Jaime Stein is the Canadian Football League's Manager of Digital Media and the former play-by-play voice of the Toronto Argonauts. Follow Jaime on Twitter @jaimestein.
Did you know that one of the Winnipeg Blue Bomber offensive linemen used to be a model? Unfortunately, I cannot tell you which one it was because if his name appears in print he will be fined by his fellow warriors on the line. And I surely don’t want to be the person responsible for the nominal – yet monumental – fine.
Such is one of the many unique – or quirky – observations that a fly on the wall would make after spending close to a week with a football team during training camp and the pre-season.
The Bomber O-line has such a complicated list of fines for various acts deemed offensive by the group that they make you long for the simplicity of Montreal’s parking ticket rules.
Thanks to the invitation from head coach Paul LaPolice during our making of Road to the Show - Part 2, featuring linebacker John Surla, I was able to experience a training camp from the perspective that very few outside the team will ever experience. I will attempt to chronicle just a fraction of what a camp and a team is like.
MEETING ROOM SEATS
Former Head Coach Tom Higgins explained to me that when a new player joined his team he would always instruct him to remain standing in the meeting room until all the players had sat down. Only then could he take a seat. This, as Tom explained, was one of most common sources of fights – taking someone else’s seat.
Day after day we shot footage of Bomber team meetings and one thing was clear – no one sat in Doug Brown’s seat. Generally, Doug was one of the last people to arrive to the meeting, but his coveted front row seat, opposite the entrance door was always left vacant until the big man arrived. Clearly a sign of respect for one of the greatest players of this generation.
Despite becoming the first overall draft pick in the 2011 Canadian Draft, Henoc Muamba took his fair share of potshots from the vets, including Odell Willis who may have been the quickest with his tongue in defensive meeting rooms.
Muamba was routinely referred to as “First Round” by teammates and coaches alike.
However, Muamba proved that he is a standup teammate when players were giving him a hard time for having a documentary crew following him around. You see, most players assumed we were following Muamba because he was the top pick, even though we were following Surla. When called out, Muamba refused to throw his roommate under the bus.
Surla, for his part, played it smart. Not only was he roommates with Muamba, but he stuck as close as possible to Muamba in meeting and drills to deflect the glare of the cameras.
Twitter continued to be a topic of discussion throughout camp. First, it was the head coach reminding his players to not tweet out injuries. Then it was Willis (again) snapping back at linebacker coach Casey Creehan.
During a film session, Creehan was reminding Willis to follow a man through a gap.
Willis’s response: “I’ll follow you on Twitter, coach.”
For the record, you can follow Willis here: @KuntryKane205
Speaking of Creehan, he may be one of the more articulate people you meet off the field, but once the whistle blows, he turns into that fierce football coach you find in the movies.
As you can see in this video of him Mic’d Up, he owns the trademark for the phrase “violent hands” and refuses to utter a phrase below 100 dB.
When shooting a documentary you have to be awake at the same time the players are awake, which means getting up at 5:30 a.m. each morning to follow the team from breakfast to practice to lunch to meetings to rest time to dinner to more meetings and finally back to bed 16 hours later. The process is exhausting – for me. I can’t begin to imagine the mental and physical toughness these players possess to go through this routine day in and day out. For anyone who thinks playing in the CFL is easy, they should think again.
On top of learning plays and fighting for a job day in and day out during training camp, the Bomber players took time out of their camp schedule to attend a community breakfast. The players spread out two to a table and chatted with some of their biggest fans before heading back to the stadium for practice.
LaPolice was emphatic later that night that players take time for the community. He stressed how important the Bombers were to the people of Winnipeg and why they should take every opportunity to invite fans out to a practice or game.
Later that week, hundreds of school children watched practice and cheered on their favourite Bombers, including big cheers for Coach Richard Harris who was among the favourites. If you haven’t met Coach Harris, he may be one of the most imposing figures in the league. But he has a heart of gold, and it was clear that he had made a positive impact on the lives of many of the children in the stands.
For all the heat that Buck Pierce takes from fans the media, he’s a genuine person who cares about the league and the city he plays in. Pierce spent a ton of time this off-season in the Winnipeg community engaging with fans.
He is also a close follower of what is happening around the league and spoke at length about the making of our documentary and Road to the Show - Part 1 from Evaluation Camp.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
LaPolice put a quote of the day on the schedule each day for the players and was adamant that the players read the quote. He would often be found asking the players to recite the quote during drills. There is a great clip of him grilling his players on the quote of the day and only Giancarlo Rapanaro is able to recite the quote from memory.
LaPolice is a detail oriented individual, but also considered a players’ coach by his team. It was interesting watching his interaction with his troops including newcomer Kito Poblah who was asked about being a Chippewa from Central Michigan University – to which Poblah responded, “I’m a Blue Bomber now.”
When you first spend time around a team they are weary of your presence and view you as an outsider, but as our time went on following Surla we became more welcome. Guys like Joey Elliott started clowning around with Surla and our team while we were trying to shoot, displaying a jovial personality not usually seen from the back-up QB.
Overall, like most teams in this league, there are tons of great personalities under the helmet waiting to be discovered. Not to mention some great community ambassadors as well.