WYMAN: Grey Cup drought-busting Bombers a special group of football players
CALGARY — First it was the Boston Red Sox, then the Chicago Cubs, and now the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have finally broken free from a franchise-defining championship drought.
While the Red Sox famously went 86 years between World Series titles and the Cubs one-upped them with a 108-year gap, the Bombers 28-season drought is comparable because they play in a nine-team league.
That’s why you saw such unbridled joy, so many tears, so much pure, raw emotion in the players on Sunday after the Bombers beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 33-12 to win the Grey Cup for the first time since 1990.
They carried the weight of a city’s hopes and dreams and they delivered, spectacularly, with a championship for the ages.
They did something people like Matt Dunigan, Khari Jones, Doug Brown, Milt Stegall and Charles Roberts couldn’t do. They finally got the world’s biggest silverback gorilla off their backs and they did it by winning two playoff games on the road and beating the league’s top regular-season team in the championship game.
What made this team so special?
Players used words like heart, belief and grit.
Perhaps receiver Drew Wolitarsky said it best.
“We have some of the best energy I’ve ever felt in my life,” the 24-year-old national player said on the field as the Bombers celebrated their victory.
“We have something greater than football on this team.
“I have a quote, and excuse my French, but it’s ‘f— logic.’ Out here, logic doesn’t matter. It’s about who you’ve got, what kind of mentality you’ve got, what kind of family you build. That’s what we’ve done here. F— logic.”
How wonderfully fitting it was that Andrew Harris and Nic Demski — two kids from Winnipeg’s Oak Park High School — were stars of the game. They put the Bombers and their home city on their shoulders and brought the Grey Cup home.
They combined to put up 236 yards and two touchdowns, willed their way to first downs, executed exceptionally in the biggest moment, on the biggest stage.
Could there be a more perfect way for such an epic drought to end?
“The city is goin’ off,” Harris said. “This is what they’ve been waiting for and asking for. And we were able to deliver. I know they’re very proud and very excited. We’re looking forward to enjoying that with them.”
Harris, Demski, fellow Winnipeggers Thomas Miles, Brady Oliveira and Geoff Gray, and the rest of the Bombers will get that chance Tuesday afternoon when a championship parade is held in downtown Winnipeg.
A whole generation of fans have never seen such a spectacle. Among the Winnipeggers on the team, only Harris was even born when the Bombers last won the title.
This will all be so new, so fresh, so positive for a city that has waited so long for something to celebrate.
“We will remember this, and each other, these moments, forever,” linebacker Adam Bighill said.
“We’ve been a family in that locker room all year. The guys who were here last year knew we were so close and we knew we had unfinished business. Sharing this with them means everything because it’s all about the journey getting to this moment.”
At the beginning of the season, the Bombers were considered Grey Cup favourites. They’d been a team on the rise for four years and came close to making it to the big game last year before losing in the West final to Calgary.
They started out 5-0 and were 8-2 before Labour Day, but there were cracks in the armour.
No. 1 quarterback Matt Nichols suffered a season-ending injury, Harris was suspended after a positive test for a performance-enhancing drug and big-name receiver Chris Matthews was released.
A 3-5 record in September and October, and a fall to third place in the West division, didn’t exactly inspire many followers to believe a Grey Cup run was possible.
But this wasn’t your average team.
“It’s not the adversity, it’s what you do with it, how you learn from it,” Bombers coach Mike O’Shea said. “These guys are great learners and they used every bit of it to get better. Sometimes not as quickly as I would have liked, but where we ended up, where we slotted in, and what we’ve done has been perfect.”
The turning point for this team came on Oct. 9, when general manager Kyle Walters made a deadline-beating trade to acquire quarterback Zach Collaros from the Toronto Argonauts.
A savvy veteran with a strong arm, Collaros turned out to be exactly what the Bombers needed and he put in a legendary performance, winning all four games he started and walking off with a Grey Cup.
The numbers for Collaros in his four starts: 66 of 98 pass attempts completed for 851 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. He completed eight passes of 30 yards or more, giving the Bombers offence a whole new dimension.
“Unreal,” offensive lineman Paddy Neufeld said. “He’s a competitor, a leader, a hell of a quarterback, a hell of a teammate. He brought us together and we came out champions with him.”
It’s entirely possible Collaros will play just the four games with the Bombers. He’s a free agent in February and the Argos have expressed interest in bringing him back. His family lives in the Toronto area.
But he will be remembered by Blue Bombers fans forever.
So will Nov. 24, 2019, the day a group of players from across Canada, the United States, even Germany and Mexico, put everything together at the perfect moment.
“You could tell it was gonna be something amazing right from the start of the season,” defensive end, and CFL most outstanding defensive player, Willie Jefferson said. “It was something we fought all year — the ups and downs, the adversity — fighting against all that, beating the odds. That’s what we do man, we fight and we keep fighting.”
All of this reflects back on O’Shea, who won his first Grey Cup as a head coach, in his sixth year at the helm of the Bombers.
You have to wonder if there’s any part of him that wants to sit back and reflect on this win and say “I’m the head coach who finally ended this almost three-decade drought.”
“Not one ounce of me,” O’Shea said.
“I think the city of Winnipeg, the diehard fans around the province, our Bombers fans that travel and are scattered around the country, they should feel a tremendous amount of pride for their team, and they do. I’m very happy for them. This is awesome.
“And the players. To be playing the biggest game of the year and to play your best football is very impressive. They certainly rose to the occasion and got after it. They should be extremely proud of that fact.”