We were connected by phone – Richie Hall at his offseason home base in Regina and yours truly here in the heart of Charleswood – and for a brief moment there was silence.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive coordinator and I were reliving some of the moments critical to the club’s run to the Grey Cup last year, all as part of our ’10 Plays That Made A Champion’ series that began this week on bluebombers.com and will continue through to the end of November.
But as the two of us were visiting, the connection seemed to be suddenly lost. Waiting for a few seconds and then leaning closer to the phone, I broke the momentary silence with, ‘You still there, Richie?’
“Yeah, I am,” he said, just as the phone seemed to come to life again. “You know, I was just thinking about the journey we went through just to get to the Grey Cup last year.
“I look back at my whole experience with the organization. I came there in 2015 and we won five games. The next year we were 11-7 and lose a heartbreaker in B.C. The next year we lose a tough home playoff game to Edmonton. Then we go to Calgary for the 2018 West Final and that, to me, is a game we should have won but let slip through our hands.”
“The last time we met as a defence, the day before the Grey Cup, I said to the players, ‘With everything we’ve been through – and I know you get tired of hearing my voice and me saying, strip the ball and do this and this and this – was it worth it? Was it worth going in early to do an extra workout, to do extra film work? Was it worth it?’
“And when you look at the Grey Cup ring now, how can you not say it wasn’t worth it? The heartache, those collapses we had in Toronto and Montreal last year…as hard as it was then, it was worth going through that to get that trophy. It was worth it. I’m a process person, and I’ve enjoyed this journey. It’s made it so worthwhile.”
For the record, Coach Hall and I were on the phone for over 40 minutes, but the interview wasn’t intended to generate this big-picture look at last November, but rather a detailed examination of some the moments that were the foundation of the championship, as explained above.
Still, with no Canadian Football League games being played right now, it seems many conversations tend to be a mix of both nostalgia and remorse.
“Chatting with you is bringing back all these memories,” said Hall. “It’s hard to believe it was almost a year ago. I was back in Winnipeg the first week of September for a couple of days and went to get something out of my office and it just felt eerie…especially knowing then it was September. I was in the Bomber Store and bought some stuff, but there was nobody in the stadium and it just didn’t feel right.
“That would have been around the Labour Day game and then the Banjo Bowl. There’s a void, an empty feeling. And once November gets here, boy, that’s going to be a big hole for me.”
He’s certainly not alone in that sentiment.
More from Coach Hall and other Bomber/CFL notes in our weekly edition of 1st & 10…
1. Coach Hall is one of the most respected men in the CFL and he’s long set up shop in Regina in the offseason. It wasn’t too long after he finished playing for the Roughriders that he began to work for the Cornwall Alternative School for high-risk kids.
He’s now on the school’s board of directors. Earlier this week there was a board meeting and the staff asked Hall to bring his 2019 Grey Cup ring. He actually has four now, one from his playing days with the ’89 Riders, then two more as their defensive coordinator – from the 2007 win over Winnipeg and the 2013 victory over Hamilton.
“I told them, ‘Well, if I bring the ring I have to show you my other three Grey Cup rings first,’” Hall explained. “I bring out the first three, they look at them and they go, ‘God, they’re nice.’ And then I go, ‘but then, there’s this one…’ and I bring out the Bombers ring.
“Their eyes just go big and it’s wow. It’s like their jaw drops. It’s the size of it. It’s that big ‘W’ with the diamonds in it. It’s just a ‘wow.’
“All the rings are special, but when you look at this one you can’t but help going ‘Wow.’ It’s just phenomenal. I’m very blessed to have four,” Hall added. “A lot of great players and coaches go through their careers and don’t receive one. You don’t know how many opportunities you’re going to get. When we lost the West Final in ’18, it’s easy to say we’ll get back there, but it’s so hard just to get back there. Teams are constantly changing and there are no guarantees.
“When Matt Nichols went down and then (Chris) Streveler was banged up, who wasn’t wondering, ‘Did we lose our opportunity?’ All of sudden we got Zach (Collaros)… it’s one thing to get him, it’s another to then get it done with him.
“To me, the Grey Cup ring isn’t a representation just of the Grey Cup game, but for the 2019 season. But it started for some when Coach O’Shea got there in 2014. I think of Jesse Briggs and Jake Thomas… they were there from the get-go. There are times over those years when you ask yourself, ‘Is it ever going to happen?’
“But Coach O’Shea always said, ‘Whatever we experience during the season is what makes us better at the end.’ As much as we don’t like to learn from disappointment, that’s what makes us better.”
2. One more from Coach Hall, who has been around this great league since his rookie season in 1983 with the Calgary Stampeders.
“I really believe we’ll play next year,” he said. “I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but I do think we’ll play.
“You look at the progression made in other leagues, whether it’s basketball, hockey, baseball, football… they seemed to have found a way. Now we have a whole year, year and a half to plan. Now we have to make it work for the CFL.”
