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December 19, 2020

First & 10 | Bob is Back

His is the voice of a true professional, with those familiar tones emanating from as respected a play-by-play man as fans of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Canadian Football League have ever heard.

So, consider this an early Christmas gift for Bombers Nation now that Bob Irving has officially confirmed the news… Yes, the legendary ‘Knuckles’ will be back in 2021 to handle the play-by-play chores of Bombers games on CJOB, continuing a streak of covering the team that dates back to 1973.

“I have had a lot of different thoughts go through my mind about the decision over the last few months,” began Irving when I caught up with him earlier this week. “I turned 70 this year, and I’ve had some health issues that make you give pause and think about the future a little bit more.

“But I was looking forward to doing the games in 2020. Then when the season was shut down I was seriously considering NOT coming back. Still, the more I thought about it and after discussing it with my wife I just had the feeling I wanted to do another year.

“I guess it boils down to I wasn’t ready to walk away – to sack by bats as they say – and say it’s over. I’m close to that, but it just seemed like I should do one more year and with the blessing of my family that’s what I’m going to do.”

This isn’t a decision that Irving made one evening over a plate of chicken wings and the odd beer. The pandemic meant he spent time this summer enjoying a lot of the things his job used to keep him from during the season – more time with his wife Daye, his daughter and sons and his grandchildren. He visited his cottage frequently and played a ton of golf, occasionally busting out his trademark ‘here comes another serving of Irving’ refrain while in his backswing on the tee box.

Still, there’s something about the magic of calling games that remains in his blood.

“I don’t need to keep working at this stage in my life, but I enjoy doing the games,” he said. “I had someone say to me this summer, ‘If you enjoy doing the games so much, why don’t you keep doing it?’ It’s a simple way to look at it, but that’s a big part of it… It’s still fun, so let’s do it again in 2021.

“It’s become a big part of who I am, to some degree. It’s not like it’s onerous or it’s hard or it’s ‘Oh God, I’ve got to go to work.’ I’ve never looked at it that way. I’ve said this many times: I feel blessed to have made my living doing what I’ve been doing all these years and I still enjoy it.”

More from ‘Knuckles’ and other Bomber/CFL related notes and quotes in this week’s edition of 1st & 10…


1. Earlier this year, yours truly was in a conversation with Bombers coach Mike O’Shea when the question was asked, ‘What are you missing most about the CFL season being cancelled?’

For me it was game day – the anticipation building up in the hours before, hearing the anthem just before kickoff and then the journalistic rush – sometimes through a string of curse words – that comes with having to crank out a quick story on deadline.

I put the same question to Knuckles.

“This year was so very different and it took a while to sink in that there was no CFL football, no Blue Bombers football, for the first time in 47 years I’ve been at CJOB,” he said. “I missed just being around the people involved with the club… interviewing Mike O’Shea and the players every day. Doing our pre-game shows with you, Doug Brown, Greg Mackling and the rest of our crew. I missed that association with people because I enjoy it.

“Secondly, I just missed the games. The game’s the thing for a broadcaster. When you’ve got your headphones on and the anthem is going… that’s when the juices start flowing and you get excited. I miss that buzz of doing a game and feeling like you’re in the middle of it – that’s the feeling you get as a play-by-play guy.

“That’s what I missed this year and will miss the most when I’m not doing it anymore.”

2. Proud to say I wave the CFL flag passionately. So, too, does Knuckles.

If you’ve grown weary of reading/hearing about the league’s importance, maybe skip ahead to item #3, because I asked Bob to get up on the soapbox about the league’s place in this country’s sporting landscape.

“The CFL is a part of our culture, a part of our Canadian fibre… I think it’s tremendously important to thousands if not millions of people across this country and it’s never going to go away in my view,” he said.

“It can be a convenient target for the cynics and second guessers because it’s quirky and it stumbles every now and then and doesn’t always do things right. But the one thing it’s always been is a tremendous product and it survives because of that.

“For all the ups and downs it has had and how things are changing in our society today, I don’t see why it can’t always be there and be a big part of who we are and what we do.”

3. One last one from the legend…

Knuckles told this story previously on the ‘Handled Internally Blue Bombers podcast’ that Darren Cameron and I host, but it’s worth revisiting.

CJOB did not have the radio broadcast rights to the 2019 Grey Cup – TSN did – but the station had three people covering the game in Irving, Christian Aumell and Greg Mackling. The station broadcasted pre and post-game shows and Bob decided to stay at the hotel where the temporary studio was set-up in order to host the proceedings, while Aumell and Mackling conducted post-game interviews at McMahon Stadium.

That’s how Knuckles found himself watching the 2019 Grey Cup on TV by himself.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever done that – I’ve always been at the stadium for all the Grey Cup games I’ve covered,” he said. “So, I was there all by myself watching the game.

