Winnipeg Blue Bombers Milt Stegall (85), Kevin Glenn (5) and O'Neil Wilson (0) in the dying minutes of the second half of their CFL game against the BC Lions in Winnipeg on Friday, October 5, 2007. The BC Lions defeated the Bombers 26-20. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
It began as a conversation about Milt Stegall’s record-breaking night, almost 13 years ago now, and then morphed into a bigger-picture discussion about the Canadian Football League and its importance to so many in this country.
So, yeah, let’s get this out of the way right off the top…
Stegall, yours truly, and anyone who plays, works or passionately follows this grand ol’ loop have an unquestioned bias in play right now, especially in a week when commissioner Randy Ambrosie met with the federal government seeking financial assistance.
Maybe that was in the back of my mind Friday morning in advance of the TSN rebroadcast of the record-breaking game when I reached out to Stegall, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers legend and the CFL’s touchdown king. I also spoke with his quarterback in that game, Kevin Glenn, about that spectacular summer night in late July 2007.
Both were eager to play the nostalgia game; both were eager to trumpet the importance of the CFL in their lives.
Deep down we were all thinking and saying the same thing: there are the memories you get from experiencing games like that, a night in which Canad Inns Stadium was absolutely jumping in anticipation of Stegall’s record chase. And then we all hope we can add to that collection of memories when the COVID-19 pandemic is over and the CFL, fingers most certainly crossed, comes out having survived it all.
We’ll get to that a little later here as we attempt to merge two themes, but first let’s rewind to July 27, 2007 with Stegall and Glenn and the night Stegall passed both George Reed and Mike Pringle to become the TD king…
THE RECORD-BREAKING TD PLAY
At the 8:17 mark of the second quarter in a game against Hamilton, Stegall pulled in a one-yard pass from Glenn for his 138th career TD, one more than Reed and Pringle. Later in the game, Stegall would add to the total with a 35-yard score, and he finished his hall of fame career with 147 TDs.
Stegall: “In the first game against Edmonton that year I had scored. And as we went into the three games after that DBs would tell me, ‘You’re eventually going to break the record, but it’s not going to happen today.’ So, as we got closer to the red zone, I started getting more attention put towards me.
“I think Coach Berry (then the Bomers head coach) got tired of talking about it. He wasn’t frustrated, but just wanted to get past it. Next thing you know he’s got me practising quarterback sneaks as a way to get the record. I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness… I’m going to do a quarterback sneak?!’
“As I said before, I’m always trying to avoid all contact and you want me to do a quarterback sneak? I remember the first time I tried it in practice… I mean I hadn’t played quarterback since I was eight-nine years old. Obby Khan was the centre and I can remember I didn’t have my fingers spread all the way open on my hands and almost jammed two of my fingers. I was like, ‘No way.’ I told Coach Dyce (then the receivers coach), ‘We’re not going to do a quarterback sneak in a game. It’s not going to happen.’”
Glenn: “Doug Berry was anxious to get the record done and out of the way. That’s when the quarterback sneak idea came from, this idea that we needed to come up with a play that nobody is going to expect.
“We talked about using him in a reverse, or even handing the ball to him in the backfield. We came up with the option play where he would come around and we would option the ball to him and then he would run it in. I think he got really, really excited and he ended up in front of me so I just did the little shovel pass.
“I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but I had a touchdown pass clause in my contract, so I got a certain amount with every touchdown pass I threw. That may have been easiest money I have ever made in my life.”
Stegall: “I know Kevin was happy, too, because he had an incentive in his contract for passing touchdowns so he not only went down in history with me, he got a little extra money in his pocket. He never gave me my 20 percent, so I’m going to hold him to it one day.”
Glenn: “His 20 percent? His 20 percent was me giving him the ball to break the record! We always kid about that, about it being a pass instead of a run, when it was actually geared up to be a run.”
Stegall: “Maybe that was the football gods getting involved. I’m a receiver and 144 of my touchdowns were receiving touchdowns. It was great the way it worked out with it being a pass play. But if it hadn’t worked out that way, it would have been OK, too, because I would have broken the record held by two running backs with a rushing touchdown. We would have found a way to spin it.”
THE PLAY BEFORE THE RECORD, AND THE GENIUS OF STEGALL
The Bombers had advanced to the one-yard line after Glenn had hit Stegall for a 20-yard gain. On that play, Stegall read the defender, broke off his route and Glenn found him. It was part of Stegall’s magic – his ability to read and react so quickly to what the defence was showing him – and the chemistry he had with Glenn, and Khari Jones before him.
Glenn: “Milt cut the route off and broke inside because he could tell the defender was setting his feet and wasn’t going to back-peddle anymore. He was so good at altering routes, but not altering it where he was going against the offence. He just knew how to adapt. And we had that connection.”