3. The Bombers were to be in Vancouver this week for the 17th game of the regular season. Matt Baker of bclions.com took the opportunity to look back at the playoff history between the two franchises in this well-done piece.
4. Another link from the fine folks at CFL.ca, as they continue their ‘Best in the League’ series with their sixth episode, highlighting the fastest players in the league. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of love for Lucky Whitehead. Check it out here.
5. I chatted with Bombers linebacker Shayne Gauthier this week and the 28-year-old Laval product spent part of the offseason – and this cancelled season – here in Winnipeg.
His fianceé is from Winnipeg and he’s now in an apprenticeship to be an electrician with Allco Electrical. He just started a month ago, and will be going to electrical school when he gets enough hours.
“I need to be prepared for having a career after football, so I decided to do this,” said Gauthier. “I’ve always liked doing construction work, whether it’s plumbing, electrical, carpentry or construction work. I like doing it because you see things progress… you start from nothing and then at the end you’ve made something like a building. You’re always moving forward on a project..
“When you play football as a career you have to get started on what you’re going to do after football because you know it’s not going to last forever. It was good for me to seize this opportunity and start something I like and make a living with it after my career. That’s what I’m trying to do right now.”
6. We passed on a link in last week’s First & 10 (Item #9) from americanfootballinternational.com where Thiadric Hansen – now playing in Poland with the Wroclaw Panthers – spoke of getting his first Pick-6 and the tips he got from Willie Jefferson, Jackson Jeffcoat and Craig Roh.
Catching up with Jefferson this week, I asked him if he had seen the story. He had done one better, to tell the truth.
“I actually watched the game,” said Jefferson this week from his home in Texas. “Me and T, we talk fairly often and I keep up with him on social media. He actually posted the link to watch that game and I just so happened to watch the game about 10 minutes before (the Pick-6).
“He’s one of the bigger names in that league and for that team. So, when I was sitting there watching it and I saw him drop into coverage, get an interception and take it for a touchdown I was like, ‘Man, I can’t wait to see what the next step is going to be for him.’ I’m glad to see him overseas still playing ball and doing what he loves to do.”
7. Jefferson spoke extensively about the specific tip he gave Hansen that helped lead to the Pick-6 – if you can’t get to the quarterback, or are dropping into coverage to study his eyes, etc. – and so I asked him if he would consider coaching after his playing days are over.
“It’ll come if it comes,” said Jefferson. “But I’ve always been a student of the game. I like to soak up things and if I can share to other players, my teammates or kids coming up in the game it’s just like second nature for me. I’m always talking. I love sharing my knowledge of the game and for him to remember something like that or for that to stick in his head and for him to say what he said about me, Jackson and Craig and how we helped him was crazy.”
8. I sat in this week on a CFL-sponsored media call with University of Virginia receiver Terrell Jana, a Vancouver, B.C. product and the third-ranked prospect on the CFL’s 2021 Scouting Bureau released a few weeks ago.
He’s an impressive young man and his explanation, when asked near the end of the session, as to why he didn’t wear a name plate on the back of his jersey is remarkable.
UVA recently opened the Enslaved Labor Memorial, a tribute to the slave labourers and workers who helped build the university.
“At the Memorial, when I went there I noticed that people had no last names,” Jana said. “They either had no last names or they had them, but they weren’t important enough to document. For me to experience that, to walk through it, the last names carries so much. It carries tradition, culture, family. I feel a lot of pride in my last name and who it represents.
“Thinking about having your last name taken away from you, it just broke my heart. Seeing these names and knowing forever that their own story couldn’t he told… those ties they have were broken. It was hard to look at, hard to think about. In my own way I thought, ‘Okay, these people helped these workers build this school. I’m standing on their shoulders and the people that fought for the rights of African Americans. I stand on their shoulders.
“My thing is, when I go out there no name was a way to pay tribute and homage to them. UVA, the symbol of Virginia… when you think about it, Thomas Jefferson is the history of UVA. No matter what, who I am, people see who it represents. I represent Thomas Jefferson on (the front of his jersey). On my back, I represent those people who have been forgotten.”
The young man has game is second in UVA in receiving with 22 catches for 243 yards and a TD.
9. I was drawn into an interesting Twitter feed on Thursday that began with a photo Fred Biletnikoff in a Montreal Alouettes jersey from the early 1980s.
We all loved Montreal Alouettes legend Fred Biletnikoff. pic.twitter.com/dRlsv74FcM
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) October 22, 2020
I replied with a photo of Vince Ferragamo in an Als’ jersey and TSN’s Dave Naylor jumped in with this:
— David William Naylor (@TSNDaveNaylor) October 22, 2020
Dave built on that trend on Friday, and later in the day posted a list of 42 players who have appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. That list is in his thread, here.
10. And, finally, a wonderful read here from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Dennis Anderson on Vikings and Bombers legend Bud Grant and his passion for hunting. Grant, for the record, is now 93 and his first quote from the piece says a lot about his perspective:
“I love every minute of this,” Grant said as he settled into an area in Western North Dakota. “Just to be here is enjoyable.”