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There wasn’t really a question in Patrick Neufeld‘s mind this off-season if he was going to return to Winnipeg.
The right guard’s contract was set to expire in February and at that point he would become a free agent, available to sign with any team in the CFL. That didn’t happen, however, because he put pen to paper in December, inking a one-year deal to stay with the Bombers.
Fresh off a Grey Cup Championship, the 31-year-old wasn’t ready to give up what he had helped to build in Winnipeg. It had taken so long for them to become that championship calibre team and he had become brothers with the men in the locker room.
So when it came time to decide on his future, he knew exactly where he wanted to be.
“We’ve been through a lot,” Neufeld said over the phone on Wednesday from his home in Saskatoon. “We’ve been through a lot of downs before we got to where we are now. You just felt like you really built something and you were part of that team going from the bottom and grinding and working it’s way up to the top.
“That group of men, in our offensive line group, a lot of those guys are my closest friends. Guys that I talk to every day. We know how important it is for continuity but more than that, we’re really close. We eat at least one meal a week together. We spend a tonne of extra time together outside of the building. It really does feel like a brotherhood.”
Neufeld wasn’t the only one in the trenches that wanted to continue to call Winnipeg home. There were four members of the offensive line, including Neufeld, that were pending free agents following the 2019 season. Stanley Bryant, Michael Couture, and Jermarcus Hardrick were also holding expiring contracts as the team continued their celebrations after their victory at the end of November.
But by the time free agency rolled around, all four were locked up to remain in the blue and gold. Hardrick signed for another year in December. Hardrick put pen to paper, signing a one-year deal, in January. Couture agreed to a two-year extension in February.
“It was just how much we truly love working together as a group,” said Neufeld, when asked why all four pending free agents decided to stick around.
“We saw all of that work come to fruition this year with a championship and we thought, ‘well, let’s do this again. We don’t want to lose this feeling. We want to stay on top like this.’ I think all of us talking together collectively saying, ‘we can make another serious run at this if we’re all back.’ We just wanted to make a commitment to one another that we were going to do this thing again and be a championship group again.”
As a group, the Bombers offensive line allowed 35 sacks in 2019, sitting behind only Edmonton (25) and Calgary (34). They also allowed Andrew Harris to lead the league in rushing yards (1,380) and quarterback Chris Streveler to lead all pivots in yards on the ground (726).
That success on the field was in large part thanks to the relationship that the o-line had off of it.
Group chats have been a major way for them all to stay in contact both during the season and especially now when each are social distancing in their respective cities. Neufeld says that’s how he and the rest of his offensive line group have been staying in contact this off-season and how they’ve been checking in on each other during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He says the group is dynamic and that’s why they work so well together. Hardrick is one of the more vocal ones, making jokes and keeping things light. Some of the rookies are a little quieter, keeping to themselves until they say something funny that cracks everyone up. And then there’s Bryant, the strong silent, lead by example type.
They say that nothing brings people together like food does and that rings true for this group. Geoff Gray hosts his teammates at his home once a week during the season and cooks for them. Among many other specialties, Gray makes buffalo chicken dip, smoked brisket and smoked bison burgers. He also hosts pasta nights, where he serves four or five different pastas. He even bakes his own bread; Focaccia, sourdough or ciabatta, you name it and Gray can make it.
“Geoff Gray is a phenomenal cook,” said Neufeld. “I would say he’s the best cook in the CFL, that guy could go on a cooking show. But Geoff hates being in the limelight and being the centre of attention. Once a week he’ll cook, we’ll go to Geoff’s house and he’ll cook for us and he’s just happy being in the background. He’ll cook twenty things and we’ll just be playing cards and playing dominoes, enjoying each other’s company.”
Whether it’s blocking for Zach Collaros or eating home-cooked meals, the Bombers offensive lineman have found their place together and are looking forward to returning to Winnipeg this season.
“It’s a just like a group of friends you’ve been around for so long that everyone meshes so well.” Neufeld said. “You get in arguments and stuff about things but it’s never in a bad way. It’s always guys just being friendly and enjoying each other’s company.”