October 13, 2020

Top 10 Exclusive : Rookie Seasons

SPORTS -- REGINA, SASK: August 31,2008 --Winnipeg Blue Bombers running back Charles Roberts runs the ball during first half action against the Saskatchewan Roughriders at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, August 31, 2008. MARK TAYLOR/Leader-Post.

The Winnipeg Football Club has 90 years of history to celebrate, dating way back to the days of leather helmets and the Great Depression.

Over that time there have been countless great plays authored by superstar players… and average Joes, too. There have been memorable games featuring iconic moments and, dating back to 1930, this franchise has captured a Grey Cup championship 11 times.

Each week cracks open the record book, dusts off the archives and dives deep into our collective memory banks for our Top 10 Exclusive list.

This week: Top 10 Rookie Seasons

There have been some spectacular debuts in the history of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, as many first-year pros made a giant and instant splash on the football scene.

In 1949 the Western Conference began awarding the Dr. Beattie Martin Trophy (named in honour of the former Saskatchewan Roughriders president) to its’ top rookie. Several Bombers captured that award, including Johnny Stroppa (1949), Lorne Benson (1952), Norm Rauhaus (1956), Henry Janzen (1959), Bill Cooper (1964), John Senst (1970), Bob Kraemer (1971) and Walt McKee (1972).

It wasn’t until the early 1970s, however, that the Canadian Football League first introduced a league-wide Most Outstanding Rookie Award. This list looks at the Top 10 Bomber rookie seasons, in chronological order, since the inception of that league-wide honour…

1. Joe Poplawski, Receiver – 1978

Joe ‘Pop’ was the first Blue Bomber to win the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie Award for his work in the 1978 season.

A territorial exemption of Edmonton in 1978, Poplawski’s rights were shipped to the Bombers before the 1978 season for veteran Tom Scott, who had become disgruntled with his contract.

Poplawski made an immediate impression, pulling in 75 passes for 998 yards and eight TDs in his first season. He followed up his ’78 award by being named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian in 1981 and 1986, was a five-time CFL All-Star and inducted into the WFC Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1998.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS – in pic fierce competitor Winnipeg Blue Bomber slot back Joe Poplawski in game vs Edmonton Eskimos during CFL game at Winnipeg Stadium – Oct 23 1983- kgsports keyword Òkgsports Ò will bring up selected Bomber / Jets ,best of sports, photos shot prior to digital file

2. William Miller, Running back – 1980

Miller first came to the CFL with Calgary in 1980 after a tryout with the Atlanta Falcons in 1979, but was cut by the Stampeders before landing in Winnipeg.

Miller rushed for 1,053 yards in just 14 games his first season – finishing third in the CFL rushing race to Calgary’s James Sykes (1,263 yards) and former Bomber Richard Crump, now of Ottawa (1,074 yards). For his efforts, he was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie.

Miller played three seasons on Winnipeg, posting two 1,000-yard campaigns, before exiting to join the Cleveland Browns and then Pittsburgh, Orlando and Tampa Bay in the USFL. He returned to the CFL in 1986, playing four games with Toronto.

3. Michael Richardson, Running back – 1992

The Bombers opened the 1992 campaign with Robert Mimbs locked in at the running back position. Mimbs had led the CFL in rushing in both 1990 and 1991, but was released seven games into the ’92 season. In stepped Richardson, who cranked out 1,153 yards along the ground and pulled in 27 passes for 263 yards — all in just 11 games – en route to being named the league’s top rookie.

Richardson spent ’92 and ’93 in Winnipeg before heading to Ottawa for two seasons. He returned to Winnipeg in 1996 and played 10 games before being released in 1997.

4. Albert Johnson III, Receiver/returner – 2000

Johnson III – ‘Flight 87’, as he would later become known – actually played three games with Saskatchewan in 1999 before joining the Bombers in 2000. He was named the Bombers top rookie that year, but the league then attempted to claim he was ineligible before the local chapter of the Football Reporters of Canada fought the decision on his behalf, stating the eligibility rules could not be changed midseason.

Johnson III led the league in kickoff returns in 2000 with 1,506 yards – a total that still ranks in the CFL’s Top 10. The Miami Dolphins took notice and signed him after that season. He also had stints with the New York Jets and Houston Texans and returned to the Bombers in 2006, again leading the league in return yardage.

5. Gavin Walls, Defensive end – 2005

Walls arrived in Winnipeg in 2005 after a tryout with the Minnesota Vikings and a season in NFL Europe with the Scottish Claymores. In his first season he had 12 sacks – third in the league behind only Brent Johnson of B.C. (17) and Toronto’s Jonathan Brown (13).

He was named the Bombers top rookie and defensive player in ’05 and became the fifth player in club history to be named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie.

Walls played five seasons with the Bombers, registering 47 sacks – fifth on the club’s all-time list.

6. Chris Matthews, Receiver – 2012

Matthews posted superb numbers as a rookie, pulling in 81 passes for 1,298 yards and seven TDs – all totals ranking in the CFL’s Top 5 in 2012. Injuries limited him to just five games a year later, but his skillset still earned him a contract with the Seattle Seahawks, then the Baltimore Ravens before he returned to the CFL with Calgary in 2018, helping them win the Grey Cup.

He joined the Bombers last year, but was released after six games before signing with Montreal.

7. Tom Scott, Receiver – 1974

Drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1973, Scott instead signed with the Bombers in November of that year. In his rookie campaign he was busy as a receiver and a ball carrier, finishing with 40 catches for 638 yards and seven TDs and adding 42 carries for 28 yards while also returning kickoffs.

He was named the West Division’s top rookie, but was a runner up to Toronto linebacker Sam Cvjanovich for the CFL’s top rookie honours. Traded for Joe Poplawski before the 1978 season, Scott became an integral piece of the Edmonton dynasty that saw that franchise capture five consecutive Grey Cups.

Scott was inducted into the CFHOF in 1998.

8. Willard Reaves, Running back – 1983

The Bombers landed another diamond in a trade with Edmonton in 1983, bringing Willard Reaves aboard in one of the best deals in franchise history. Winnipeg sent a first-round pick in 1984 and future considerations to Edmonton for Reaves, Sean Kehoe, Scott Stauchand and Steven Hall. Reaves rushed for 898 yards as a rookie and was named the West Division’s top rookie, finishing as the runner-up to Hamilton running back Johnny Shephard.

He rushed for 1,733 yards a year later and was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player. Reaves led the club in rushing in each of his five years and was inducted into the WFC Hall of Fame in 1993.

9. Charles Roberts, Running back/returner – 2001

Roberts had to fight for his touches in his first year with the Bombers, sharing the running back chores with Eric Blount and Troy Mills. He still managed to lead the team in rushing that year with 620 yards and was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Special Teams Player while finishing as the runner up to the Most Outstanding Rookie Player Award to B.C. linebacker – and future teammate – Barrin Simpson.

The Bombers’ all-time leading rusher, Roberts was inducted into the WFC Hall of fame in 2013 and the CFHOF a year later.

10. Jonathan Hefney, Defensive back – 2009

Hefney signed with the Bombers in late May of 2009 and instantly opened eyes. He picked up 66 tackles and recorded four interceptions that year and was named the East Division’s Top Rookie, finishing as the runner-up to the league honours to B.C. running back Martell Mallett. He earned a look with the Detroit Lions in 2010, returning to the Bombers that same year and played through to 2012. He then suited up with Calgary in 2013-14 and Montreal in 2015 before a serious injury ended his career.