Marianne Helm/Getty Images (3)
Marianne Helm/Getty Images (3)

What the CFL Feels Like

On the 2014 season-opening night in Winnipeg, an old fanbase found new hope, a fledgling quarterback's star was born and all the quirky charms that make the Canadian Football League what it is were on full display

By
Jenny Vrentas
· More from Jenny·

WINNIPEG, Manitoba, Canada — Concern had been in the air. You could feel it hanging over the city, just like the overcast gray skies. Winnipeggers apologized for the weather—even at this latitude, it’s supposed to be warmer in June—and confided their skepticism for their football team.

“All we have to do is win,” Kyle Walters, the team’s general manager, assured a fan last night, inside the 33,500-seat stadium no one was sure would sell out for the season opener. 

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers hadn’t done a lot of winning the past two years. Last season’s record was a dismal 3-15. Now, they were starting over, with a defensive scheme no one seemed to know anything about, and a new starting quarterback, Drew Willy, who had only a smattering of spot starts to his name at any level of professional football.

But it’s the same thing we say about parents: They worry because they love you. And boy, do Winnipeggers love their Blue Bombers. That only deepened when the NHL skipped town for 15 years, leaving the Canadian Football League Bombers as this sports town’s pro team.

So when Willy completed his first drive ever as a professional QB1 with a 27-yard touchdown pass—one of those fade routes that works so well in the vast 20-yard CFL end zones—there was a cavalcade of noises. Where were we, Seattle? The Bombers’ modern, U-shaped stadium looks like the Seahawks’ CenturyLink Field, and for being half the size—and far from full last night—it sounded a little like it, too.

250 

Monday—Marc Trestman: Welcome to Canada Week


Tuesday—Doug Flutie: Reflections on my time in CFL


Wednesday—Bruce Arthur: The CFL’s small-town charm


Thursday—Emily Kaplan: CFL players' offseason lives


Monday — Peter King: MMQB from Calgary and Regina 

They ring cowbells here (a crossover from the sport of curling, one of the locals said) and, after every score, a little bomber jet driven by “Captain Blue” takes a spin around the end zone printed with the University of Manitoba seal. The Bombers’ 7-0 lead over the Toronto Argonauts was cause enough for a “LET’S GO BOMBERS!” chant to reverberate off the tin roof.

No matter where football is played, there’s a story behind every touchdown. This one—three minutes and 34 seconds into the new CFL season—meant hope was alive in Winnipeg.

* * *

Drew Willy is here in Winnipeg because his time on NFL practice squads and scraping for preseason reps had run its course. Bombers coach Mike O’Shea, on the other hand, is a lifetime CFLer who logged 16 years as the prototypical gutsy middle linebacker, which included playing half of one season with a broken clavicle.

“Growing up in New Jersey, whoever thought I would have been here, playing in Winnipeg,” Willy said. But he recites his mission like a native Canadian: Make the province proud.

The Blue Bombers are a community-owned team, just like the Green Bay Packers, and with that seems to bring an added responsibility to players, coaches and executives. Bombers often end up staying here, and become embedded in the team’s fan base.

There’s Rod Hill, the cornerback who was a bust in the NFL but became the Bombers’ career interception leader (47 in five seasons). He manages a Superstore supermarket down the street from Investors Group Field. Ken Ploen, the Iowa quarterback who won four Grey Cups for the Bombers in the 1950s and 1960s, settled here, too. A few years ago, Ploen fulfilled one fan’s autograph request by inviting him to his home to pick up the signed photo.

And Obby Khan, who played six seasons as a Bombers offensive lineman, operates the “Shawarma Khan In A Snap” Middle Eastern food stand. It’s located inside the stadium next to the Rum Hut—that’s exactly what it sounds like—in a popular gathering area on the concourse. The thing about the CFL game and its 20-second play clock is that action happens quickly, so many fans were still waiting for rum shots or falafel wraps when the Bombers started to make their statement.

Willy was the underdog last night, particularly against Ricky Ray, the Argonauts veteran quarterback who completed an astounding 77.2 percent of his passes last season. In this game, though, Ray’s offense started with a punt, and then a fumble on the next drive, and then later on, one of those dreaded two-and-outs (three-down football, folks).

