REGINA — One has an axe to grind, while the other just wants to chop away.
For defensive end Odell Willis and linebacker Joe Lobendahn, two important members of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers defence in 2011, facing their former team as Saskatchewan Roughriders in the annual Labour Day Classic Sunday (3 p.m., TSN, CJOB) is about proving something. If you recall, both were jettisoned from the Blue and Gold during the off-season under different circumstances — one was traded, one was released outright — making for an interesting reunion on the field at Mosaic Stadium this afternoon.
"It’s going to be exciting, real exciting," Willis said after the Riders walkthrough Saturday. "Old friends, old acquaintances, just looking for a good ol’ slugfest."
Willis, who had a league-best 13 sacks last year, was flipped over to the Riders in March for draft picks. Already on notice after he made some noise that he didn’t want to be in Vancouver for the Grey Cup, Willis and GM Joe Mack didn’t see eye-to-eye on his contract situation over the winter and his future in Manitoba went cold.
"I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a chip on my shoulder," Willis added.
For the record, the 27-year-old said he didn’t ever want to leave Winnipeg.
"No sir. I was prepared to come back for another year and play full-go," said Willis, who has a team-leading four sacks this season. "Once they told me the terms of the CBA and the contract, I was ready to go play. I got a lot of friends I care about over there; I was ready to go rock out with them for another year. Unfortunately, they got rid of me, which was a business decision.
"Next chapter in life, life goes on. Now I’m in Riderville."
While Willis was ready to rumble against his former employer — no doubt he’ll be buzzing in the early stages of the game — a more reserved Lobendahn met questions from the Winnipeg media though a different filter. Injuries have forced him to step into the middle of the Riders defence after just three days of practice, a tall order the player feels he’s ready to tackle.
"I’m always fired up, it doesn’t matter who I’m playing," said Lobendahn, who was with the Bombers for four seasons before being released prior to training camp. "It’s just a coincidence that I’m playing my old team. I’m excited to get back on the field. Last year was last year. I just got some unfinished business and I just can’t wait."
That unfinished business Lobendahn speaks of has nothing to do with proving a point to the Bombers or showing them they made a mistake, he says. For the 29-year-old, his motivation is internal. Being helped off the field during the Banjo Bowl after another torn ACL (his third tear in the same knee) neutered a terrific 2011 season, one that saw him register 32 tackles, two sacks, one interception, three fumble recoveries and two defensive player of the week awards.
Building off a strong training camp with Calgary, the knee is 100 per cent now, he says.
"I still have a lot of love for the game," Lobendahn said. "When I got released I was hurt, but the thing is I moved on in life.
"I’m just excited to get back on the field and prove... I proved myself already... it’s just that I want to play football again. I want to go out there and hit somebody," he added. "That’s what I do best. You guys know that, when I was in Winnipeg, I (went) out there and played my best, threw my body into everybody, and that’s what I’m going to do (Sunday)."
Riders head coach Corey Chamblin said the veteran linebacker will play in all first-down situations and on special teams, so Lobendahn doesn’t take on too much in his first regular-season game of the year.