“When you’re broadcasting the game you’re objective and you describe what you see and if things don’t go well, c’est la vie. But when you’re just watching you can really be a fan and I was a fan that day, big time. It was really an emotional game because I wanted so badly for the Bombers to win for all the work the people at the club had done and how much the fans would be able to celebrate. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a Bombers game with as much emotion and feeling as I did that day.”

4. Two leftovers from Kyle Walters and his chat Thursday on free agency and the road ahead for the Bombers GM to try and repeat as Grey Cup champions.

First, there could be some juicy news coming in the new year when players across the CFL are due offseason bonuses. With 2020 being spiked and teams expected to spend to the salary cap floor, many of those players have been approached about restructuring their deals and/or deferring some of that money.

Some players have already done so. Others may balk.

“It will be interesting once the dates of all the big roster bonuses come in – that’s when things will get a little bit more interesting,” said Walters. “Into January-February you might see some things as to whether players and agents are willing to restructure or they’re not and they’ll put a team in a position to have to either pay them what they’re owed or move on from them.

“… there’s a lot more uncertainty heading into free agency this year than ever before because of the situation all the team are in.”

And second, Walters was asked of Andrew Harris’ age might be a factor at all in pending negotiations with the prospective free agent. Harris, FYI, turns 34 in April but also posted the two best rushing totals in his career in ’18 and ’19.

“Until there’s a sign… certain players reach the 30-year-old number and there’s an indicator, whether their play is deteriorating, whether they’re banged up,” Walters said. “I can speak from Andrew’s standpoint and we all watched last year and I don’t think his play has fallen off. He practises every day and doesn’t miss a practice. Whatever it says on his birth certificate hasn’t shown in practice or in games. That’s what we’ll go by.”

5. Earlier this week each CFL team offered a sneak peek at 10 more names on their negotiation lists. The two ‘reveals’ – this one and the first in September – provided 15 names on the Bombers list.

Those lists can change daily, but the Bombers group included:

  • QBs Ian Book, Brock Purdy, Charlie Brewer Desmond Ridder and Alex McGough
  • DL Gimel President, John Daka, Sharif Finch
  • OL Drew Richmond, Wyatt Miller, Isaiah Williams
  • DBs Tae Hayes, Breon Borders, Deatrick Nichols
  • WR Blake Jackson

I also had it suggested to me that these neg list reveals are ‘meaningless’ because so few of the players actually sign in the CFL. Nothing, frankly, could be further from the proof.

Of the recent reveals over the past couple of years, the Bombers’ list included Chris Streveler, Lucky Whitehead, Marcus Sayles and Janarion Grant. Fact is, they are critical to how the CFL operates.

For a bigger-picture take, check out this piece by Chris O’Leary of CFL.ca.

6. Funny thing about first impressions… when Willie Jefferson was in Edmonton and Saskatchewan I always viewed him as this menacing force who, to borrow an old line, was so mean he’d ‘sack the quarterback and then do the same to his family.’

Truth is, Jefferson is a respected teammate and as amiable a guy as the Bombers have in their locker room. He’s a loving father and husband and became a fan favourite here in Winnipeg about five minutes after he had signed as a free agent.

So, knowing that now – and understanding he’s nothing like my first impression – it came as no surprise to seem him tweet this out earlier this week about being available for ‘Merry Christmas shout outs’:

 

He’s one of the Bombers already under contract for 2021 and count me among the thousands who want to see what the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive player has in store for his second act here in Winnipeg.

7. ICYMI, Thiadric Hansen – the Bombers’ defensive end who joined the Wroclaw Panthers of the Polish league after the cancellation of the CFL season and helped them win a league title – has named to the American Football International’s ‘All-Pandemic Team.’

Read more here.

8. A cool initiative by the CFL that I should have plugged in last week’s column is the creation of the league’s Grey Cup on Demand Portal which should be launched sometime in 2021.

It will allow fans to watch nearly 70 Grey Cups, dating back to the Bombers’ loss to Toronto in the 1950 Mud Bowl and up to the victory in 2019.

More details here.

9. Odds ‘n ends… Sorry to hear of the passing of long-time CFL assistant coach Mike Roach. Roach coached in the league for 28 years with Calgary, B.C., Ottawa, Edmonton and Winnipeg. He was part of Cal Murphy’s defensive staff from 1994-96 and worked under Jeff Reinebold in 1996. RIP… Tough week for CFL kickers down south: first Lirim Hajrullahu signed with the Carolina Panthers and was then released because of a work visa issue. And after going 1-4 in field goal attempts, the New York Jets cut Sergio Castillo and added him to their practice roster. Both are former Bombers… This week’s good read comes from Dave Naylor of TSN and chronicles the story of Canadian receiver Ajou Ajou of Tennessee.

10. And finally, our weekly First & 10 column is taking a brief break for the holidays and will return early in the new year.

Thanks to this segment’s sponsor, Superior Asphalt and Paving, and all the feedback from readers during this unprecedented year. And thank you for your support of the Blue Bombers and bluebombers.com.

Happy Holidays.