Stegall: “I don’t remember the exact play that was called. But I played with a bunch of quarterbacks, two who were really able to read me – Khari J and Kevin – and understand when I was going to do something. I saw the middle open and thought I’d take the middle. I believe the defender was Tay Cody and I thought if I could get deep enough I could get the TD, but also knew that Kevin couldn’t sit in the pocket forever, so I made my move and cut it in thinking that I didn’t want my quarterback to get killed.”
Glenn: “You could see things with his body language that would alert me to let it go. You build that kind of relationship when you build a relationship also off the field. I would always be picking his brain even on things outside of football and I think that’s why we had success.
“He and Khari were exactly the same way. When I got to the team I sat back and watched their relationship, quarterback and receiver. I saw it from afar, and then when I got to Winnipeg and I saw it more it was like, ‘Wow, these guys are good.’
“A lot of Milt’s touchdowns were because of that relationship. I remember when he broke the all-time receiving record when we were in Toronto. He broke the route off and broke in front of the guy… the ball was delivered and he took off. Again, it was just from his body language. He did a very good job that when he made that move you knew he was about to do something different.
“It was just one of those things where we were on the same page.”
THE GIFT AND THE CURSE
Canad Inns exploded with the Stegall score and the standing ovation lasted for several minutes. Throughout his career, but particularly as it was winding down, Stegall always had an appreciation for the adulation he received as a professional athlete. The night he broke the record, he was 37.
Stegall: “I’ll tell you a funny story (then Bombers president) Lyle Bauer told me at the time, ‘Hey, we want you to score, Milt. But take a few more games if you want to because we’d have no problem selling out more games before you break the record.’
“But getting that ovation and that adulation… it’s the gift and the curse. And I say it’s a curse because when it’s over, that’s what we long for. It’s not going out there and catching touchdown passes, running somebody over or making a big hit. It’s that right there… that’s a drug you can’t get anywhere else. I don’t care if you go to your occupation and make a billion dollars. That’s what we long for right there. That’s why I tried to enjoy it every single time. That moment right there… I knew my career was soon coming to an end, so I just tried to soak it up as much as I could.
“Leading into that year Mike Pringle told me to enjoy the moment because I think as he was going through the process I’m not sure he enjoyed it as much as he could have because he was so serious and had the tunnel vision.
“That’s part of why I soaked it up. I wish I could have it 20 million more times… as a professional athlete, that’s what you miss, those accolades like that.”
A KEY TO THE CITY, THE ORDER OF THE BUFFALO HUNT, A STREET NAMED IN HIS HONOUR AND A VAN…
About a month later Stegall was honoured at another Bombers home game with his mother, his wife and his first son in attendance. Premier Gary Doer was there to present him with the Order of the Buffalo Hunt, recognizing leaders’ ‘outstanding and distinctive contributions.’ So, too, was Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz, who presented him with a key to the city. He was also given a van by the club.
Stegall: “I have the key to the city and I’m in my basement right now talking to you and I’m actually looking at the Order of the Buffalo Hunt right now.
“And the van? My wife won’t want me telling the story, but I’ll tell it. Afterwards she was like, ‘We don’t need a van. We have one kid, we’re going to have one more.’ I don’t want to say she’s trendy, but she was like, ‘Don’t tell anybody, but I’m not going to be driving a mini-van.’
“So, I was able to get a Jeep Commander and we had that for about seven years. You know I’m cheap… I ran that into the ground.”
My interview with Stegall lasted almost 20 minutes. And the Zoom chat with Glenn covered 15 more. Both conversations included check-ins and updates on kids and ended with messages of staying safe.
But there was also the hope that, given this global pandemic which is threatening so many businesses, not just the CFL, there would be soon more nights like July 27, 2007.
“They say down here that the NFL is ‘America’s Game,’” said Glenn. “And we all know that in Canada, hockey is king. But the CFL brings so many different people from so many different walks of life together. It’s bringing Americans and Canadians together that form bonds that last a lifetime.
“A lot of Americans come up there, met their future wives and have kids and raise families in Canada. It’s all because of the CFL. I just hope the government sees importance of the league to so many both in Canada and in the U.S.”
Stegall offered the exact same sentiments. He’s told the story before, about first coming to Winnipeg in 1995 not knowing what to expect. Now, some 25 years later he still has friends in this town and the league remains so much a part of who he is today.
“The CFL has overcome a lot over the years,” he said. “And I experienced some of the financial difficulties. When I first got there, there was financial difficulty and then in the late 90s it was really struggling.
“But we’ve never seen anything or experienced anything like this right now. It’s going to take a lot, but I think we’re going to overcome it. I know it’s tough for some people who don’t understand why the government has to help out professional athletes, especially when a decent amount of those athletes aren’t even Canadian. But I think it’s going to come through.
“If we want this league to last, if we want to keep as a staple in Canada, it’s going to take a lot of work and sacrifices. We’ve faced hardships before. I’m being optimistic and just hoping for the best.”