May 19, 2023

“He’s as advertised. Fast. Pretty good instincts.”

Jake Thomas stood in front of the camera and grinned, chuckled and then cracked wise – just as he has done a hundred times before in a long Canadian Football League career that dates back a decade now. He even joked that there was $20 coming for a compliment passed along about the consistency of his game over the last few seasons with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

A few minutes later, Jake Kelly – the club’s second round selection, 15th overall, in this year’s CFL Draft – pulled off his helmet for an interview, and yours truly was instantly struck with how young he looks.

“I don’t think that kid shaves yet, which is fine,” said Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea of Kelly with a laugh. “It will save (Brad) Fotty (Head Equipment manager) some razors.”

This is the story of two players at opposite stages of their careers, one soaking up every nanosecond as he heads into a second decade in the trenches; the other doing the same while embarking on what he hopes will also be a long stay in the professional ranks.

This is the story of a grizzled vet and the fresh-faced rookie. This is the story of the Two Jakes…

Jake Thomas is a proud papa for a second time – Avery Katherine Andrea Thomas was born last week, delaying his arrival for camp – and over the years his love for the game, and his buddies in the locker room, has only grown deeper.

The longest-serving member of the Blue Bombers – he even referred to himself as an ‘elder statesman’—Thomas has suited up for 169 CFL games, all in blue and gold, and has twice had his named engraved on the Grey Cup.

“I get to go to work every day with 50-70 guys that all have the same interest and a lot of them have become very close friends to me,” said Thomas. “For me, just getting a taste of the real world, it’s taught me how lucky I am to actually be able to do this. Especially that COVID year when football wasn’t here and I started a post-football career and got into real estate, I realized how much football really meant to me.”

Thomas arrived in camp on Thursday and bro-hugged every familiar face as he walked out onto the field during the practice session. He was in gear on Friday and will crank up his reps over the next few days.

He’ll also be passing along as much knowledge as he can to the two players the club drafted who could one day replace him in Tanner Schmekel and Collin Kornelson, who along with second-year Blue Bomber Cam Lawson, comprise the Canadian defensive tackle contingent.

He was that rookie once, too, way back in 2012, and the years have seemingly flown by.

“Back then I would say I would feel a lot like 96 (Schmekel) and 97 (Kornelson) – just taking everything in and asking as many questions as possible,” said Thomas. “It’s definitely come full circle. When I came in, I was the youngest guy here. Now being more of an elder statesman, I’m not the one asking questions, usually I’m the one answering the questions. That’s kind of surreal. But my love and desire for the game hasn’t changed over those 11-12 years.”

Jake Kelly was just 13 when Thomas played his first CFL game with the Blue Bombers. He and his stepbrother had just a handful of years playing football under their belt then in Markham, Ont. before he would land a scholarship to Bishop’s University. He was the Gaiters Defensive Player of the Year last season, and a testing star at the CFL Combine in March.

“One of things that was interesting about the combine was how many reps he took and how much he liked taking all those reps,” O’Shea explained. “It seemed like he was on one side and nobody but him kept lining up over there defensively, so he kept jumping in and jumping in and I don’t know if you saw him not smile the entire time.

“He’s as advertised. Fast. Pretty good instincts. Seems to be in the right place and has a good understanding of, as the play is going on, when he has to activate and get going on it. He has a good understanding of his speed relative to the play, which is pretty neat to see. He seems to be picking everything up fairly well. Happy kid. Likeable guy, just enjoying himself, but getting the job done.”

That’s a common theme with anyone who has come into contact with Kelly during camp – the constant smile – whether it’s on the field or spying his eyes light up at the options in the food line on Taco Tuesday.

“Camp has been awesome,” Kelly said. “It’s been a great experience all round. I’ve been getting to know my teammates, but it’s been really good. At first it was like, ‘Whoa… I’m not in school anymore. This is a full-time job.’ It’s surreal to know that this is what I’m doing full time for the time being.

“The biggest thing I heard before camp was to come out here and just learn. Absorb as much as you can and just keep learning. That part has been good. At school I was sort of teaching and helping the younger guys and now I’m learning from the guys ahead of me. The support of those guys, like Brandon Alexander, has been amazing. Everyone has been nothing but supportive.”

Kelly spent draft night at home and when the call came from Coach O’Shea, well…

“At first I really didn’t know what to say,” said Kelly. “It was like we were waiting for each other to speak. He said, ‘Did you see the news on the TV?’ And all I could think to say was, ‘Yes sir. I can’t wait to come to Winnipeg.’”

The reaction of his teammates, watching the draft on campus, was entirely different.

“Now that I’m here, I’m absolutely loving every minute of this,” said Kelly, still smiling. “I’m just thrilled to be playing football.”

The rookie and the vet, the Two Jakes, seemingly connected through their simple love of this game.

“It was nice to spend those few days there,” said Thomas of being home before making his way to Winnipeg. “But when you’re missing this… I was feeling guilty and was texting the guys – they were probably getting sick of me – but I was asking what was going on and all the gossip, all those fun things.

“I think I’ve been pretty consistent these last few years,” he added. “Obviously you always want to do better every year, but I don’t think my play has dropped yet and as long as they want me here and I still love the game, I’m going to play for as long as I can.”