The new Winnipeg Blue Bombers 1980s-style logo is shown off by Bombers alumni and players (left to right) James Murphy, Bob Cameron, Joe Poplawski, Ken Ploen, and Chris Cvetkovic at a press conference at Canada Inn Stadium in Winnipeg, Tuesday, April 24, 2012. The CFL club is changing its helmet logo back to a simple 'W'. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
Joe Poplawski’s name has long been synonymous with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ success in the late 1970s and 1980s, and he has for decades been considered one of this city’s finest gentlemen.
And so, in that respect adding Poplawski to the collection of names on the Blue Bombers Ring of Honour – his inclusion being announced today – will surprise no one given the sparkling accomplishments he amassed in what was a hall of fame career. Although, the news did initially surprise the man himself.
“So, I get a phone call from Bob Irving on a Saturday morning and I’m out at the lake,” began Poplawski in a chat with bluebombers.com. “He left me a message and I’m really not sure why he called. I thought, ‘Geez, I bet he’s got an insurance question (Poplawski worked for Ranger Insurance for three decades) and I don’t know if I can remember the answer.’ Then he said, ‘I’m on the selection committee and I’ve got this great news: you’re the next inductee to the Ring of Honour.’
“I was staggered and really caught off guard by it, but what a cool phone call to get, especially from such a good friend and the former voice of the Bombers.”
Poplawski’s decorated career with the Blue Bombers included 129 regular season games over nine years. He was named the league’s top rookie in 1978 and twice honoured as the top Canadian – in 1981 and 1986 – while being selected to the CFL All-Star Team five times.
All these years after his retirement, he still ranks third all-time in Blue Bombers history in receptions (549) and receiving yardage (8,341) behind only Milt Stegall and James Murphy.
Interestingly, all those accomplishments – plus being a key contributor to the 1984 Grey Cup team – almost never came to be. An Edmonton product and University of Alberta alum, Poplawski was a territorial exemption selection of the Eskimos prior to the 1978 CFL Draft.
And then came a trade – with the Blue Bombers sending slotback Tom Scott west to Edmonton for Poplawski – that would change his life.
“The trade was a shock. A huge shock,” said Poplawski. “I had had a couple of meetings with the Eskimos organization after being a territorial pick of theirs, and it was my intention to go back to school because I had only played three years of university football. I was planning on going back to school, play another year, and see which direction my education was going to take me. I had also played in the Can-Am Bowl and was hearing suggestions I could get invited to the NFL scouting combine if I played another year of college.
“Then when I expressed that to Edmonton it caught them off guard. I had a meeting with (head coach) Hugh Campbell and then 48 hours later I’m traded. And the way I get notified of it is a reporter from The Edmonton Journal, Ray Turchansky, called me.
“I was living at home with my parents and my dad answers the phone,” he added. “It’s like 11 o’clock at night and I’m going to work the next day because it was the summer, and I was swinging a hammer framing homes. Ray says, ‘How does it feel to be a Winnipeg Blue Bomber?’ and I literally dropped the phone. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ and then Ray said, ‘You haven’t been told? At 3 o’clock this afternoon you were traded from Edmonton to Winnipeg.’ I remember saying to him, ‘Well, I guess this is business now. It’s no longer fun and games.’”
Edmonton began its championship run in ’78, winning five straight Grey Cup championships through 1982. And after the trade Poplawski initially believed he’d head back to the U of A until Paul Robson – then the Blue Bombers assistant GM – began calling repeatedly.
“I started to do the math,” said Poplawski. “I was going to make about $800 that summer as I was getting paid $2.25 an hour framing homes. And what the Bombers were offering me it just made it worthwhile for me to go to Winnipeg and whatever happens, happens. If I don’t make the team it would be a good experience and I would I hope I would remain their property and they might send me back to school. It was a great option for me.
“I remember the emotions I had. Edmonton was the first team I wanted to play for because it was my hometown, and I was a fan growing up. But I remember the next team, if I had an opportunity, would be the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and it was because of a quarterback by the name of Dieter Brock. He was young. He was aggressive and he liked to throw the ball. What a better situation for a young player if you can make the team.”
The discussions about his future and a contract meant Poplawski missed the first two weeks of Blue Bombers training camp in ’78 and two exhibition games. Upon his arrival, then, he didn’t really have high expectations.
“I show up and nobody knows who I am,” he said. “But I’m like a kid in a candy store and my head’s on a swivel as I’m looking at guys I had watched play the year before: Mike Holmes, Gordie Paterson and, of course, Dieter Brock. Jay Washington, Richard Crump… all these talented players.
“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and it worked out pretty well for me, and surprisingly so. To tell you the truth, I did not think I was good enough to make the team. I really thought, ‘I’ve got to go back to university and fine tune these skills.’ But it just so happened my game was tracking in the right direction, and they needed a Canadian receiver. Right place, right time and things worked out pretty well.”
File that last sentence under ‘understatement.’
Poplawski had 75 receptions for 998 yards and eight touchdowns in his first year en route to being named the CFL’s top rookie. And after spending his first two offseasons returning home to Edmonton to take education courses to go along with his science degree, Poplawski would then begin living in Winnipeg full time in 1980, using his education degree to be a substitute teacher in the winters.
