November 15, 2023

“Hometown boy playing for his hometown team as the starting running back. That’s a dream.”

HAMILTON – Somewhere amidst the giant blob of humanity was Brady Oliveira, all decked out in his familiar #20 Winnipeg Blue Bombers jersey.

And as the blob gradually moved forward inch by inch – pushing, pulling, dragging the Canadian Football League’s rushing champ over the goal line on the team’s first drive of last weekend’s Western Final – Oliveira was already awash with a sense of euphoria, as if he had broken through a barrier.

“You know,” Oliveira began in a chat with this week at the team’s Grey Cup hotel, “I feel like I’ve been possessed lately. It’s not evil or anything. It’s not anger. I just get… possessed.

“Looking back at how that last game and how it started, I was so wound up physically and so wound up emotionally on that first drive. I hit these walls where I try to keep going more and more and more. And I had this tunnel vision where all I wanted to do was help us get down the field and score so we could get ahead early.

“It’s tough for me to describe, but it’s exciting unlocking things. It’s insane, the 180 for me over the last year. Complete 180.”

That 180 will be perfectly represented Thursday at the CFL Awards at the Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls when Oliveira – a finalist for both the Most Outstanding Player and Most Outstanding Canadian Awards – is expected to step forward to make at least one acceptance speech.

A slam dunk to win top Canadian honours after leading the league in rushing with 1,534 yards – the second-highest rushing total by a Canadian – Oliveira also led the land with 2,016 yards from scrimmage and in touchdowns, with 13.

Simply put, his transformation from hometown prospect to CFL star over the last year has been meteoric. Yet, to fully grasp that magnitude of that growth it’s important to revisit his rock bottom, a moment when he found himself in the office of running backs coach Jason Hogan last July.

He was emotionally spent and broken, his game unrecognizable to himself and his confidence essentially non-existent. So, let’s rewind a bit here for context…

The regular meeting of ‘The Dawg Pound’ – the Blue Bombers running backs room – had just wrapped up and Hogan, having watched Oliveira uncharacteristically retreat into a silent shell, his negative body language flashing like a neon sign, waited until almost everyone had exited.

“I remember saying, ‘You mind sticking around?’,” Hogan recalled. “Then I asked him, ‘What’s going on? You didn’t seem open today and you’re such a coachable kid.’ He said, ‘I don’t know if I have it.’”

It was July 16, 2022; the Blue Bombers were 6-0 and still glowing from a 26-19 win over the Calgary Stampeders at IG Field. And yet the starting running back was… positively lost.

“I had nine carries in that game… for eight yards. Eight,” Oliveira said. “That was the worst game of my career. Worst game I’ve ever played through all levels of my football career. Never, ever had a performance like that.”

“I remember being in Coach Jay’s office and breaking down, just crying, and saying, ‘I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t know if I can play at this level.’ That’s how much doubt I had. I had always been so driven and motivated and confident and so to be in that spot was pretty dramatic.

“It was a bunch of games stacking up on me; week after week of me not putting out a performance I knew I was capable of doing. Obviously, I had put a lot of pressure on myself, and I was also feeling it from fans and the media.

“It felt like I had been backed into a corner after that Calgary game and it felt like I had nowhere else to go. I was a boxer who was about to be knocked out. I honestly felt like I was done.”

Oliveira had opened 2022 as the Blue Bombers feature back, but he was replacing a legend in Andrew Harris – another Winnipegger – and the shadow cast by the legend was as enormous as it was dark.

Over those first six weeks Oliveira had rushed 62 times for 196 yards and a microscopic average of just 3.2 yards per carry. And he was being swallowed up by everything – the frustration, the lack of confidence, the questions from media and the criticism from fans on social media.

He had no escape, it seemed.

“Some people don’t know this, but social media is a business for me,” Oliveira said. “I have a manager and set up a corporation this year for my social media. People say I should ignore it, but I have to use it and be actively on there with a presence for my business and my brand to bring in income. It’s about engaging. And so, when you’re scrolling every day it’s hard to just go past something where your name is in the headline and there is this criticism. Everyone had so many good things to say when I came in and then it was like everyone was so quick to switch up on me. That’s tough.

“I’m a very prideful guy,” he added. “It’s not that I care so much about what other people think about me, but I try to play this game the right way to make other people proud. Then you see so many people – fans, media – criticizing you, it felt like I was letting my family and my city down. It was almost like I was an embarrassment because I was letting myself down and my family. It felt like I was a bust.”

Oliveira’s beginnings in the game are folklore now. He was 13 when he found the game, having primarily played soccer before even pulling on a helmet and shoulder pads. North Winnipeg Nomads coach Ron Skorpad had seen Oliveira’s athleticism on the soccer field and dropped off equipment at his house, where he and his older brother Kyle and sister Kallee were being raised by his mother, Shani.

Their struggles were real, and one which Oliveira detailed on the eve of last year’s Grey Cup in this In My Words piece.

The football field became a bit of a sanctuary. Sports did for his whole family.

“I remember the first time I saw him at a football practice and then at a game,” said Kyle Oliveira, Brady’s older brother, a mixed martial arts fighter who also works in a group home in Winnipeg. “He was fast. No one could touch him because of his power and speed.

“I knew he’d do well. When we were younger and playing soccer, I always thought, ‘I’m the guy with the body type to play soccer. This guy should not be playing soccer.’ He was good, but he was so bulky. He was just waaaay bigger than all the other kids. Like I said, he was good at soccer, but there had to be somewhere else where he could use that bulk and size.

