First and 10 column | Home Opener

Mental health professionals, coaches and athletes – anyone involved in sports, really – are all delivering the same message these days as we try to navigate through this horrible global pandemic. And that message, by and large, can be stripped down to this: Control what you can control, and try not to stress about the rest.

A small confession here at the outset: some days are easier than others when it comes to following that advice. Some days the blinders go on and losing yourself in the moment can come via the simple act of going for a walk, diving into a book, chilling with the family or binge-watching on Netflix.

Today, unfortunately, is not one of those days.

Friday night the Winnipeg Blue Bombers were to meet the Calgary Stampeders in their 2020 home opener, two weeks removed from the regular season curtain raiser in Hamilton and following the ensuing bye in Week 2.

There was to be a pre-game celebration honouring the 2019 championship, a Grey Cup banner was to be raised and post-game fireworks were planned. Players and staff would have already received their Grey Cup rings, and the night would have been overflowing with emotion.

The build-up to this day would have also been so electrifying for a franchise that hasn’t experienced a similar moment since the 1991 home opener and following the 1990 Grey Cup.

And, yes, that’s a long stretch between titles.

The momentum from last November’s win had carried through the championship parade and social in the week, through the Bomber Store buzzing leading up to the Christmas holidays and into the new year with the Grey Cup tour that brought the iconic trophy to places like Thompson, Brandon, Portage, Winkler, Gimli, Altona, Dauphin and Kenora.

That momentum was there in the build-up to free agency, with Zach Collaros, Willie Jefferson, Darvin Adams, Michael Couture, Jermarcus Hardrick, Stanley Bryant, Drew Wolitarsky, Pat Neufeld, Mercy Maston and Nick Taylor all signing before the deadline and all indicating they wanted to be part of the chase to go back-to-back with another Grey Cup win. Ditto for CFL vets like Josh Johnson, Micah Awe and Tobi Antigha, all of whom came aboard because they saw the good thing Mike O’Shea & Co. had going here.

Summer game nights in Winnipeg are special and that goes double for the home opener, when all the excitement for a new season bubbles over.

So, yeah, being denied that today, well, it’s tough.

Obviously, there is a bigger issue at play here. Safety comes first and foremost and the idea of 30,000 gathering at IG Field right now seems so foreign given what’s unfolding across the globe.

In the meantime, then, let’s cross our fingers and hope we can get back to those nights when we can gather and watch the Bombers and CFL football again.

As we open this week’s First & 10 column, let’s get nostalgic and trot out five significant Bombers home opener moments before we dive into a handful of other ponderings…

1. A HISTORIC NIGHT

The numbers from the Bombers’ 1994 home opener are still all over the CFL and club record book. On July 14, 1994 Matt Dunigan threw for 713 yards – a league record that seems untouchable – in a 50-35 win over the Edmonton Eskimos.

Dunigan smashed Danny Barrett’s league record of 601, set a year earlier, and broke his own club record of 467, set in 1992.

That night saw the Bombers crank out 792 yards of offence as both Alfred Jackson and David Williams broke the team’s single-game receiving yardage record. Jackson’s 308 remains No. 1; Williams’ 240 total now ranks 3rd, behind the 254 total Milt Stegall posted in a game in 2005. As far as curtain raisers go, there might not be another so historic.

2. A SPANKING OF THE GREEN GUYS

The ’86 Bombers opened their season with a 28-17 loss to the B.C. Lions in Vancouver. But you could say they rebounded well, winning their home opener a week later with a 56-0 shellacking of the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

It is the largest shutout in CFL history and ties the Bomber record for the largest margin of victory, first set in a 58-2 win over the Montreal Alouettes in 1981 in a game that featured Vince Ferragamo at the controls of the Als offence.

Jack Jacobs

3. A LEGEND IS BORN

The Bombers struggled to end the 1940s, going 3-9 in 1948 and 2-12 a year later. But the fortunes turned when the club signed Jack Jacobs, who settled in behind centre and began to thrill fans almost instantly with his passing exploits. He would help guide the Bombers to the 1950 Grey Cup – the Mud Bowl – which they lost to Toronto, but in 1951 was the first QB in pro history to throw for 3,000 yards and 30 TDs in a single season. By the time 1953 opened, a new Winnipeg Stadium at Polo Park had been dubbed ‘The House that Jack Built’ because of his exciting aerial game.

In his first game as a Bomber, on August 26, 1950, Jacobs threw for a TD to Tom Casey, kicked a field goal, three singles and two converts as the Bombers beat Edmonton 18-7 in front of a crowd of 7,147 at old Osborne Stadium.

