January 20, 2020

“We’re the Grey Cup champs. Why would I want to leave that now?”

Stanley Bryant (66) -Ottowa Redblacks @ Winnipeg Bluebombers Kyle Thomas Photo

Stanley Bryant stood back and simply watched. Slowly, a giant grin began to form on the face of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers dominant left tackle.

He and his teammates had just finished putting the finishing touches on the club’s victory in the 107th Grey Cup and Bryant, like so many others, wanted to soak up as much of the celebratory scene at McMahon Stadium late on the last Sunday in November.

It’s those moments Bryant says he will remember as much as any. The critical blocks he threw in front of Andrew Harris or the perfect pass protections he authored on that day will stand out, sure. But Bryant – who officially re-signed with the Bombers on a one-year deal rather than become a free agent next month – also has the images of celebrating teammates now etched in his memory bank.

“I’ll always remember all the smiles on all the guys faces,” said Stanley during a conversation with from his offseason home in Goldsboro, N.C. “I had won (a Grey Cup) before (with Calgary in 2014), so this was my second one. It’s hard to get there. It’s hard enough to win one, let alone two.”

“So, it was great to look around and see the smiles… all those rookies who think we can do it every year and then guys like Paddy (Neufeld) who got traded to the Bombers in 2013 just a few weeks before (Saskatchewan) won a championship. Also, Matt Nichols who got traded in 2015 when Edmonton won it. There were a lot of guys experiencing that first moment of playing in the Grey Cup and winning it. I was just so happy in that moment for those guys.

“I was also happy for the coaching staff. There were a few guys on the staff who hadn’t won. I was just as happy to see other people win it. It was a blessing to me to see the smiles on other guys faces in a moment like that.”

That, in a nutshell, is the side of Stanley Bryant many Bomber fans don’t know.

Most see him as the durable and steady left tackle nominated for the Canadian Football League’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman award for three straight seasons – 2017-19 – winning in ’17 and ’18 and finishing as the runner-up last year.

They likely also see him as a future Bomber Hall of Famer who will almost certainly have a similar place in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame when his career is done.

But as workmanlike and quietly serious as he is on the field, he is jovial and smiling off it. He is especially close to his mother, and she along with his sister, brother in law and two nephews were on the field celebrating with him after the Grey Cup.

And it was that sense of family which was as important to him when it came time to deciding on where he’d play in 2020 as much as the numbers on the Bombers contract offer.

“I wasn’t tempted to see what would be out there (in free agency) at all,” said Bryant. “Actually, a couple weeks after the Grey Cup I had my mind made up that I wanted to return. Also, seeing that Jermarcus (Hardrick) was coming back (he re-signed in December) was big. Keeping this crew together and having continuity was very important to me. So, it was a no brainer to come back and stay in Winnipeg.

“The group of guys we have there are my friends. I’ve been in Winnipeg for five years now and since coming in for 2015 I’ve seen the continuity being kept with guys like Jermarcus and Paddy, Darvin (Adams), Andrew (Harris), (Jackson) Jeffcoat… there’s a lot of different guys who have been with the Blue Bombers for a while and I just couldn’t see myself leaving those guys or leaving the organization.”

Bryant was already an established presence at tackle when he signed with the Bombers as a free agent in the winter of 2015. He was twice named Calgary’s top O-lineman and a CFL All-Star before he decided to head out to Winnipeg. Part of that decision was financial, part was simply the idea of what a change of scenery might offer after all the success with the Stamps.

But the move to Winnipeg wasn’t all roses at first. He arrived in the early stages of the rebuild under Mike O’Shea, Kyle Walters and Wade Miller and, admittedly, felt the pressure of being one of the club’s ‘marquee’ free-agent additions.

He started all 18 games for the Bombers in 2015 but, he says now in retrospect, it was the approach he took after that difficult season – the Bombers missed the playoffs with a 5-13 record – that helped him become the rock at the left tackle spot he is today.

“My time in Calgary was amazing… we were always competing for a Grey Cup or close to a Grey Cup,” Bryant recalled. “We had won a Grey Cup in 2014 after we went in 2012 and lost and felt like we should have won one in 2013 but lost in the West Final. After that I felt it was time for a change and Winnipeg looked like the right place.

“That 2015 season in Winnipeg… I was a big free-agent signing, but things didn’t pan out like I thought they would. It was a bad year for the organization, but also for me as a player. I had to sit back and pause and think about everything that was going on. I knew I had to better myself as a player all around and come to Winnipeg (in 2016) and just work harder and also show other guys what that was all about.”

“I knew I could be a better player. My mind was in the right place, but things just didn’t go well. It was just refocussing and knowing the type of player I am. I had to tell myself ‘I’m the best offensive lineman in the CFL’ and believe in that. And then go out and show that every week. I had to do it for myself. I didn’t want to be seen as a guy who came in and then left but hadn’t done well.”

That’s a statement that seems strange to hear now, given the personal accolades Bryant has piled up as a Bomber and sights and sounds of the Grey Cup victory still so fresh.

But they also say a ton about Bryant’s inner drive.

“You know, that 2015 season was a great learning lesson, too,” he added. “You can be on top and on a high in one place and then get knocked down just like that. The year helped me a lot. I don’t talk about it a lot, but I felt back then I wasn’t one of the elite guys in the CFL that season. I had to pick it back up and do what I needed to do to be the player I knew I could be.

“But I came to Winnipeg knowing it would be a long progress because they were just starting to build. I wanted to be a piece of that. Now we’re the Grey Cup champs. Why would I want to leave that now?”