“I was so happy when he found football.”

Oliveira dominated the sport instantly and when he transferred from Garden City Collegiate to Oak Park High School so he could play football – the Recruit Ready program was being operated out of the school’s basement then – more people were beginning to recognize this raw, but phenomenal talent.

“He was in just his second year of football, and I remember watching him in the championship game of his age group and he scored eight or nine touchdowns – something crazy like that,” said Brad Black, a Recruit Ready coach. “When he got to us, we already had Nic Demski and Sean Jamieson (of the Montreal Alouettes) working with us.

“You could see his talent. He was a Division I (NCAA) talent. We took him to a couple of camps in the U.S. with our 7-on-7 teams. The first thing we went to was a national underclassmen event in Minneapolis and halfway through, a guy who ran the combine came up to me and said, ‘Wow, that Oliveira kid is a stud.’

“After that we were in a 7-on-7 tournament at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. We were playing against Team Tampa, who had Derwin James (now a safety with the Los Angeles Chargers) and a couple other future NFL guys. We were getting pressed and physically dominated across the board. The only guy who held his own and had success was Brady. It confirmed to everyone what he thought he was.

“Brady was one of the most goal-oriented kids, even in the ninth grade. He knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life and more specifically, football. He always came to work every single day with that goal with mind. He never wavered. Football was an escape for him for some of the things he went through earlier in his life. It lit a fire for him and got him hyper-focused on his goals. He’s still like that and could be named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player. We were talking earlier this week and he’s already talking about his next goals.

“Nothing stands in the way of him. It sounds cliché, but it’s true. I’m not being corny; it’s really how he is.”

The road out from rock bottom is seldom a straight line on freshly paved asphalt. There are always potholes and obstacles to overcome, and the doubters and critics can often only get louder. And Oliveira emerged from his rock bottom by doing the proverbial nose-to-the-grindstone thing, leaning on coaches like Hogan and his teammates for support all along the way.

The first critical step came a week after the win over Calgary – the eight-yard game that led to so many tears and even more doubt. The Blue Bombers were in Edmonton to face the Elks a week later and in a 24-10 win, Oliveira rushed 13 times for 62 yards. Better, but not prolific numbers.

Inside that was one play in particular – a second and three from the Blue Bombers’ 48-yard line – when Oliveira bulldozed forward and trucked Elks defender Ed Gainey in what was a 10-yard run.

“I remember the specific play. I’ll tell you what, I’ll remember that play for the rest of my life,” Oliveira said. “I’ll remember that Calgary game and breaking down with Jay and all the doubts I had. And then the next week was the spark. A week after that we’re in Calgary and I finally had a breakout game and rushed for 100 yards (15 carries for 110). Ever since then I’ve kept building on that.”

File that last line under ‘Department of Colossal Understatements.’

Oliveira finished 2022 with 1,001 yards rushing – eclipsing the 1K mark for the first time in his career on his final carry of the 2022 regular season. This year he’s been a battering ram with the 1,534 yards along the ground.

Consider this: since his rock bottom, Oliveira has started 30 games for the Blue Bombers and rushed 400 times for 2,339 yards and an average of 5.85 yards per carry all the way to being a candidate for two of the CFL’s most prestigious individual awards.

“Now when I look back at the start of last year and it seems like it’s a completely different dude,” said Oliveira. “Confidence is a real thing.”

Oliveira refers to Hogan as a big brother/father figure – a voice in his ear daily, sometimes consoling but more often than not pushing and pushing for more from the Blue Bombers’ talented running back.

“The thing I saw in Brady the moment I got here is this: he’s hungry,” Hogan said. “He soaks it all in and he puts it to practice immediately. The kid’s relentless. High skill set. Good speed. He’s physical. But it’s something we touch on every week – can he have that Mamba mentality? Can you do it all? It’s not just about being a good ball carrier. Brady is probably one of the most polished backs in this league because he gives a s–t, he cares so much. It’s the little details we talk about every day, and he puts them into practice.

“The other morning after the Western Final I texted him and said, ‘Listen, we’re not going to get to watch this film because we have to move on to Montreal. Here are some things I want you to see, and I want your opinion on them.’ Immediately I was getting texts back with him swearing or ‘Damn it, I missed that.’ It just goes to show you that with the year he had he still wants to fine tune things and polish things.

“Then I got another text from him: ‘I got you.’”

Oliveira has a notebook he carries with him everywhere. And every day he begins journaling with the same message: get one percent better today. It’s become his motto, his mantra, and it’s also the cornerstone of how he found his way back and now with the chance to help lead his hometown team to a third Grey Cup title in four years.

That’s what matters most, more than any individual trophy or the praise that is now regularly heaped upon him. This journey, this complete 180, has come with so much help from all those around him, but it’s also fuelled by an inner drive and, ultimately, something bigger.

“How did I get here, from crying in Coach Jay’s office to now? Good question,” said Oliveira, pausing to find the right words. “I would say I just didn’t want to let this opportunity slip away. This doesn’t happen to many people. That’s part of it. But a major driving force was also not wanting to let my family and my city down. Using that as fuel, that’s when it started to build up for me.

“Think about it… It’s very, very, very special – hometown boy playing for his hometown team as the starting running back. That’s a dream.”