“I’m extremely excited” | Counting down to August 5th

It really is an impossible number for players, coaches and fans of the Canadian Football League to truly comprehend. It’s a number that represents both heartache and pain and now absolute and pure joy: 620.

Yes, dating back to the 2019 Grey Cup – the last game to be played in this grand, ol’ league – and up until the 2021 curtain raiser on Thursday here at IG Field featuring the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, a span of 620 days will have elapsed.

Six hundred and twenty.

“I try to keep emotions out of it when it comes to football, but I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t excited,” said Bombers slotback Nic Demski. “I’ve been waiting a long time to come back out here and play in front of our awesome fans. I just can’t wait to go out there, fly around and play some football again.

“I’ve got some butterflies talking about it right now, I’m not going to lie. It’s different. Usually you don’t have this long of a gap between games, but training camp got us pretty prepared to go out there and play good football. I know there’s definitely going to be some nerves walking into the stadium on Thursday.”

The game represents more than just a return to action for the CFL after the lost season of 2020. It’s also about fans – fully vaccinated fans – being back at IG Field for the first time since a 29-28 victory over the Calgary Stampeders on October 25, 2019.

So, this isn’t just your garden-variety home opener.

“It is the first game of the 2021 season and it’s obviously been a long time 600-plus days since a CFL game’s been played,” said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea. “It’s also the first major sporting event with a lot of fans, basically a full barn allowed, in Canada. It’s big not just for the CFL but for Canadian sporting fans.”

The game itself is a marquee matchup, in a rematch of the 2019 Grey Cup. But for the players it’s about getting back to the game that is not only their love, but their livelihood, with many driving trucks, doing labour work or diving into post-football careers early when the rug was pulled on 2020.

“I’m over here trying to hold back excitement because we don’t play the game until Thursday. But I’m extremely excited,” said Bombers defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat. “We’re back to playing ball and it’s been a long time off – way too long. It’s just exciting. We’re going to get to play Hamilton again. It’s going to be fun.”

“I’m very excited,” added safety Brandon Alexander. “I’m a little bit nervous, but nervousness means that you’re ready. It’s been a while since we’ve been out there and put on pads and go out there and just played. There’s a little bit of butterflies already starting to sink in, being so real that it’s about to come in two days. There’s definitely a lot of excitement going on and I just can’t wait to get out there and it’s time to go.”

The challenge now for the Bombers – what with all that emotion from the return to play after 620 days, with it being the home opener and with a Grey Cup banner raising as part of the opening ceremonies – is to harness those emotions, too.

A team can’t win a game in the first five minutes, after all, but it can certainly dig a massive hole if it’s emotionally unhinged.

“That’s part of my job as a head coach is to keep making them aware that it will be an emotional event, obviously, to step on the field for the first time in a long time and play the game you love with your teammates that you care deeply about,” said O’Shea. “Couple that with seeing fans that have been waiting a long time for this, too. It’s going to be emotional and it’s going to be one of those things where we have to make sure we temper that.”

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