Ricky Ray (left) is a long-time CFL star, but it was first-time starter Drew Willy who shined on CFL's opening night. (Marianne Helm/Getty Images)
Ricky Ray (left) is a long-time CFL star, but it was first-time starter Drew Willy who shined on CFL’s opening night. (Marianne Helm/Getty Images)

Just a day earlier, Willy had been describing the awe of meeting Peyton Manning during Willy’s stint as a reserve quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts in 2009. But in his Winnipeg debut, Willy was a gunslinger. A 41-yard pass. A 47-yarder. (Both traveled most of that distance in the air). When Willy heaved a 25-yard fade route into the end zone, putting his Bombers ahead 24-0, the crowd rose to its feet for a standing ovation—in the second quarter.

Around this time, a reporter from the Winnipeg Sun retweeted a Twitter message from a fan in the stands: Overheard at the bomber game: “Beer tastes so much better when there are no tears in it.”

* * *

Lance Moore told his younger brother, Nick, long ago: Every football player makes his own path. The Steelers receiver was on the sidelines last night watching Nick, whose path led him to Canada, where he was the Bombers’ top free-agent signing this offseason. Nick Moore’s two-year contract reportedly earns him about $185,000 each season.

“I love coming up here,” Lance Moore said. “The game is fun. For a guy who loves catching passes, I don’t think it gets too much better.”

CFL rules create offense. Like the “waggle,” which permits a slotback like Nick Moore to take off toward the line of scrimmage with a running start before the ball is snapped. Moore “waggled” from some 10 yards or so behind the line of scrimmage on a 17-yard in-cut in the first quarter, and the defensive back didn’t have a chance to stop him.

The fans needed this win,” O’Shea said. “This community needed it. That’s important, too.

There’s also a new rule in the CFL this season that gives teams the ability to challenge pass interference calls or no-calls. You can imagine the debate, but the Bombers weren’t complaining last night. O’Shea pulled out the yellow flag from his pocket (that’s the color of the challenge flags up here) on a blatant pass interference no-call in the end zone. Winnipeg got first-and-goal on the 1-yard line and—in something else that is a distinctly Canadian tactic—put in the back-up quarterback to run the sneak for a 31-7 lead in the third quarter.

Remember that love the Bombers have for their team? That also makes them hard to please. With a 24-point lead in their pocket, the Bombers committed a silly too many men on the field penalty on a punt, which allowed Toronto to score a touchdown. “Nice penalty, guys!” one fan bellowed from the end zone.

Becky Kaufmann and Chuck Duboff have had Bombers tickets in their families for more than 50 years each. (Photo by Jenny Vrentas)
Becky Kaufmann and Chuck Duboff have had Bombers tickets in their families for more than 50 years each. (Photo by Jenny Vrentas)

Sure, leads have a way of vanishing in the CFL. The game moves so quickly, and inside the three-minute warning, the clock stops after every play. But this wasn’t a tease, not for those fans in the stands who have had season tickets in their family for more than 50 years, dating back to the dynasty years of Ken Ploen and Bud Grant. No, last night, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers knocked off the best quarterback in the league and the would-be favorite in the CFL’s Eastern Conference, and the score—45-21—wasn’t even close.

“The fans needed this win,” O’Shea said. “This community needed it. That’s important, too.”

After the game, Willy found out that his friends back in the States were able to watch him play on ESPN 3. Then, he picked up his game check from a staffer sitting on a folding chair in the hallway.

This is the charm of the CFL. As fans sing over the national anthem at Bombers games, God keeps their land glorious and blue.

mmqb-end-slug-square

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50 comments
cabobyn
cabobyn

CFL rules create offence. That's why it's generally such a great game to watch. Also, the score can turn on a dime.

riderscfl1
riderscfl1

The CfL is what watching ur favorite team play for the us the fans and love of the game is supposed to be all about...not overpaid arrogant,selfish players and owners do now in the NFl,nhl,nba and MLB. I would never watch or spend on dime on those so called pro leagues. real sports fans love the CFl and those that bash it are just sheep following these millionaire players that laugh all the way to the bank from suckers who spend thousands to watch them get richer.

wpgsteve88
wpgsteve88

It was a great game and this article captured the essence of what the Bombers are and are trying to build. O'Shea is gathering a group of talented individuals that will play as a team. I believe the veterans will be charged with the task of leading by example and the team will play with respect for each other.


I felt something at that game that had not been felt in a long time, these guys won't win every game but they will leave nothing on the field. #goblue


And yes, beer does taste a lot better without tears in it.

Dadofmike33
Dadofmike33

Awesome week of coverage. Next year I hope they get a chance to interview Mr. CFL himself, Shlomo Bernbaum. I think the fans in the states would love it

2001mark
2001mark

Gonna miss all this CFL coverage on MMQB... nice to have a fresh pov this side of TSN lols.


