If Jovon Johnson and Jonathan Hefney have decided it's time to grow up, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers just might have something special going this season.
If not, this football club could be in for a belly full of trouble.
They are talented, precocious, enthusiastic and ambitious. If they have come to the personal decision it's time to be more than players with shiny stats, they can keep the Bombers moving forward and help prevent the backslide many are expecting.
Johnson and Hefney are pretty good football players. Maybe the two best defenders in all of the CFL. But are they leaders? Men capable of driving the Bombers from within the locker room? Evidence from this past winter would suggest differently. However, both players say they are ready to move forward and carry the weight of leadership and not merely pay it lip service.
"I've talked to them about it. We want them to be leaders on the team and we've voiced that. I think that assessment is exactly right and hopefully they'll understand that and mature and grow into the leadership role we expect of them," said Bombers GM Joe Mack. "The fact that both of them are reporting to a voluntary mini-camp is a good sign. Having them here is important and sends a good message. It's a process for everyone. I would hope Jonathan and Jovon would take some things back that they said this off-season. We extended Jovon so that shows that we want him here and he wants to be here. My conversations with Jonathan have been along the lines of we need him to be a leader and he understands that. They're both very respected in the locker room for the passion they bring to the game. I hope this has been a learning experience and they build on it to become leaders with our team."
Hefney and Johnson took to Twitter this off-season to grind personal axes with management. Maybe they were just saying what many of their teammates were thinking but it was immature and destructive to the collective. Both have said as much and have promised to consider what's best for the team before acting out in the future. Good start but forgive us if we take a wait and see attitude.
"When you look at our locker room, me and Hefney are two of the most well-known guys on the team and I definitely think it's time for us to step up and take on that role," said Johnson, who along with Hefney was scheduled to arrive in Winnipeg on Tuesday for the Bombers mini-camp. "It's time for us to be more vocal and lead with our attitudes."
Were these the final slips en route to maturity as players and locker room boss men or were they a window into character flaws that will prevent their ascension into a realm of play and guidance that results in a Grey Cup?
For me that's the biggest question of the year for the Bombers. Can Hefney and Johnson do more than just put up numbers and talk a good game on TSN? Can they tackle the challenges of leadership and not just opposing ball carriers.
"We both got ourselves into some trouble this winter. As a leader you have to realize what you do can impact everyone and you have to stay away from things that can hurt the organization," said Johnson, now 28 and entering his sixth CFL season. "The guys that younger players look up to and follow don't get themselves caught up in those situations. Jonathan and I are both emotional guys but we understand we have to control our emotions. We need to set an example. Me and Hef get that. We're two of the most-respected guys in the league and we need to live up to that."
Football is the ultimate team game but every great club has elite players that don't just say the right things but do them as well. These two defenders are in position to have positive impact on this team. Will they? It's up to them.
"Guys are going to be taking shots at our heads because we made it to the Grey Cup last season. For me, I've put in so much work this off-season to be ready. I want to lead on the field. That interception title, I want that to be mine. I want to accomplish a lot as an individual and as a team. That's why I work hard. Hopefully other players follow that lead," said Hefney, 27, who's entering his fourth season with the Bombers. "I'm trying to stay out of trouble. People watch every move. I've been getting watched for a long time. People have been watching me since I started hitting home runs as a nine-year-old. I just want to stay in a positive light. I don't want to tear my character or reputation up."
There are any number of ways for things to go right or wrong for the Bombers this season but the surest bets among the bunch are Johnson and Hefney. All-star seasons are the expectation and anything less will be a disappointment where these two are concerned.
The Blue Bombers underwent lots of change this past winter and will enter this season with an offence that must be viewed as questionable. The constant underpinning the Bombers is their defence and Johnson and Hefney are the keys.
Johnson was the CFL's Most Outstanding Defensive player last season and an argument could have been made that Hefney's year was even better. They're good. No question.
But they can also be selfish, petulant and divisive.
They need to move past that as players. If they do, then can be the foundation for this team and the Bombers can expect big dividends. If they don't? That belly full of trouble could grow from a little case of heartburn to a screaming ulcer.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @garylawless
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