First & 10 | Jeffcoat, Neufeld optimistic & hopeful

There’s a hint of optimism in Jackson Jeffcoat’s voice. That said, it is occasionally muffled by a tone of frustration and skepticism.

“I hope to be in Winnipeg soon. I miss it like crazy,” began the Blue Bombers defensive end in a conversation with bluebombers.com.

“I just want to play ball. I really want to play ball. I love playing. I love being with my team. I love getting with the coaches and everybody and it’s going to be exciting when it does happen. But until then I can’t throw my hopes at it and throw away what I’ve got going now, either.”

It’s an honest take from an honest player – now interning with HPI Real Estate Services and Investments in Austin, TX by the way – in the wake of the Canadian Football League’s unveiling of its 2021 return-to-play plan earlier this week.

Look, no one expected an instant parade, a sudden spike in ticket sales or a mad rush to The Bomber Store for swag when the news broke. And the initial reaction from fans, players and media seemed to range from absolute joy in some corners to indifference and out-right skepticism.

And, frankly, that kind of response was entirely predictable.

Slogging through this pandemic has been a grind for everyone. It’s been tragic and led to financial hardships for so many. What it’s also done, it would seem, is simply beat so much of us down emotionally that there is almost a reluctance to accept good news. It’s the old  ‘the light at the end of the tunnel is a freight train coming right at us’ kind of thinking.

Again, it’s entirely predictable when so many of us spend at least a portion of our days worrying over case counts, test-positivity percentages and vaccination totals. And all of it can be mind-numbing and mood-altering in an instant.

“The news this week, to be 100 percent honest, doesn’t change anything for me,” said Jeffcoat. “We had dates last year and we all know how that turned out. So, I’m not jumping up and down in excitement or anything like that.

“I want to see a schedule. I want to have a plane ticket for Winnipeg in my hand. Then I’ll be excited. We’ve been through a lot. There’s been a lot of frustration. Right now, for me, this is just words and I do understand this is a hard situation for the league to work through. Again, we just want to play.”

The August 5th start-up date is a target and the CFL has said the return-to-play blueprint is flexible and has back-up plans, all of which might be critical with parts of this country now in a third wave.

Make no mistake, Jeffcoat wants to believe all this is written in permanent ink and that August 5 is guaranteed. But the cancellation of last year and the push from a June 10th start to August this year has left some scars.

And he used this vivid analogy to provide a sense of all that:

“It’s like this,” he began. “You set up a date with a girl and you are supposed to meet at six. Then she pushes it back to seven. You think, ‘OK, we said six, but seven is cool.’

“Then she tells you she will be there at 9:30 and you think, ‘Well, OK… I could have been doing something rather than waiting.’ Then 9:30 comes and she ghosts you. That’s what last year felt like.

“So if that girl wonders if you can go on another date, what are you going to think?”

More on this week’s return-to-play news and other notes and quotes in our latest edition of First &10…

1. I appreciate Jeffcoat’s take, because so much of it comes from the heart. And I wish I could be more like Pat Neufeld, who said this earlier this week following Wednesday’s announcement. Neufeld’s ‘money quote’ – as we say in the biz – was this:

“I can appreciate the skepticism and frustration from some people based on what happened last year and in leading up to this announcement. It’s been tough and it’s an impossible situation to be in where you’re at the mercy of a worldwide pandemic. But sometimes you have to be in the moment and see it for what it is. To me, it’s good news. It’s optimism. It’s hope. It’s a plan.

“Let’s pump it up, let’s get it going and let’s get people back on board for this great game. We all want football back. We all want this league to come back and survive and this is that first step towards that.”

A virtual fist bump from this corner, Mr. Neufeld.

2. The CFL’s announcement likely means a mid-July start to training camp and the cancellation of preseason games if the vaccine rollout cranks up and COVID-19 cases come down considerably.

The release of the August 5th date is important because it provides a target for players and how they crank up preparations.

“You predicate your entire offseason training on that report date,” Neufeld explained. “Most of the guys I’ve been around or know across the league, their training is time based. You’re gearing up to get your body as ready as possible for an intense two-to-three week training camp.

“Guys understand that date is critical to hit your peak in offseason training.”

3. As for the loss of preseason games… that’s a topic that will get examined in further detail as camps near. But here’s Neufeld on that subject, too:

“That’s tough. I look at it from a couple different angles. From a player’s standpoint, it’s always good to shake off the rust. I say that a bit tongue in cheek because the older you get, the less you want to be in preseason games because you feel you have that veteran savviness after doing it for so long and you don’t want to get injured going into the regular season when it really matters.

“On the flip side, we’ve had a year off of not playing football. We’ve really got to shake off the rust and you can’t get all that done in training camp and practices because you’re just not going to be able to replicate that tempo, that violence, that speed that you would get in games.

“The second part of that is evaluating for coaches and team building. The coaching staff will have two years of drafted players that haven’t been evaluated, two draft classes. Then there’s the free agent signings and the free agents from the States who come up here and get their first experience of the CFL. All that is going to be hard for coaches and organizations.”

4. A couple of leftovers from Bombers President and CEO Wade Miller from my interview with him earlier in the week.

First, I asked him about the suggestion the CFL should just go dark for another year and simply regroup for 2022. There was a pause before he answered, and when he did there was a sense that, if he could, he would have reached out and slapped me upside the head for even bringing that up.

“That,” he said, “is NOT an option. We’re playing football and we need to play football. We need to play football for our players, our coaches and our fans.”

As for the CFL-XFL topic, he offered only this:

“We’re having good conversations that are very interesting. We’re learning from each other and just having ongoing discussions.”

For those interested, here is a video and story CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie did with Chris O’Leary of CFL.ca.

5. A hearty salute to Andrew Harris for the launch of his ‘thirty3 Foundation’ and his ‘No Barriers Award.’ The details are here. The Bombers’ running back is offering an award to a Grade 12 student ‘to allow them to continue with arts or sports programming once high school is over.’

6. With the CFL Global Draft in the rearview mirror, next up is the league’s regular draft of Canadians, which goes May 4th.

Some good stuff on the league site including a look at some gems found in the later rounds of the draft over the years including Troy Westwood, the Bombers all-time leading scorer, who was drafted 48th overall in 1991.

7. One final plug for the CFL’s oh-so cool Grey Cup portal now that games dating back to 1946 – and including the 2019 championship won by the Bombers – is now available.

8. This week’s good reads:

This piece from SI.com on Marv Levy being inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame revisits his time with the Montreal Alouettes as well as his days in the NFL. Favourite line from it was Levy’s answer when being asked by a reporter if the latest Super Bowl was a must-win because the Bills had lost three previous. Said Levy, who served in the Army: “This is not a must win. World War II was a must win.”

From Taylor Allen of The Free Press on the launch this week of the Anti-Racism in Sport Campaign, which is being led by Immigration Partnership Winnipeg and features former Bomber Obby Khan.

9. ICYMI, Bombers receiver Drew Wolitarsky displayed his musical talents at the iconic Burton Cummings Theatre this past week. To watch that show, click here.

10. And finally, let’s bring it back to Neufeld here for the last word. I asked him if over the course of the last year he wondered if he’d ever get back on the field, or if the league he grew up dreaming of playing in would get back on its feet.

“There have been moments like that,” he said. “And that factors into my excitement. There’s a point where you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I wasn’t even worried about playing, I was worried about the league and the fans and the tradition and history. It gave me a chance to step back and really think about what this league means to me and I think that goes for many of us, whether you are a player or a fan, a stakeholder or coach. That was tough.

“Having this announcement makes you think about where we’re at and be hopeful that we’re good to go now.”

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