Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea during the game between the Montreal Alouettes and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Investors Group Field on Wednesday June 8, 2016 in Winnipeg, MB. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
This is a story that probably should begin with an anecdote from Mike O’Shea’s earliest days in football.
It was announced Wednesday evening that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach is part of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame’s 2017 induction class — including players Anthony Calvillo, Kelvin Anderson, one-time Bomber Geroy Simon and builders Stan Schwartz and Brian Towriss — and hall of famers often have tales to tell of taking to the sport instantly like they exited the womb destined to play it.
There are the seven-touchdown games as a novice or dominating the line of scrimmage in high school by bulldozing over kids too puny to offer any resistance.
Well, just for the record, Mike O’Shea’s hall of fame story does not begin that way…
O’Shea turned to hockey first. And because there was no community football in North Bay, Ont. – his hometown – he didn’t start playing the game until Grade 9 with the Widdifield High School Wildcats.
That came after being cut by the junior varsity team.
“I started out as the quarterback, but quarterback was not an important position in Grade 9 football because you mostly just handed off the ball,” O’Shea began in a recent chat with bluebombers.com. “But that’s where I got slotted.
“By Grade 10 I was a safety. Again, not as much an important position because there wasn’t much throwing and so much happened near the line of scrimmage.
“I think I was the slowest guy on the team. We had a 260-pound noseguard who beat me in sprints.”
O’Shea chuckles here at his story and it offers a peek at his self-deprecating sense of humour. The man doesn’t like the individual attention and squirms at the thought of the spotlight being on him and not his team or his teammates, even in a career highlight moment like when CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge called him recently with the news he was being named to the hall of fame.
“I was driving up Pembina and when he called I thought I was in trouble or getting fined for something,” O’Shea said with a grin. “He told me I was going to be inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
“Hey, it’s pretty cool. It’s nice to be honoured. When I was playing for Hamilton there were various functions at the Hall of Fame, so I’ve been through there. I specifically remember seeing Tony Gabriel there and how pumped I was to meet him for the first time. And I’ve been coached by Don Sutherin and Garney Henley and Don Matthews and they’re all in there. And I’ve played with a bunch of guys who have gone into the hall.
“But all this isn’t something you really talk about with former teammates or anything. I’m a big fan of Leroy Blugh and he’s been inducted. And so if I get a chance to talk to him it’s about how his mom is doing or our kids are doing. It’s congratulations, but then it’s about the things we have in common, guys we might have played with or ‘Do you remember when we did this?’”
The sculptor who crafts the busts for the CFHOF has yet to sit down with the 46-year-old O’Shea, but when he does, a suggestion: in order to represent his road to the hall of fame – from his days losing to a 260-pound noseguard in a race back in Grade 9, to becoming one of the Canadian Football League’s best – the likeness should probably feature some sweat on the brow and a cut on the chin.
It has hardly come easy for the man, after all.
Beginning as a quarterback and then a safety, O’Shea was moved up closer to the line of scrimmage as a defensive lineman and linebacker after growing six inches – to six-feet or so – before his Grade 11 year.
He started to make more and more game-changing plays as his confidence grew, and by the time he finished high school, had a handful of Canadian universities waving scholarship offers in front of him.
O’Shea settled on the University of Guelph after visiting the campus and because they offered the chemistry, engineering and industrial microbiology courses he wanted to take in order to pursue his career of choice: he wanted to become a brew master.
A member of the Gryphons Hall of Fame, O’Shea was an Ontario Conference All-Star in his last two seasons and a CIAU All-Canadian the OUAA Defensive Player of the Year in 1992. But again, it didn’t come without some sweat equity along the way.
One of the assistants at Guelph was Dick Brown – O’Shea referred to him as the ‘legendary Dick Brown’ – a man who was the last to play in the CFL without a facemask.
“He was tough, tough, tough, tough,” O’Shea said. “He told me in passing if I could run, I could play. So I went and got a sprint coach in my third and fourth year and worked with him in the summer. I stayed home in southern Ontario and trained rather than head home to North Bay to make my draft year a better year.”
