November 17, 2023

O’Leary: Lawler seeks full circle moment at Grey Cup

Thomas Skrlj/

It hit a sunny 19 C in Paloma, CA on Friday. That’s a cool compromise from the summer months, where the temperature climbs and stays above 30 C from June through September.

Listening to Paloma’s own Kenny Lawler this week, it was surprising to hear his affinity for the Canadian prairies. In his media availability on Thursday, Lawler told reporters that he wanted to live in Canada year-round.

“There’s no place I’d rather be. I tell a lot of people this: it’s home. I truly do believe that. I stay here full-time in Canada.”

Consider that Lawler’s Canadian experience consists of three years spent in Winnipeg and the 2022 season in Edmonton. Both cities dole out brutally cold stretches of winter every year; it’s not a climate for the faint of heart or for someone that has California as an option when football season ends and the days get especially short.

The fair question here is simple: Why?

110th GREY CUP
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“Really, I didn’t have any understanding of the CFL, didn’t know what it was until it was time I had to go to the CFL.” Lawler said after the Bombers’ Friday practice at Tim Hortons Field. When he was having trouble sticking on an NFL roster, his agent suggested he look north. Injured in the BC Lions’ training camp in 2018, Lawler was cut but found his way to Winnipeg in September.

“As soon as I got here, people like these guys,” he said, pointing to offensive linemen Jermarcus Hardrick and Stanley Bryant, receiver Nic Demski and defensive back Brandon Alexander, who were all on the field being interviewed around him.

“All the veterans that have been there such a long time, took me under their wings. They see that a young kind from Paloma CA has some pretty good skills. They brought me in and taught me everything that the organization is about.”

Lawler arrived just in time for the Bombers’ 2019 Grey Cup win. In 2021, he emerged as an elite receiver, leading the league in the 14-game regular season with 1,014 yards and six touchdowns, while doubling his Grey Cup ring count. He left in free agency that winter, signing a substantial contract with the Edmonton Elks. After a 2022 season that was thin on wins and over far too early for his liking, Lawler sacrificed some of that big paycheque for a free agency return to the Bombers.

When Bombers’ head coach Mike O’Shea heard that he could get his former No. 1 receiver back and line him up with 2022 Most Outstanding Rookie Dalton Schoen, he and GM Kyle Walters’ eyes lit up.

“He’s widely considered as the best receiver in the CFL, right?” O’Shea told reporters on Thursday. “So you love to add a piece like that.”

And Lawler desperately wanted to be added. It was a one-year grass-is-greener situation for him in Edmonton, where the Elks have been trying to build toward something that Walters, O’Shea and the Bombers have established. Lawler said that from a brotherhood feel, the CFL brought back his best memories of high school. For him back then, that meant playing alongside kids he’d grown up with in Paloma, with bonds forged through time and football that made them feel inseparable from one another.

“The love that I feel that’s in the locker room, especially when I got to Winnipeg, was the same thing,” he said. “The boys knew everything about one another, they loved one another. I didn’t really experience the real family-oriented team since high school until I got to Winnipeg,” he said.

“Coach O’Shea does a great job of implementing family. Your brother, the love for one another. He emphasizes that. That’s basically what it is here, guys hanging out. We’re eating dinner together, we’re just doing a lot of things together. The vets do a great job of doing that, whether it’s hosting the position groups at someone’s house, going out to eat, whatever it is. That’s what plays into Winnipeg and what makes it so special.”

If the receiving corps is a brotherhood, they’ve missed a big piece of the group of late, in Schoen. The 27-year-old hasn’t seen the field since the Bombers’ win over BC in Week 18 and has been sidelined with an ankle injury. Ahead of the 110th Grey Cup on Sunday, Schoen is listed on the team’s injury report as doubtful to play.

If Schoen can’t suit up, Lawler could become the focus of the passing game. With 904 yards on 50 catches with six touchdowns, Lawler has seen his totals come down this year as part of his return to this powerhouse Bombers’ lineup. It’s a cut he’s taken in exchange for that day-to-day happiness. If he’s needed more or looked to more by Zach Collaros on Sunday, he’ll be ready.

More than anything, after a year away from the environment that he’s grown to love so much, he just wants to help his teammates reclaim the Grey Cup that they lost in heartbreaking fashion a year ago in his absence.

“(It’d be) kind of a full circle moment for me,” Lawler said of what a third Grey Cup win would mean for him.

“Reflecting on my journey and where I was in 2019 winning my first Grey Cup, 2021 winning another one and then having to go a year-and-a-half to endure a lot of problems. Just a lot of losses. More losses than I had in that year then my career. It was tough but one thing that it taught me is to persevere.

“It showed so much that Winnipeg said, ‘We want you back here.’ This is a full circle moment for me. This is where I want to be as a professional going into my third Grey Cup with guys that I love, that I consider my brothers. This is everything.”

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