January 26, 2024

1st & 10 | January 26

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers, unfortunately, have been in this collective head space before. And dealing with the emotional pain from a second straight Grey Cup loss – the two titles having slipped away by a combined total of five points – is an individual experience for every player and coach.

Some were able to flush it quickly. Others have already moved on to different teams or are exploring the possibilities. But for those that will be returning in 2024, well, it’s a topic Drew Wolitarsky said in a chat with needs to be addressed ASAP when the team gathers for training camp in May.

“I look back at the Grey Cup and I can honestly say with 23 seconds left I was thinking, ‘We are one play away from celebrating,’” Wolitarsky said of what was ultimately a 28-24 loss to the Montreal Alouettes, with the winning score came with 13 seconds remaining. “That ending broke our souls.

“That was a tough loss, man. And you know what? That’s something we’ve got to confront when we get back. We lost a brutal game. That was a brutal loss. So, let’s all look at each other and say that: ‘We f’in lost a brutal game. That s—t broke our souls. But we also can’t carry that because the next time we’re in that situation we can’t think about losing, we’ve got to be thinking about winning.’

“All it takes is one moment. That’s football. That’s sports. You’re a moment away from euphoria or absolute heartbreak. It’s crazy.”

Football is right there as one arguably the most violent and vicious of all sports. And in part maybe that plays a role in why it can make players so open and honest about their emotions, win or lose.

It’s the primal scream that comes from an Andrew Harris on the field at McMahon Stadium in Calgary after the 2019 championship ended a 28-year championship drought for the Blue Bombers. It’s a Rasheed Bailey tearing up in joy after the overtime win in the 2021 Grey Cup in Hamilton.

And, by contrast, it’s Wolitarsky and Kenny Lawler still wearing the loss to the Alouettes all these weeks later.
“This is a little bit about me and it’s something I’m working on… sometimes I tend to be really emotionless and I block things out of my mind,” Lawler said this week after yours truly pulled him aside for a quick chat on the subject during the Princess Auto Stadium naming rights press conference. “The things I don’t want to remember I can put away. That’s something I don’t want to remember because of that feeling.

“And so, It’s hard having these conversations again because it’s like I’m back in a vulnerable state. We talk about it and then we essentially really re-live the past.

“So, I will say this: I can’t say I’m over it and I don’t know if I ever will get over it. I just know in the game of football you have to have that short-term memory where you transition to the next play and not think about what just happened. You don’t focus on what could have been, you focus on the next goal in line because you can’t get it back.”

And when there is no next play, not next game until June? Well, those thoughts and that pain can resurface in a moment.

“I spent weeks and weeks, more than a month, thinking about everything we could have changed or things we could have done differently,” Lawler said. “I found myself in a dark, dark place to the point where I had to finally flush it and get to that point where I’m not thinking about it all the time.

“I just had to stay busy with other things.”

Lawler, like his teammate Wolitarsky, hopes his team can be re-energized when it gets back together for training camp. And he is in lockstep with his fellow receiver about not sweeping the subject under the rug, either.

“I’m definitely already using it as fuel in terms of where we want to be this year,” he said. “I know I’m not truly going to be able to heal from it until we get back into this facility with everyone around us. Everything you work on in the offseason, it’s like it’s in the dark. But when we get together for training camp and practices that’s when I feel like we’ll finally be able to shed that awful feeling and get back to work to our common goal again.

“We’re still a good team. And we’re still going to fight.”

More notes, quotes, and anecdotes in the latest edition of 1st & 10…

1. Sneaky important signing of Wolitarsky last weekend before the veteran receiver got to free agency. If you missed our story on that, it can be found here. One of the topics that didn’t make that piece – some of which is reflectedin his quotes above– is Wolitarsky’s continued evolution as a respectedvoice in the Blue Bombers dressing room.

Wolitarsky on that transformation from a guy scooped up in the CFL Supplemental Draft to a leader all these years later…

“I’ll say this: I have to give Mike O’Shea so much respect,” Wolitarsky said. “When I was in his office for the first time when I first got to Winnipeg he said, ‘I’ve heard good things from your (college) coaches. We’re looking for some of that leadership here, too. Obviously, you just got here, but that’s something we want to see in you.’

“That was a little scary to me because I was just 21. Shaved head, no facial hair and then I go into the locker room. I mean, the first time I saw the team was on a game day and it’s different on game day. So, I walk into the locker room, and I see Yoshi (Jermarcus Hardrick) first, then I see (Matthias) Goossen, and he was yacking and doing these crazy noises while Yoshi looked like he was going to kill someone.

“I thought, ‘Oh s—t, these dudes look (expletive) fierce. I’m supposed to be a leader someday to these guys? There’s no way they’re going to listen to me. C’mon.’

“But Osh made me grow. There were times he would confront me about things I could have said or done and really called me out. Even last year – I’m not going to get into details – he called me out on something and at first it was like, ‘Damn… OK…’ And then the more I thought about it, he was right. I need to step up and choose what I say wisely. Words have power and how you use them and approach a team, you do have the ability to change mindsets. He’s really made me a better leader and the type of leader he is. It’s made it so much easier for me to find my voice.”

2. One more nugget from our chat with Lawler, too… the veteran receiver and his family have settled into Winnipeg full time this offseason and the next few months are going to be busy.

