’re at a further (along) starting point you don’t have to coach a guy on that stuff like that on being a good teammate.
“Those aren’t drop-dead things, but they do add to the evaluation.”
LUCKY WHITHEAD, CHARLES NELSON AND THE RETURNER BATTLE… are part of a still-evolving fight for the main kick-returner job. Both men had their moments, with Nelson returning the opening kickoff 48 yards and finishing with 93 yards on four combined returns; while Whitehead had four punt and kickoff returns totalling 44 yards.
“It was fun just to get out there and run around and get the feeling down. Getting hit, making people miss, getting tackled… it was all fun,” Whitehead said. “I can’t wait to get out there and do it some more. I know they’ve got to evaluate everyone, but it’s hard to get in a groove, too.
“I was pretty close on the first punt return. I shouldn’t have slowed down, but I wanted to set up a block and when I did that it kind of blew up in my face. But it was fun getting out on that edge and being able to cut it up and get that corner.
“Hopefully I’ll get more opportunities to keep learning and keep building because for me it’s going to be endless opportunities to take stuff back. As I grow in this league and learn, I’m going to get real dangerous.”