The physical and emotional pain was still raw and excruciating, and it would be soon coupled by a numbing sensation.
And in that very moment – just a few hours after the Winnipeg Blue Bombers had lost the Grey Cup to the Toronto Argonauts by one point — Alden Darby, Jr. kept coming back to one big-picture thought: he had to get his name on a contract extension.
“It was the night right after the game,” began Darby, Jr. in conversation with bluebombers.com. “There was a team function at a restaurant, and I remember telling Wade (Miller, President & CEO) and other people, ‘If you guys want me, I don’t want to go anywhere else – this is where I want to be.’
“I can’t wait to give you guys a full offseason, a full training camp and then a full year. It’s good to know this is where I’m going to be. This is my home and I’m excited to have all my focus shifted to Winnipeg and knowing the defence and knowing what to expect.”
The importance of Darby, Jr.’s return and what it means to the Blue Bombers defence can’t be overstated. The 30-year-old veteran of six Canadian Football League seasons brings so much experience – a factor which is especially critical at his strong-side linebacker/dime spot.
In fact, let’s bring the value of that home with this nugget: the Blue Bombers think Darby, Jr. is such a good fit for their defence they have twice traded for him in the last two years – first during training camp in 2021 when Mercy Maston went down with an Achilles injury and then again last October at the trade deadline, and after he had signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats as a free agent last winter.
A West Division All-Star as a member of the Blue Bombers in ’21, Darby, Jr. found himself playing a different position in Hamilton – boundary halfback – and, well, let’s just say the fit didn’t work.
“You can leave or try and test the market for whatever it might be, but the fact of the matter is some teams don’t have the cap money to give guys at certain positions. Everybody has ‘their guy’,” he said. “So, you can test the market and then you get put into a system that the coaches don’t use you correctly. Look at me, I went and had to play boundary half for six weeks in Hamilton and got put to the pitch for no reason and without even knowing. I didn’t sign up to play boundary half, but it happened. Being in a system that knows how to use me and appreciates my skillset and my character and how I am in the locker room means a lot to me. It just made sense to not test the market and play that game again.”
“What our coaches do a good job at is recognizing what everybody is good at, what can they teach everybody thoroughly in order for them to play this coverage as fast as possible. They do a very good job of giving us the information and the tools for how to play a coverage. They also teach the why behind a play – why are we calling this play on this down and what do we expect? They just do a really good job of teaching the system, but also the analytics of the play.”
Darby, Jr. now has 66 regular season CFL games to his name, including just 13 and counting with the Blue Bombers. And again, it’s with Winnipeg that he feels most comfortable, both in the defensive scheme and in the locker room.
He also feels invigorated and energized heading into 2023 while using what happened in 2022 as fuel.
“You know what? Even when I was away in Hamilton last year, you’d hear the chatter around the league about how everybody wanted to ‘get Winnipeg’,” he said. “It was for obvious reasons. When you’re going back-to-back Grey Cup champs, you’re going to get everybody’s best on any given day.
“Even though Toronto won, in my mind it’s like the whole league believes they beat us. That sets up this: now we want to show you guys that all that did was wake us up. And I didn’t want to run from that by signing elsewhere. That’s why I wanted to come back. And no matter what happens this season, Grey Cup or not, I want to be able to go out there with those guys again and give it our all again and let the chips fall where they may.
“I just didn’t want to be anywhere else to do that. I couldn’t walk into another locker room and say let’s go do that. I want to walk into training camp on Day 1, look into everybody’s eyes and still feel that pain and not even have to talk about the 2022 Grey Cup. It’ll be about showing up to work every day. That’s what we do.”