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July 4, 2023

“He’s an awesome football player.”

They call him ‘Nighthawk’ and there probably should be a cool story behind the origins of the nickname. Except, as Greg McCrae tells it, the genesis of his moniker came as much out of convenience as some sort of brilliant burst of creativity.

“It was just a name they gave me last year when Greg Ellingson was on the team,” began the Winnipeg Blue Bombers receiver/running back with a grin as the club returned to practice on Tuesday. “Coach would be in meetings, and he’d say, ‘Greg you have this, and Greg you’ve got that…’ It was confusing, so they just started calling me ‘Nighthawk.’

“It’s funny… I just came into meetings one day and everybody started calling me ‘Nighthawk.’ I don’t know who to give credit to, they just started calling me that. I actually like the name and like rolling with it. I vote for keeping that one.”

‘Nighthawk’ was all over the field in the first half of Saturday’s 17-3 win over the Alouettes in Montreal, rushing four times for 49 yards and pulling in two passes for 10 more yards before leaving at halftime after being nicked up. He’s good to go now, but the question for the club as it prepares for Friday’s home date with the Calgary Stampeders is – even with as good as he was on the weekend – how do they keep him in the lineup with Nic Demski possibly returning?

To that end, McCrae did all he could and then some to muddy the picture against the Als, showcasing his speed and versatility in his first action of the season.

“It was a lot of fun just to get back out there and be running around with the guys in a game setting – especially when you get to touch the ball that much,” said McCrae, the 25-year-old product of the University of Central Florida, who dressed for 14 games a year ago, with seven of them starts. “As competitors we always want to be out there on the field making plays, but sometimes it’s not your time yet and you have to wait for your time. God’s time is always right. I believe that and I stick by that. It’s paid off for me so far.

“Every time I go out there, I want to perform at a high level and the coaches know I’ll do that to the point that they seem to have a comfortability in putting me out there.”

McCrae has been in this position before. A walk-on at UCF, he had to fight for every touch, but finished his career with 2,620 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns – both of which ranked fourth in school history. His versatility as a running back/receiver made him an excellent option to replace Demski, who missed the game for the expected arrival of his first child.

“He’s a dynamic football player, whether he’s running routes or carrying the football,” said offensive coordinator Buck Pierce. “He’s a utility guy that can do multiple things on the football field. We got a little taste of it last year when he came in – he’s smart, willing, and just an awesome teammate.”

Asked if he sees McCrae primarily as a running back or a receiver, Pierce paused for a moment and then offered this:

“I see him as a football player. You value guys here – and in professional football – like that. You hear it all the time, ‘What more can guys do?’ Greg can do a lot. Last year he was just getting his foot in it, getting used to the CFL game and learning as we go. He’s a pro. He’s getting better, he’s getting more comfortable with everything. He’s an awesome football player.”

“That’s a great compliment hearing that,” added McCrae. “That makes me smile. I’m just a football player and I approach it like that every day. I appreciate the coaches for treating me that way, too, by giving me different opportunities.

“I see my versatility as a strength. I’ve got great teammates who help me out. The coaches are great teachers, the quarterbacks, the running backs and receivers and vets are all great teachers. I have a lot of help around here.”

WELCOME BACK/WELCOME ABOARD:

The Blue Bombers added two Canadians on Tuesday and released another. Returning to the fold is defensive back Kerfalla Exumé while the club also added Canadian linebacker Jared Beeksma and released offensive lineman Jakub Szott.

Beeksma was a fifth-round pick of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2022 and suited up for six games last season. He’s been added as Shayne Gauthier did not finish the game in Montreal and is listed on today’s injury report as having suffered a foot injury.

Exumé, meanwhile, returns to the place where his CFL career started. A seventh-round draft choice of the club in 2019 who finished second in the CFL in special teams tackles in his rookie season, he chose to return home to Montreal in free agency in 2021 to be closer to this family. He dressed for 32 games over the last two years in Montreal but was released by the Als last Thursday. He said walking back into the Blue Bombers clubhouse this week was, admittedly, a bit surreal.

“It was weird because I didn’t know how the guys would feel after me leaving,” Exumé said Tuesday. “They understood, I think, that I left because of my family and it’s not like I left on bad terms or anything. But the fact that I saw all these guys all still together is an amazing feeling. I’m just so happy to be back here.

“This is the team that gave me my opportunity. I had a great season here. The fan base here is amazing and so to be able to come back here where it started is amazing. Other teams had contacted me, but I told my agent if there was something we could do to get back to Winnipeg, that’s where I wanted to be.”

FYI: Demski was not at practice on Tuesday, nor was QB Dru Brown – both are designated as ‘non-injury related’.

IN PRAISE OF WILLIE:

The Blue Bombers’ massive defensive end was all over the stats sheet in Saturday’s win with three tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and pass knockdown. In short, it was Willie doing Willie things.

Asked what it was like to watch #5 doing his thing, Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea chuckled and said:

“Very pleasing. You get a front-row seat for quite a show. He’s been excellent this year so far and I don’t expect that to change, either. He’s dialled in and he’s going non-stop, which is always fun. Throw that together with his presence and it just adds to his leadership. He’s just going out there and doing it all the time.”

“What he does is allows you to free other people up,” added defensive coordinator Richie Hall. “Because he is so disruptive you have to gear your offensive protection around him and there are things we are able to do just because of Willie Jefferson. And when you get the match-up you want he’s just able to be Willie Jefferson. It’s a win-win either way.”