June 12, 2020

First and 10 Column | Reflecting on what would have been the season opener

Willie Jefferson (5) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers before the CFL game between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg, MB on Friday Sept. 27, 2019. (Photo: Johany Jutras / CFL)

Ideally, this weekend’s piece would begin with a ‘HAMILTON’ placeline and then be followed by all the juicy details of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ 2020 opener – a marquee contest against the Tiger-Cats and a rematch of last November’s Grey Cup.

And, damn, that’s not just a tough sentence to open with, it’s a nasty morsel to munch on and swallow right now.

A few months ago the plan was to spend Saturday, June 13th watching the Bombers and Ticats from my perch in the press box at Tim Hortons Field with a view of the steel mills and Lake Ontario in the distance.

We all would be intrigued about the start of the Bombers’ quest to become the first team to repeat as Grey Cup champions since the 2009-2010 Montreal Alouettes.

It would have been fascinating to see what Zach Collaros would have done in his first game back in Hamilton since the 2019 season opener – then as a member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders – and at the controls of a Bombers offence now run by Buck Pierce.

A Bombers team that dominated the Ticats at the line of scrimmage in the Grey Cup last November would have its entire offensive line back – all 12 starters on offence, actually. The defensive front seven would still be returning Willie Jefferson, Jackson Jeffcoat, Steven Richardson, Jake Thomas, Adam Bighill, Kyrie Wilson and Mercy Maston, while adding pieces like Micah Awe and Tobi Antigha to offset the departures of Drake Nevis, Craig Roh and Jonathan Kongbo.

The secondary would have opened with some questions following the exits of Marcus Sayles and Winston Rose to the NFL, but would also be looking to veteran Josh Johnson to fill the void, while a player like Mike Jones was to take a next step as a second-year Bomber.

Now, granted, in the big picture the postponement of the start of the 2020 CFL season ranks waaaaay down the list of things we should be moaning about these days, given the pandemic that has led to over 400,000 deaths worldwide and also the powerful impact the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is having, with protests still unfolding three weeks after George Floyd’s murder.

I’ve read and heard it said in many places that sports don’t matter right now. Not until a COVID-19 vaccine can be discovered and distributed to the masses. Not until all the anti-racism voices are heard and real changes are implemented.

Still, there’s a healing power to sports, too, that shouldn’t be overlooked. And the return of games would hardly come at the expense of the dogged pursuit of a vaccine or the pursuit of social justices.

Hopefully we’ll get answers soon about the fate of the 2020 season and a possible September start-up for an abridged campaign. In the meantime, all we can do is try to stay upbeat and hope and pray – and that notion doesn’t have to be exclusive to the vaccine, social justices or the return of the league so many love.

Here are 10 other ponderings in this week’s First & 10 column…

1. The Bombers’ addition of Mekale ‘Big Play’ McKay this week lands the club another big target for a possible 2020 campaign. What’s interesting about McKay is the club has been chasing him for years, having traded Johnny Adams to the Ticats in the fall of 2016 for his negotiation list rights.

As well, his signing surely impacts any potential interest the team might have in free agent receiver Derel Walker.

The Bombers have returned all of the starters from last year’s receiving corps in Nic Demski, Darvin Adams, Drew Wolitarsky, Rasheed Bailey and Kenny Lawler. Couple that with their belief in the skillset of second-year players like Lucky Whitehead, Janarion Grant and Charles Nelson, the Canadian depth with Daniel Petermann, Julian Feoli-Gudino and 2020 CFL Draft pick Brendan O’Leary-Orange, the Bombers have loaded up their potential targets for Zach Collaros.

Would Walker make the Bombers better? Absolutely. But he’d also squeeze an always tight salary cap.

2. FYI, McKay spent the 2019 season playing for the San Antonio Commanders of the now-defunct Alliance of American Football. Their head coach? Mike Riley, the former Bombers boss who helped lead the team to two Grey Cups, in 1988 and 1990.

