Chris Kolankowski thought about quitting. There’s no shame in saying that now, especially as he is essentially locked into the starting centre gig with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and with that career-crossroads moment having long since passed.
It’s also part of what makes his story both so endearing and enthralling.
A sixth-round draft pick of the Toronto Argonauts in 2016, Kolankowski was released by the Boatmen during camp in 2019 and then lost another season due to the pandemic in 2020 after signing with the Blue Bombers. He worked his way through the Blue Bombers depth chart from a practice roster player to his first game in November of 2021 – a span of 1,007 days between action.
And so, excuse the 31-year-old veteran – who made 15 starts at centre last year after Michael Couture was injured – if he isn’t a little territorial about his starting role now. He waited for his shot, after all, and will scrap and fight to keep it.
That’s Kolankowski in a nutshell. Yes, there’s a great deal of skill – a physical toughness mixed with technique – required to play in football’s trenches. But healthy doses of battle, of grit and scrappiness are also required. And that’s a characterization of Kolankowski’s game he relishes.
“I’d embrace that,” he said of that descrption. “I’d said I’m a by-any-means-necessary guy. If I get tripped up on a play, I’m getting up as fast as I can to hit the first colour I can find. It’s not that I don’t have technique, it’s just that I play with a certain amount of desperation in my game.”
That ‘desperation’ has been present for years. Kolankowski has always been tagged as under-sized, even dating back to his college days when he arrived at York University as a 220-pound centre. He was recognized as the school’s top lineman in 2015 and won a hard work and character award during his days at York.
All of that, however, was certainly put to the test over 2019-20. A player’s love for the game can only last for so long, especially as the doors of opportunity keep getting slammed shut.
“There were a lot of days when I was working out alone in the gym or doing the construction job with 14-hour days,” he said. “Then it was straight to the gym, followed by straight home to bed and then do it all over again. There were a lot of days where I questioned whether it was time to move on.”
Two things kept him fighting – his own stubbornness, and a conversation he had with his parents, particularly his father Roman, who once played for the Oshawa Hawkeyes football team before opting to pursue a career as a plant and production manager. First, the stubbornness…
“When I got to college no one gave me a shot until I got on the field and showed them what I could do,” he said. “And so, there’s always been that chip on my shoulder. I’ve got a lot of people I want to show what I can do and a lot of people in my corner who helped me get to that point that I felt I would be letting down if I had walked away.”
And then the chat with his father…
“There was one day when I was just working and training and not playing, I went home to see my dog and see my parents,” he said. “I sat down with them, and I remember saying, ‘I don’t know what I should be doing right now. Maybe I should be hanging them up because I don’t want to be one of those guys that’s chasing a dream that’s not there.’ One thing my dad said was, ‘If anything happens financially, we have your back. But you can work a 9-to-5 for the rest of your life, and you don’t need to rush to get to that stage. If you feel like you’ve still got something to give, keep going.’
“It was also the players I played with in the past who kept up with me, my agent kept me going and my family really encouraged me to keep going. It helps me know I made the right decision. I have no regrets on anything I did.”
The Bombers appreciated Kolankowski’s grind, too. And with his dedication and the guidance of offensive line coach Marty Costello, he’s morphed into the starting centre on one of the best offensive lines in the Canadian Football League on a squad that has won two championships and appeared in a third Grey Cup game.
“He’s just a grinder and tough, physical… he was basically spending everything he had on every play,” said Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea of Kolankowski’s days at York and what the club saw in him when brining him aboard in 2020. “And then collecting himself back up and seeing if he could muster something else. That shows on tape from when he was in university, and I don’t think it’s changed.
“He prepares hard to make sure he’s putting the guys in the right spot and studying the game hard, but prior to that he was a physically tough, grinder with that kind of attitude, mentality that was going to figure out a way to get it done.”
Kolankowski hopes to play in this weekend’s first preseason game in Edmonton against the Elks. And next week’s final tune-up at home against the Saskatchewan Roughriders, too. Again, when a guy works so hard to land a gig like this, there’s no way he’s willingly stepping aside to let someone else have a go at it.
“I love the game and I feel like I have a lot more left in me,” he said. “Every minute here is amazing. When I went back home in December and was back in Toronto doing stuff like hanging out with friends and something funny happened it was always, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to get into the group chat to tell the guys.’ Now that I’m here, it’s tough to be away from my wife and my family, but this is my football home. This is where I want to be.”