It’s an impossible number to pin down exactly. Jake Thomas has been at this for so long now for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers he’s had lockers in two home parks, beginning at old Canad Inns Stadium at Polo Park and now setting up shop at IG Field/Princess Auto Stadium.
Over that span – 11 seasons and close to 200 games dating back to 2012 – he’s seen a ton of players come and go. Some were around just long enough for the proverbial cup of java; others have become lifelong friends.
“How many guys have I seen go through the locker room over the years? Whoa… conservatively I’d guess it’s maybe 500 to 1,000. Maybe it’s more,” began Thomas in a chat with bluebombers.com after signing a one-year contract extension to remain with the club. “I mean, those first six-seven years it seemed like we had 100-plus guys a year rolling in and out. The last few years we’ve had so much continuity it’s slowed that number down.
“But it’s been a lot of faces, a lot of names… sometimes when a new guy comes in, I’m like, ‘I feel like I’ve played with you before’. Then there’s the guys I’ve been doing it with for a long time like Paddy Neufeld, Jesse Briggs, Stanley Bryant… we’ve been in that grind together for a long, long time.”
That in itself is a testament not only to his ability to survive in the cutthroat world of pro football but also his own grind and work ethic to find a place year after year after year. Thomas arrived in 2012 as a fourth-round draft pick; a 21-year-old prospect with long odds to crack a roster let alone carve out a career. Yet there was the Blue Bombers longest-serving player cranking out another five sacks last year – tying his career high and third-best on the team – as part of a rotation with Cam Lawson at the Canadian defensive tackle spot.
And in typical Thomas fashion, he pancake-blocked to the ground that whole last paragraph as a glowing testimonial.
“The grind goes into it, sure. I guess I’ll take a little bit of credit for that,” he said. “But a lot of it is luck – the guy next to you gets hurt, there’s free agency and while you always hope you’re going to be back, there’s always some that aren’t.
“I’ve been very fortunate and lucky over my career to be in a place like Winnipeg that allowed me to develop when I was 21 and weren’t trying to push or force me along. Then I’ve been lucky to have the leadership of Mike O’Shea, Kyle Walters and Wade Miller who keep seeing the value in bringing me back.”
It’s been a busy week for the Blue Bombers on the free agency front what with Thomas, Chris Kolankowski and Nick and Noah Hallett all re-signing as the Feb. 13th free agent market nears, along with the return of Chris Streveler.
Since the end of last season, the list of players who have signed new deals to remain also includes Willie Jefferson, Redha Kramdi, Lawson, Neufeld, Deatrick Nichols, Tanner Cadwallader, Brian Cole, Stanley Bryant, Johnny Augustine and Drew Wolitarsky.
There’s still a ton of work to do on that front, but in the meantime, Thomas said his desire to keep playing burns as bright as ever.
“Last year was the first year in a long time where I felt I didn’t want it to be my last,” he said. “A few other years I would always say I wanted to decide in the offseason. But last year I still thought I was playing at a high level and was enjoying it and want to keep playing.
“There’s a few things that keep the fire burning. We have a great group of guys and being so close with being to the last four Grey Cups… you don’t want to leave where every year you’re competing for a championship. The newest one for me this year is to have my son Emmett, who is 2 ½ now, come to practice and play with the guys after and then talking about football when we go home (daughter Avery was born last May). That’s special. Maybe that’s something he can remember when he gets older.
“I enjoy Winnipeg. I love the city. My wife loves the city. It’s just a fun place to be and a great place to work.”
Thomas said he has walked last November’s Grey Cup loss to Montreal but felt the sting of the 2022 championship defeat lasted longer.
“Montreal, they drove the field on us. They won the game. Obviously, it sucked,” he said. “But the shock of the blocked field goal (in 2022) really seemed to haunt me more. I don’t want to say they both don’t hurt because they do.”
Thomas took a moment to reminisce about his first few days as a Blue Bomber, beginning 12 years ago. Back then he just wanted to make a roster, or at least play a game. Now he’s nearing 200 games played and has two Grey Cup championship to his name.
“If you really sit down and think about it, 2012 seems like a long. long time ago,” he said. “But then there’s moments where it feels just like yesterday. When I’m all said and done it’ll be cool to look back because Winnipeg’s definitely the place where I became a man. Before going to Winnipeg my wife and I were just dating for a few months. Now 12-13 years later and two kids… that’s a lot of driving and a lot of time spent in Winnipeg, and we really cherish it.
“It’s funny… I can’t remember what year it was, but I once told Osh (head coach Mike O’Shea) that I’d like to play 100 games in six years. He said, ‘Why put a cap on how long you want to play?’ That day changed my perspective.
“As long as you still love the game, as long as you’re still healthy and a team still wants you, why cap yourself to saying you’re done at a certain age? As long as that fire is still burning, keep at it. And then you just hope you have someone as supportive as my wife to be along for all of it.”