He settled in on the field, too, averaging 1,044 yards over the next seven seasons and establishing himself as not just one of the best Canadians in franchise history, but one of the best players, period.
Ironically, he was back in Edmonton in the fall of 1981 – not long after establishing himself as a star – when his commitment to Winnipeg and the Blue Bombers became a no doubter.
“In 1981 Edmonton is in the midst of their Grey Cup run and I’m up for Most Outstanding Canadian,” Poplawski recalled. “I ended up flying to Edmonton for the Western Finals (the Blue Bombers had fallen to the B.C. Lions in the semi-final) and the week leading up to it they had the Western awards where there is a dinner for all those representing the division in the various awards.
“I’m sitting next to Hugh Campbell at the dinner. We’re chatting back and forth during the dinner, and I remember him saying, ‘Well, Joe, this turned out to be a good move for you, but you never know what could happen. You could end up back in Edmonton.’ I remember saying – and I didn’t bite my tongue hard enough – but I said, ‘Coach Campbell, I doubt that’s going to happen. I’m a Bomber through and through.’
“The other part of this story is sometimes when you wait a long time to achieve the pinnacle of success it’s that much more enjoyable. And winning that Grey Cup in ’84 was pretty special.”
Funny story about that ’84 championship, held right there in his hometown of Edmonton… Poplawski caught a TD pass in that game as he and his teammates demolished the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 47-17 to end a 22-year- Grey Cup drought, at the time the longest in franchise history, and the young receiver was ready to celebrate.
“Here’s the thing about that,” said Poplawski with a chuckle, “my dad had arranged for at function at the Polish Hall in Edmonton for after the game.
“So many family members and friends of the family were attending – there were over 100 there. And so, one of the most difficult things I had to do was go up to Cal Murphy after we win the Grey Cup and say, ‘Coach, I know there’s a post-game party for our team, but I can’t go. I’ve got to go to this family get together at the Polish Hall.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Joe, go ahead and do what you have to do.’
“I wasn’t even really able to celebrate with the team that much until we got back to Winnipeg.’ Edmonton may have had their dynasty, but sometimes when you have to wait and work so hard for something it’s that much sweeter, that much more rewarding. That was the feeling in ’84.”
Poplawski put up solid numbers in 1986, with 74 catches for 1,075 yards and eight TDs while being named the league’s top Canadian for a second time. And then, at just 29, he opted to retire.
“The last three seasons I had had some health issues with pinched nerve issues in my lower back,” he said. “My last game was in B.C. (a loss to the Lions in the 1986 West Semi-Final) and I remember stretching before the game, as I always did near, Scott Flagel. Then when I went to get up, I could not get off the ground and I had to get help from Scott and then had to medicate to relieve the pain prior to the game.”
He was ready to come back in 1987 as the pain had subsided, but he was pondering a full-time offer from Ranger Insurance, had a young family.
“And then contract negotiations didn’t go the way I hoped,” said Poplawski. “At the same time, while they didn’t have MRIs back then, but they had CT scans and I remember going in and when the results were forwarded to our trainer, Pat Clayton. He said, ‘Joe, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is you’re 29 years old. The bad news is you’ve got the back of a 70-year-old.’
“I just didn’t want that to come into play when I had a young family growing in front of my eyes. I wanted to be able to kick the ball around or put the blades on and skate around with them. So, from that perspective there were no regrets.
“I just thought maybe this is the indication it’s time. I had a good year in ’86 and thought, ‘I always wanted to go out on top. Maybe this is the sign’ and I made the move. I don’t have any doubts that I could have played at a good level if I hadn’t retired, but I just felt the timing was right and made the decision.”
Now 65 and four years into retirement, Poplawski and his wife Darlene are the proud parents of three sons – Derek, Wade and Brett – and are also now grandparents, with Derek having a trio of sons of his own. Wade, FYI, was married this summer to U.S. Olympian Jessie Diggins, who has a gold, silver and bronze in her three appearances at the Winter Olympics and is the most-decorated American cross-country skier of all time.
“It’s funny how fate works sometimes,” he said. “I ended up being traded from my hometown team, a team I grew up watching and I can say without a doubt that Winnipeg has been good to the Poplawskis. We’ve enjoyed every minute of it here, that’s for sure.”
THE JOE POPLAWSKI FILE
Winnipeg Blue Bombers 1978-86
- Inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1998
- Inducted into the Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Fame in 1990
- Five-time CFL All-Star: 1978, 1981, 1984, 1985, 1986
- Five-time Divisional All-Star: 1978, 1981, 1984, 1985, 1986
- CFL Most Outstanding Canadian Player: 1981, 1986
- CFL Most Outstanding Rookie: 1978
- Finalist, CFL Most Outstanding Canadian: 1978, 1981, 1984, 1985, 1986
- Blue Bombers Most Outstanding Canadian Player: 1978, 1980, 1981, 1984, 1985, 1986
- Blue Bombers Most Outstanding Rookie: 1978