This from The Winnipeg Tribune after the game:

“Casey wasn’t the only shining light in the Bomber triumph, however. Jack Jacobs played a flawless game from his quarterback position. His ball-handling and faking had Annis Stukus’ club off balance during the greater part of the game. Jacobs’ pass-completion average was not up to par, but it was mainly due to the inability of his receivers to hold onto his throws.’

4. THE START OF SOMETHING

The last time the Bombers were unbeaten at home in a season was 1984, when they posted a perfect 8-0 record at Winnipeg Stadium. They were sloppy in their opener on July 8, managing just 233 yards offence, but emerged with a 28-26 win over the Toronto Argonauts en route to a 11-4-1 record – second in the West to B.C. – before beating Edmonton and the Lions in the playoffs and then Hamilton in the ’84 Grey Cup.

Interestingly, in the Bombers’ last four Grey Cup seasons – 1984, 1988, 1990 and 2019 – the team began the year with a win in their home opener.

5. INTRODUCING LUCKY WHITEHEAD… 2019 Home Opener

We end our quick recap of notable Bomber home openers with last year. If you recall, the Bombers began the season with a 5-0 start and in the home opener on June 27th the club cranked out 440 yards offence and held the Eskimos to seven field goals in a 27-21 victory on a perfect night.

The game also introduced Bombers fans to receiver Lucky Whitehead, who caught two touchdowns from Matt Nichols – a 75-yard bomb and a swing pass that he turned into a 41-yard score.


And now… five other notes to wrap up this week’s column…

6. TSN debuted their Blue Bombers all-time squad last week on their new show ‘CFL 2020’ in the first of what will be a series for all nine teams.

Their format – following the idea the network used for the seven Canadian NHL teams – included one head coach, 12 offensive players, 12 defensive players, three special teamers and three notable franchise icons as foundational players. As well, the team had to include a minimum of seven Canadians and at least one player from the current roster.

Check out the TSN all-time Bombers squad here.

7. These all-time teams should be seen as a fun and discussion-generating exercise. Anyone who is outraged or feels a player has been slighted in some way ought to dial it down a bit.

In any case, looking over TSN’s list – and given their format – a couple of names did pop out to me. First of all, if I had to pick one single kicker in Bombers history to hit a clutch field goal it would be Justin Medlock, who tied a Grey Cup record with six last November. No offence to Trevor Kennerd, who is on the TSN squad and was part of three Grey Cup teams, or Troy Westwood, who is the franchise’s all-time scoring leader.

Westwood, a co-host on TSN 1290’s Big Show, confirmed Medlock would be his pick earlier this week.

The other debate concerns Andrew Harris. The Bombers have a rich history at the running back position and picking Harris over Canadian Football Hall of Famers Leo Lewis or Charles Roberts wouldn’t sit right. And there’s no arguing with their three foundational players all being RBs, too, in Gerry James, Fritz Hansen and Tom Casey.

Granted, the first six years of Harris’ time in the CFL was spent with B.C., but his 4,779 yards rushing as a Bomber now ranks him sixth, behind only Roberts (9,987), Lewis (8,861), Willard Reaves (5,923), Jim Washington (5,736) and James (5,541). A 1,200-yard season this year could have moved him into the Top 3 on that list. In any case, not sure if there is another CFL team with that roster of candidates at the running back position.

8. I like the project CFL.ca has started for an All-Decade team (2010-19), featuring 29 individuals across 16 positions as well as a head coach and open to fan voting. The receivers and defensive backs ballot is up now and the voting schedule closes on September 1 with the head coach selection.

9. For what it’s worth, bluebombers.com unveiled our own All-Decade Top 10 Bombers list back in January. To check that out, click here.

10. And finally, this clip from KLEW TV and featuring Bombers RB prospect James Williams of the Washington State Cougars has been making the rounds on social media since it ran on Monday.

It’s a compelling story about how Williams has had to put his shot with the Bombers on hold – and his wedding – and how he is working to give back to the local football community in Pullman, WA.

The part that seems to have grabbed some Bombers fans is this line from Williams: “I was supposed to go to the CFL and just get some film for this year and then go back to the NFL, possibly, right after the season.”

It’s a bold statement from the rookie, given how entrenched Harris is in the Bombers’ backfield and the importance of the ratio in building a CFL roster.

Then again, it’s not a unique outlook, either. There are thousands of players who have ventured north with the same approach, seeing the CFL as a stepping stone en route to ‘The League.’ Williams, FYI, has had NFL looks from Kansas City, Indianapolis and Detroit before signing with the Bombers.

What rankles yours truly, frankly, is not that his comments seem unaware, but that we’re simply being denied seeing him take his shot at landing work here, let alone getting film to go back south.

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