RE. Michael Pinball Clemons... he would be an OUTSTANDING subject to feature.


Let me put it to casual fans/Americans this way: Without flinching, Pinball is probably the most revered athlete in Toronto's modern sporting history, as person/individual of the community.

I'm talking ahead of the likes of Wendel Clark, Roy Halladay, Doug Gilmour, & pretty much any pro athlete to play for Toronto.


transair737
transair737

Awesome article and thanks so much for covering our beloved CFL.  I am a huge CFL fans and also watch a lot of NFL.  Although football the two games are very different.  In the CFL speed and agility are more important than size and strength.  The size of the field and 20 second clock make for a very fast paced wide open game. In Canada no lead is safe --- I have seen a team come back from 14 to 21 points down in the last 3 minutes on numerous occasions.  


Two things in the CFL that the NFL should consider one day is getting rid of the "fair catch" (the most boring play in football) and instituting our no yards rule, when you must give the returner 5 yards space until he has fielded the ball.  This avoids injury and gives chance for a return.  Many times instant field position can be gained after a punt.  Please look up Henry Gizmo Williams highlights on You Tube for reference.  The other is to go to 20 seconds between plays.  This really speeds things up, and more plays equals more excitement and more chance for a comeback when a team is behind.


As a life long Blue Bomber fan we have become worse then the Cleveland Browns of the CFL.  Once a storied franchise we have not won the Grey Cup since 1990 in an 8 or 9 team league.  They past two years have been beyond bad and it is really nice to see that there may be a future!


Here is hoping you make Canada week an yearly occurrence on the MMQB.  I would also invite you all to Winnipeg for Grey Cup 2015 (at the end of November).  It really is a great time and the fans are an integral part of the week long party!

bandit74
bandit74

Excellent article and excellent cover thus far of a great game, OUR game!  Keep up the good work MMQB

Eat_Em_Raw
Eat_Em_Raw

Awesome articles! Come to Hamilton next year.

vince2
vince2

biggest difference from the nfl?  when you write an online article, people write comments telling you how great it was!!!  Canadian football fans obviously a lot classier than their whiny hockey fans.

RonDavies
RonDavies

What a difference a day makes.


Bomber ticket sales shoot up after win over Argos

Paul Wiecek http://www.winnipegfreepress.com 06/27/2014

http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/sports/football/bombers/Bomber-ticket-sales-shoot-up-after-win-over-Argos-264921091.html

And with that, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are once again the hottest ticket in town.

A club spokesman told the Winnipeg Free Press Friday morning that the team sold more tickets before 10 a.m. today for next week’s home game against the Ottawa Redblacks than they did all day Wednesday for Thursday night’s home opener against the Toronto Argonauts.

The Bombers throttled the Argos 45-21 Thursday night at Investors Group Field in a stunning result that few people -- including oddsmakers -- saw coming.

Thursday’s game was attended by just 24,872 fans, making it the most poorly attended Bombers game since Investors Group Field opened last year and the most poorly attended home opener in recent memory.

But those fans who did attend last night loved what they saw. A reporter from Sports Illustrated who attended last night’s game filed a report overnight in which she likened the noise at IGF last night to the Seattle Seahawks’ Century Link Field, widely considered one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL.

BrentPeters
BrentPeters

Very good article (as with all this weeks CFL content).

I liked how all encompassing the article was. It touched on everything from the concourse, the concessions, the venue to the most important topic; the game itself.

While it was by no means a close game it was a good representation of the CFL. Willy was airing the ball out, and the Defence looked out of sorts, which is to be expected in game one.

I hope that Jenny had a great time in Winnipeg and I think I can speak for the country when I say I'm excited by the upward trajectory of the league. 

BeckyK
BeckyK

Well Jenny...seems like, across the board...everyone loved your article & loved that SI is doing some CFL coverage!!! Looks like you've gained new fans!!!

You really captured the CFL experience & the Bombers!!! Excellently written!!!

Thanks SO much for chatting with Chuck in the afternoon....and for coming over to meet us before the game!!!

It was great meeting you & chatting...

And thanks a bunch for taking & including that pic of Chuck & me!!!!

I got my 15 minutes of fame today!!! ;-)

Next I'll have to tell you about the "42nd Annual Rady/Y Sports Dinner" that was held in Wpg last Thursday......we had a record attendance of approximately 1550 plus people....and Magic Johnson was our featured speaker. He was awesome!!!

