WINNIPEG — A phone rings in Reno, Nevada and the news instantly makes a young man’s heart jump, seconds before the tears start gushing.
Moments later and some 2,400 miles away in Toronto, that same news flickers across a computer screen, and a family collectively exhales as the tension that comes from anticipation finally eases.
That was Brendan O’Leary-Orange’s draft night story, unfolding in Nevada — where he’s attending university — and at his family’s home in Southern Ontario. He can now write the next chapter of his football story after being selected by the Bombers, and he’s eager to roll up his sleeves and have at it.
He also knows and understands the massive role his family played in helping get him here – especially his father, Doyle Orange, a man who has his own story of life in the Canadian Football League.
“It’s just such a blessing to be drafted,” began O’Leary-Orange in a phone interview on Friday. “It’s an amazing time and there are so many emotions still going through my head.
“I got a call (from Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea) and was told I was selected by the Blue Bombers… it was just the greatest phone call in my life. I immediately started crying because I was overwhelmed with emotions because of all the adversity and everything I’ve had to fight through in my life to get to that moment.”
That adversity includes O’Leary-Orange battling through injures during his days with the Wolf Pack, including being stretchered off the field after landing awkwardly on his neck and collarbone and suffering a concussion in a Nevada win over Oregon State in 2018 during his junior season.
There was the hamstring injury that limited his production as a senior, a year which began with so much potential as he was considered the best pro prospect on the Wolf Pack roster. There were the academic issues he fought through as a freshman, when he began the transformation to college life and the expectations and dedication needed from a student-athlete.
“Over time I made the transition from the freshman who showed up late occasionally to the senior who is trying to set an example,” O’Leary-Orange explained. “Now I am the one who is getting to treatment early and maybe stopping to pick up a young guy on the way to treatment.
“I think about that because it’s such a blessing to now be considered a professional athlete in the first place. I’m the type that believes everything you get is earned. You have to put in a lot of hard work if you want to be good at something. Just getting to this level, this next chapter is so exciting to me. Now that I’m here… it’s time.”
Hi father, Doyle, was born in Waycross, Georgia in 1951 and, after starring at Southern Mississippi and being a sixth-round draft pick of the Atlanta Falcons in 1974, came north to Canada to play with the Toronto Argonauts.
He rushed for 870 yards as a rookie and was an East Division all-star in 1975 after cranking out 1,055 yards in just 13 games. Injuries limited him to just 10 games over 1976-77 with the Argos and Hamilton Tiger-Cats but by then, Orange had also settled into a job with the City of Toronto’s Parks and Recreation Department.
So he, too, has had his own share of adversity, from growing up battling discrimination in the deep south to making it as a pro to finding a home, his future wife and raising a family in Canada.
“My wife and my other two sons were here watching on TSN and we had our laptops going and were screaming at them at the same time,” said Orange with a chuckle during a conversation with bluebombers.com.
“It was a perfect, exciting moment for them – and for myself – to see that he had achieved his dream after all the work he had put in. It made you think about all the times you took from one place to another and all the little leagues and things like that.”
There’s obvious pride in Orange’s voice and he’s quick to point out that his other sons – Liam and Daniel – are enjoying their own successes. Daniel is a financial advisor at TD Bank in Toronto while Liam is currently a member of the Ryerson Rams basketball team.
“You just want them to be successful at what they do,” he said. “My wife and I worked pretty hard and tried to give them good guidance. My wife is very Catholic, the boys all went to Catholic school and I ended up switching over and becoming Catholic at the same time. We were all in.
“All you’re trying to do is to give them that proper base. And with some of my experiences I tried to tell them about what it was like where I was born and how hard it was for me and so they should try to make it all count.”
That’s only part of why there was so much emotion in both Reno and Toronto on CFL Draft night. And why O’Leary-Orange is so determined to make his parents and his brothers proud as a member of the Bombers.
“Growing up my dad had the biggest influence on me,” he said. “Growing up in Toronto, people knew the back story on me. It was often, ‘Do you want to be like your dad? Do you want to be a football player when you grow up?’ I kinda resisted it growing up. It was, ‘Nah. No. No.’ But football was a sport I was always good at and the older I got and with the guidance I got from my dad, whether it was when I was in high school or college… the wisdom, my work ethic, that’s all from him.”
“Seeing my parents get up every day with that dedication. Never stopping, that go-go-go-go, it lit a fire in me and instilled that work ethic. My dad helped us in everything we’d do. Again, he taught me that if you want to be good at something you have to work at it. Nothing will be given to you. I just can’t thank him enough, both of them, for that blueprint and guiding me throughout this whole time.
“I’m just excited to get to work. I’m excited to be a Blue Bomber. I can’t thank them enough for picking me and believing in me.”
What happens next, of course, is unknown. But O’Leary-Orange is hopeful he’ll soon be wearing Bombers colours and his family can come to Winnipeg to see him in a CFL game. It would be Doyle Orange’s first visit to Winnipeg since…
“Oh God, that’s a long time ago,” he began, bursting into laughter. “Maybe when I was with Toronto, or in Hamilton after that. We played at the old field then. We’d see these huge jets flying over our heads during warm-up because that stadium was close to the airport. It was like a Star Wars movie.
“I’ve got a lot of good memories of going to all the CFL cities. I’ve seen the new stadium there on TV and that’s one of the first things I said to Brendan: he’s going to be playing in a beautiful stadium.
“I told him to be patient, to believe this is where he is supposed to be. We were praying he’d find a good situation. He’s landed in a very good spot and we’re all very grateful.”