Details should be coming soon, but Lawler will be running at a college just outside of Montreal in March.

“It’s called ‘Ballin’ with the Stars Experience’ and the kids will get a unique, transformative experience where they’re going to be around CFL stars – not just guys from the Bombers, but all around the league – where they can get physical training and development at a high level with qualified coaches and professional players,” Lawler said. “There will also be a film room session where we can highlight their successes right after. It’s going to be a great event.”

Lawler has a second camp planned in California at his old high school, Upland High, and a third ‘introductory to football camp’ will be held here in Manitoba in April. Stay tuned, he said, for more details coming soon.

3. Hat tip to the folks from Princess Auto for the atmosphere they helpedcreate this week for the press conference announcing the new naming rights for IG Field, which will become Princess Auto Stadium this season.

ICYMI, the news story on the naming rights is here. 

What made the event different than the usual run-of-the-mill press conference was the decision by Princess Auto to bus approximately 200 employees in for the occasion and their energy – and excitement for the new 10-year deal – made for a party feel.

4. Congrats to Dru Brown on signing a contract with the Ottawa RedBlacks after that club acquired his rights from the Blue Bombers late last week so they could have an exclusive negotiating rights with the young QB prior to the opening of CFL free agency.

Tim Baines of The Ottawa Sun wrote a story on Brown putting his name on a new contract this week and we wish the always engaging pivot best of luck in the capital.

5. Brown’s departure hardly shocks anyone in Bomberland given his path to a starting gig here in Winnipeg was blocked by the best QB in the league in Zach Collaros.

Even though it was expected, Brown’s exit along with short-yardage specialist Dakota Prukop seemingly headed towards free agency does leave the Blue Bombers QB depth chart a bit of a mystery.

Lots of chatter about a possible return of Chris Streveler, but in the meantime the two QBs listed behind Collaros are both CFL rookies in Terry Wilson and Eric Barriere, whose addition was announced the same day as the Brown trade. Barriere won the Walter Payton Award as the top offensive player in NCAA Division 1 Football Championship Subdivision in 2021 while at Eastern Washington and was the runner up for the same award in 2020. He’s bounced around since then with the Michigan Panthers, and New Jersey Generals in the USFL and attended Denver Broncos minicamp in 2022.

A Barriere highlight clip.

And ditto for Wilson, who played his college ball at Kentucky (2018-2020) and New Mexico (2021), attended mini-camp with the Dallas Cowboys in 2022 and played in one game with the Houston Gamblers of the USFL before being released last September.

6. ICYMI: detailed in the Brown trade story the Blue Bombers secured another fifth-round pick in this spring’s draft in the deal.

Winnipeg now has 10 picks in the draft – one in every round, plus this selection from Ottawa and a bonus second rounder as a reward for Canadian snaps in 2023. If you recall, in the last collective bargaining agreement the two teams that had the highest percentage of snaps by true nationals were to receive an additional second round pick. Winnipeg and B.C. earned those bonus picks, with the Lions selecting 19th and the Blue Bombers 20th.

Winnipeg will select eighth overall in the first round, followed by 17th, 20th, 28th, 37th, 40th (via the Brown trade), 46th, 55th, 64th and 73rd.

7. Great question from a Blue Bomber fan — @barnes777 – who asked after the trade one many times since yours truly started covering the club has held all their draft picks.

The answer? Seven times since 1990 — 1995, 1996, 2008, 2011 (full compliment of picks, but two in first round, none in second), 2019, 2021 and 2023.

Interestingly, all eight of last year’s picks could be in camp in 2024 – Anthony Bennett, Jake Kelly, Jeremy Murphy, and Tanner Schmekel all played games last year and are returning, with DT Collin Kornelson (Manitoba), DB Bret MacDougal (Windsor), RB Jonathan Rosery (Alberta) and LB Max Charbonneau (Ottawa) all heading back to school but expected this year.

8. One more draft related note: the CFL Scouting Bureau’s Winter Rankings were released this week (the final rankings will be out in the spring).

Remember, the CFL’s annual Combine will be held in Winnipeg this March from 19-24 at Winnipeg Soccer Federation North complex on 770 Leila. Further details on the event will be coming soon.

9. The Blue Bombers continued chipping away at its list of prospective free agents with the signing of veteran Canadian running back Johnny Augustine on Friday. His signing still leaves 23 players inching toward the February 13th market opening.

They are: QB Dakota Prukop; RBs Brady Oliveira and Greg McCrae; WR Dalton Schoen, Rasheed Bailey, Janarion Grant and Brendan O’Leary-Orange; OL Geoff Gray, Chris Kolankowski and Jermarcus Hardrick; DL Jackson Jeffcoat, Jake Thomas, Ricky Walker and Thiadric Hansen; LBs Shayne Gauthier, Jesse Briggs, and Malik Clements; DBs Brandon Alexander, Demerio Houston, Winston Rose, Nick Hallett and Kerfalla Exume and kicker Sergio Castillo.

10. And finally, condolences to the family of former Blue Bomber defensive back Kelly Malveaux, who passed away this week at just 47.

Malveaux came to the CFL with Saskatchewan in 1999 and played with Calgary (2001-03), Montreal (2004-05) and the Blue Bombers (2006-08), before ending his CFL days in Edmonton in 2009 after being traded there by Winnipeg.

Rest in peace.