In the last 5 years....we've had Peyton Manning, Cal Rypkin jr, Joe Montana, Mark Messier, Drew Brees....always an incredible Sports personality!!!!

We'd love to have u attend next June!!!

Best Wishes,

Becky K

TimBell
TimBell

Great to see - I recall SI having CFL coverage in the past with Vince Ferragamo, Rocket Ismail, Flutie etc... great to see the attention again - has me back reading SI... it has been awhile... keep it up!

bobhoffman
bobhoffman

What a great week of CFL!! Please do this AT LEAST every year!

cflsteve
cflsteve

I am from the US and fell in love with the CFl back in the 1980's ESPN's infancy now coming full cycle ESPN has been back for three years now mostly on ESPN3. So it has been awesome for me.

NFL Network got the Ball rolling with televising a package of CFL games a few years back and it expanded to ESPN3 and NBCSN to the new agreement.

I rarely miss a game and for SI to cover the Bombers game first turned out to be a great one. Yes the crowd was that loud. Also getting the first glimpse of Drew Willy.

Litle known fact about Willy to the average fan is that he played 4 seasons at UB Bulls under coach Turner Gill a former CFL Qb, Gill saw the potential in Willy for the CFL early and brought in another long time CFL QB to be his QB coach, Danny Barrett.

So Willy was prepared for the CFL from the begining.

Took a nice PR paycheck for the Chargers to get up to pro speed and played in the UFL to get some actual plaing time and moved into the Riders number two spot in his first CFL year and now his 3rd year he has earned the starting job and will be awesome for years to come.

Like Mike Reilly in EDM with the extra money added to the salary cap after the start of TC and contracts were signed I could see the bomber lock up Willy as well for a few more years with a nice little raise before the season is out.

fooch
fooch

Wow...... for a reporter, not born and bred in Winnipeg, your sure captured our spirit.  Loved the article.....  Go Bombers Go!

silver15jets
silver15jets

Thanks so much for coming up and capturing a little of our love and pride in OUR game. It was a thing of beauty for all us Bomber fans. I hope youre readers feel a little of what we feel every summer sitting in Football stands across Canada. Thanks again.

ArdenSeeley
ArdenSeeley

As a Bomber fan I was embarrassed by our attendance. Next week the fans will pack the stadium without a doubt.

josava
josava

I love the NFL and I love the CFL too. These have been great articles this week and I hope you continue to keep an eye on the CFL. Many other leagues have come and gone - Arena, World League, etc but none had the quality of talent, play or the history that the CFL brings. Thanks again!

F Harris
F Harris

Nice article, to bad that my Argonauts lost the game. I would really love to see an interview with Michael 'Pinball' Clemons!


kvl019
kvl019

Jenny, thanks for writing a very good article on the game last night. It's too bad that the game wasn't sold out but the local media here in the peg made it seem like the bombers wouldn't have a chance to win or even show up for the contest. After the last several years of bitter disappointments by the previous teams, people were getting frustrated.


Hopefully, you will make another trip to the "PEG" to catch another game when the attendance will be full to capacity. Then you will be impressed by the noise. It is absolutely awesome when a capacity crowd is inspired by the Bombers. The only other stadium I know that can compete for this kind of atmosphere is in Regina.


Hope you enjoyed your visit here, as we certainly appreciate your coverage of our game. Please implore your boss to make coverage of the CFL a part of Sports Illustrated sports news. Thanks.


Signed,


A Bomber fan for the last 55 years.

barnes777
barnes777

Come back Next Thursday for game 2 vs. expansion team Ottawa Redblacks, the stadium will be much closer to capacity + louder after yesterday's win.
Something like 30K+ next week, instead of yesterdays less then impressive ~24.8K

Toyky Kid
Toyky Kid

Jenny...


Thanks for a great article and a well diversified perspective of our game! 

Now ya gotta get your butt to Ottawa when WE FINALLY have our team back, eh?


GO REDBLACKS!

Brad88
Brad88

Great article Jenny.  I have been a Blue Bomber fan for 35 years since the days that Dieter Brock was the quarterback wearing No. 5.  I also felt shock and happiness as the Blue Bombers scored on the opening drive against the Argos. You capture quite well in your article the love and passion Winnipeg has for their Blue Bombers. 

Bauer53
Bauer53

If you want a great story and interview speak with Mike Pinball Clemons.