It worked. O’Shea was selected in the first round, fourth overall, by the Edmonton Eskimos in the 1993 CFL Draft. And then traded to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats as part of a deal that netted quarterback Damon Allen for the Esks.
O’Shea spent three years with the Ticats – he was the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie in ’93 – and after attending training camp with the Detroit Lions in 1996, signed with Hamilton’s arch-rival, the Toronto Argonauts, that same year.
He was part of arguably the most dominant CFL team of all time with those Argos, as Toronto went 30-6 in ’96-97 and won back-to-back Grey Cup championships. Two years later, O’Shea added to his own personal hardware collection when he was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian in 1999.
“I’ll tell you what, I’ve never seen a more complete athlete in his preparation, his skillset, his intensity for the game,” said Chad Folk, O’Shea’s long-time teammate with the Argonauts.
“I’ve never had a better teammate as it fits my definition of a teammate. It was his selflessness, his taking hours upon hours to sit down with guys to teach them on film.”
“With Mike, what you see is what you get and I’ve never seen him waver from that. He’s a passionate guy about his team, his teammates and doing everything he possibly can to be better.”
O’Shea would return to the Ticats in 2000, rejoin Toronto a year later, and then finish out his playing career in 2008. Ask him about those days, or what he remembers most from his playing days and – as always – his answer is a big picture take on the team, not anything individually based.
“The best thing is watching a buddy drink out of the cup,” O’Shea said. “All the guys… Chad Folk, Jude St. John, (Paul) Masotti, Mike Morreale… I can think of hundreds of guys.
“But to me having my name on that trophy, that’s way more important than any ring. It’s such an important part of Canada’s history. It’s beautiful.”
It’s never easy to walk away from the game, and it was no different for Mike O’Shea. He was a year into his next chapter after football as a medical sales rep when then-Argos head coach Jim Barker caught him at the right time with a job offer to return to the sidelines as the clubs special teams coach in 2010.
Those four years as an assistant coach opened some eyes across the CFL, making O’Shea a talked-about next head coach in waiting. That opportunity came here in Winnipeg in 2014 when O’Shea, his wife Richere and their three kids – Michael, Ailish and Aisling, headed west.
The Bombers were 7-11 in his first year, 5-13 in season two and started off 2016 1-4 before O’Shea’s foundation began to harden. The club cranked out seven straight wins and went 10-3 down the stretch before falling to the B.C. Lions in the West Division Semi-Final.
And as the season rolled on, it became crystal clear that his team had taken on the hard-scrabble identity of its boss.
“Our team personality reflects his personality absolutely,” said Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols. “It’s a bunch of hard-working guys.
“What I love about him is he’s not a rah-rah big-speech guy. He comes in, looks everyone in the eye and says ‘You guys know what you need to do, you know you’re good enough to do it. Just go do it.’
“The other big thing is the confidence he shows in players. He put his full belief in me and that goes a long way. I’m so excited to play for him and that’s a reason why in my mind I didn’t want to go anywhere else. I want to play for him and I want to win a championship with him.”
“You want to win for him but, more than anything, you don’t want to let him down.”
Mike O’Shea’s dad, who passed away in 2012, didn’t really know or understand football. But he certainly understood hard work.
Originally from Barkingside – now part of London – he came to Canada after World War II looking for work and settled in Sudbury, then North Bay. He worked at Inco; he pumped gas and sold vacuums before he and O’Shea’s mother turned to running a Dairy Queen franchise.
“I worked there a lot,” O’Shea explained. “I’ll tell you what… I can still make you whatever you want and make it perfectly. My dad would be proud.”
Maybe that, in part, explains a lot about O’Shea. He comes from good stock, understands the value of hard work and of a firm handshake.
It’s why he drove to Drew Willy’s house to tell him he’d been traded last September rather than call him on the phone. It’s why he helped the equipment staff load up the truck after a win in Hamilton last summer. Or why he’s big on appreciating all those who have served, just like his dad.
The sum of all that is why he is now a hall of famer.
“I haven’t put too much thought into the speech I’ll have to make at the induction yet, but I will,” O’Shea said. “I can promise you I will agonize over it.
“There are a lot of people I have to thank and I don’t want to forget anybody.”