McKay was unaware of Riley’s connection to the Bombers, but summed him up the same way so many have before by simply stating ‘He’s a good man.’

Riley was on the CJOB Sports Show with Bob Irving this week and it’s always good to hear his voice.

3. Crushing news on the U Sports front this week with the announcement that the championships for six fall sports would be cancelled, including the Vanier Cup. That clearly affects players who were entering their draft year, as 57 of the 73 players selected this year were from Canadian colleges.

Sidebar: the level of play in all Canadian sports is spectacular. It’s wishful thinking, to be sure, but maybe a year off results in more support for those athletes when they return. It’s painful to think the economic impact on universities could mean some sports will be cut.

4. This from our Useless Stats Department as we wonder what might have been with the Bombers and Ticats scheduled to open their 2020 seasons on Saturday night: Dating back to 2000, the defending Grey Cup champion is 9-9-1 in season openers following their championship and five teams followed up their title by posting a losing record.

The last time the Bombers defended a Grey Cup was the 1991 season, when the team followed up its ’90 championship by going 9-9, then defeating the Ottawa Rough Riders 26-8 in the East Semi-Final before being crushed 42-3 in the East Final.

5. Earlier this week, yours truly had a solid conversation with new Bombers linebacker Tobi Antigha for a piece that will run early next week about his decision to sign in Winnipeg and his shift from playing receiver in college to the defensive side of the ball as a pro.

We also chatted about the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests unfolding all over the world – a topic the son of Nigerian immigrants has been vocal about on his Twitter account @O_LouieNinety2.

“Racism is something that is evident and tied to America,” he said. “As evident as it’s been throughout the 1900s – the 10s, the 20s, the 30s, the 40s, 50s and 60s – I think this is the best time for us as black African American males in the United States.

“As cognizant as we may be about that fact, we have to keep working to eradicate the issue. A lot of people see this issue and become hopeless and when people lose hope, that’s when they start acting out and doing things that are counter-productive to their own progress.

“We’ve made progress, but there’s still so much work to do.”

6. Further to the above, here’s a link to a powerful read by sportscaster Sheri Forde, who is married to TSN analyst and one-time Blue Bomber Duane Forde. It’s honest, it’s uncomfortable and includes some racist epithets, but it’s part of an important discussion.

7. Shout out this week to Ken Riley of Orleans, Ont. Riley is a Canadian volunteer with ‘Faces to Graves, Groesbeek Netherlands’ – an organization with the goal to ‘create a life story for each of the fallen buried in the Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetary.’

Riley reached out to the club this week for additional information on Jeff Nicklin, who was a member of two Grey Cup championship teams in 1935 and 1939. And seeing as the 76th anniversary of D-Day just passed, it’s worth remembering the bravery of Nicklin.

8. A quote spotted this week on a calendar in our home that just seems fitting these days and is worth sharing:

“The strongest warriors are these two: time and patience.” – Leo Tolstoy.

9. I see the debate about playing the national anthem before games has resurfaced again, especially after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced recently he now supports peaceful protest by players.

That rings more than a little hollow given the treatment of Colin Kaepernick, but it’s interesting how so many have changed their stance on this, including New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees and Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella.

Earlier this week in a piece by Sports Illustrated, it was suggested the anthem no longer be played at sporting events.

It’s a question many have asked before, although the analogy in the SI piece that because the anthem is not played before a movie, a Broadway show or before you get your meal at a restaurant, it shouldn’t be played before a game seems a stretch.

I’ve been in press boxes where some reporters left for the anthem and, in Montreal, where others who supported the separatist movement refused to stand.

The anthem is part of tradition, it says here, and yours truly will continue to stand for the 90 seconds or so it takes for it to be played and also respect those who choose to leave the room, sit or kneel.

10. And, finally, a little levity courtesy of Edmonton Eskimos QB Trevor Harris, who followed up the truck-pulling training exploits of Lucky Whitehead and Adam Bighill of the Bombers with a video of his own: