I am really going to miss Buck Pierce.
I admire the way he handles himself on the football field, his damn-the-torpedoes, full-steam-ahead style of play. Unlike most quarterbacks, he isn't afraid of getting hit by someone three times his size. He plays with reckless abandon, leading with his head and his heart.
More importantly, I think he's a real-life hero for the way he conducts himself off the field.
This soon-to-be 32-year-old quarterback -- whom the beleaguered Bombers shipped to B.C. this week for non-import receiver Akeem Foster -- never met a charity he wouldn't help or a cause he couldn't find time to support.
What with being a crusading columnist, I spend a lot of time eating free meals at charity events, but I couldn't hold a candle to Buck Pierce. (I'm not saying he ate a lot of free meals; I'm saying when he wasn't on the field, he was helping people who desperately needed help.)
When it comes to lending a hand -- hold on while I look up the appropriate phrase in the Journalist's Big Book of Clich©s -- he not only talks the talk, he walks the walk.
Before this season began, I joined Buck at a Canada Safeway store where we media types had gathered to decorate umbrellas to kick off the grocery giant's fundraising drive in support of SMD Foundation/Easter Seals Manitoba.
There was Buck, not only signing autographs for awe-struck shoppers, but bravely battling with glue and tape to festoon an umbrella with balloons, butterfly stickers, crepe paper, artificial flowers and hot-pink feather boas.
Even though I knew the answer, I asked him why a big-shot athlete would give up so much time to help his community.
Boa in hand, he laughed and said: "We should all be so lucky to come and do this. It's just as important to me as what I do on the football field. It's a chance to give back."
Not long ago, there he was going head to head with a gaggle of media personalities at a spaghetti-eating showdown in support of Winnipeg Harvest.
At a smoothie-making contest for charity last winter, there he was whipping up a concoction he dubbed Please Stop Snowing Outside, then standing around for an hour talking to fans, signing autographs and posing for photos.
In January, he and then-teammate Chris Cvetkovic, founder of the non-profit Cvet's Pets charity, along with a few other CFL buddies, quietly spent a week in Mexico working at a volunteer spay and neuter clinic, helping with operations on 1,327 dogs and cats they'd rescued from the streets.
There are a lot of stories like this. For instance, when the son of an old friend had a promising college career threatened by an injury, Buck, who knows a few things about being hurt, called to tell him that if he just kept fighting and believed in himself, everything would be OK. And it was.
When I visit a school for I Love to Read Month, the former No. 4 will have been there before me. The truth is, even before he arrived in Winnipeg, I was a rabid fan, because Buck spent his first five CFL seasons in B.C., where I grew up as a pudgy kid obsessed with the Lions.
When he was traded to Winnipeg after the 2009 season and a series of concussions, being a fanatical fan, I told anyone who'd listen the Bombers were getting an old-school guy who'd sacrifice himself to get a win.
I still believe that. During the years, other players have told me they'd walk through fire for Buck, because they knew that's what he'd do for them. Say what you will about the "Swaggerville" defence, the Bombers would not have had a sniff at the 2011 Grey Cup without his grit and determination.
I've met many professional athletes, but I've never met one as decent and down-to-earth as Buck. He's the guy who doesn't forget a name and instead of talking about himself, he'd rather hear how you're doing. When he scores a touchdown, he acts like he's been in the end zone before.
Scrawled on the back of my official B.C. Lions jersey is Buck's signature. He signed it at 6:30 a.m. one day when, fresh off a horrific injury, he showed up to flog newspapers on the street to raise money for children's literacy projects in Manitoba.
Regardless of where the rest of his career takes him, this is a guy who is always going to lead with his heart. And that's why I'm really going to miss Buck Pierce.