Apollinarus
Apollinarus

That was a great piece and I like hearing your perspective. I also think your calling Winnipeggers Winnipegans has it's own charm and really exemplifies that difference of perspective. Please keep reporting on our game. SI will gain many new readers starting with me. Thanks

hangblague
hangblague

Great piece, but there is no such thing as a "Winnipegan"  it's "Winnipegger"

CFL_historical
CFL_historical

Alright Jenny! my new favourite CFL writer - awesome recap of the game. As an Argo fan I am not overly thrilled... but hey good for Winnipeg. 

Markwwnb
Markwwnb

Yep, Jenny, that IS EXACTLY what the CFL feels like. Lots of action, huge levels of fan emotional investment in the team and its players, and as many blow outs as intensely close games. Great article.

RonDavies
RonDavies

First game of the year and Osh digs into his trunk of trick plays, punter tosses for first down

DonaldMitchell
DonaldMitchell

Good to see the Bombers back in the West Division, in a new stadium and win! Hope the do well this year, except when they play the Roughriders.


Nice series SI, glad you came up here to see our game. Oh by the way, I think the NFL is kind of goofy, like the fair catch and kicking the ball through the end zone on EVERY kick off. But I still like watching it since I have no vested interest in any of the teams, I can appreciate the talent. A nice change to living and dying on every play in a Roughrider game.

accottawa
accottawa

Hey Jen...Great article, but Rod Hill was not a bust in the NFL had had 5 decent years, which is more than the average....his time ran out...but good players come up here not only as a last resort but for good football


JeremyRyan
JeremyRyan

Did you guys get a chance to talk to pinball at the game. Loving the cfl coverage

RonDavies
RonDavies

@vince2 Well there was a reason for that.  One is CFL fans are grateful for any coverage despite being the second most popular spectator sport in the country and high TV ratings there is a part of central Canadian media and one large media conglomerate that would like to kill the CFL and live the American Dream (NFL)


I'm not sure where you get the whiny hockey fans but SI has historically never been noted for particularly good hockey coverage.


Here's a story for SI, probe into why one large media conglomerate who is benefiting under protectionist Canadian trade law against foreign competitors is doing all it can to bring in the NFL and try and kill a Canadian institution.  Find out why some in (mainly Central Canada) buy into the NFL hype of shiny objects and puppies and go out of their way to denigrate the hometown product.  I almost never see Americans denigrating the CFL on NFL websites to the extent that I do so called "Canadians"


It's just so heartwarming now to see the CFL survive and now almost prosper despite the hostile environment in which it has to compete.


Loved the Flutie article and how much he enjoyed the league especially because that was the time that the CFL was fighting for survival and I think the quality of the Canadian player has improved so much since then.


Just love your coverage SI because I know so many CFL detractors just hate it and you are screwing up what they're trying to do.  So on behalf of the legions of CFL fans and those still in the closet, thank you.


Which brings us to the late Toronto sports writer Jim Hunt who brought up this analogy many years ago, "The CFL is like porn. Nobody admits to watching it (GTA), but the viewing numbers are terrific."

riderscfl1
riderscfl1

@JustinWilson71  Outside of the wannabe American Toronto...NO NFL IN CANADA is desired....If like NFL so much...move the USA..

cflsteve
cflsteve

@ZombiePatriot 

Certainly is great News that ESPN has taken over exclusive coverage of the CFL.

I have been using the ESPN3 platform for the past few seasons as they show every game live. Adding 17 regular seasongames on one of the three ESPN cable Networks could be just the start.

Unlike last year with NBC SN having showing playoff games on tape delay ESPN will have them all live on one of their platforms.

CFL_historical
CFL_historical

@doctor_rod incorrect doctor_rod even with the arguable nature of the linked Winnipeg story - Edmonton is a community owned club as much as Saskatchewan...

cflsteve
cflsteve

@Brad88 

I also was intrduced to the CFL via ESPN backin the early 80;s and Dieter Brock and the Bombers were my team back then. With everyone at the time talking Warren Moon and the EDM Grey Cups Brock was my guy.

tmadz
tmadz

@DonaldMitchell  When you begin to see the broken bodies pile up because the players are faster and bigger while the kicker kicks it higher and lofts it longer, your team mgmt. would want the fair catch and shortened kickoff too.


Kickoffs and punts are special teamers barely hanging on to a roster spot to stay in the NFL. As a result they throw their bodies around with reckless abandon. That does not lead to long term ability to avoid injury.

petergilmore34
petergilmore34

@tmadz @DonaldMitchell Sorry , but the C F L is a totally different game , thus more exciting. There is no documentation to substantiate  your comment.  

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