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Blue's McManus loves challenge of new gig

Hall of Famer has natural feel for Canadian game

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Assistant GM Danny McManus at Blue Bombers' training camp Tuesday.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Assistant GM Danny McManus at Blue Bombers' training camp Tuesday. Photo Store

It wouldn't have shown up anywhere on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers' training camp practice film.

But let the record show one of the most-impressive passes thrown through the early days of camp was an absolutely perfect spiral that covered 50 yards after simple a flick of a 48-year-old ex-quarterback's wrist.

Yes, Danny McManus can still chuck it.

And having witnessed the toss, it as only natural the question that would follow:

Think you still have one TD drive left in that arm of yours?

"One drive? Yes... but it would cost somebody a case of beer," said McManus with a chuckle on a perfect sun-soaked third day of Bombers training camp. "I could still get you one. But I won't get hit in that drive. I promise you that."

It's somehow seems right, seeing McManus back in Bombers colours again at training camp. After all, this is where it all started for the Canadian Football Hall of Famer some 24 years ago when the younger, slightly less rotund former Florida State star first came north to Winnipeg.

"That was a l-o-o-o-n-g time ago," McManus recalled. "I didn't know what I was coming up to and, honestly, I didn't know where Winnipeg was when they told me to come up.

"Coach (Mike) Riley and Cal (Murphy) said they'd like to have me come up and work out. We weren't sure who the starting quarterback was going to be because when camp started it was myself, Sammy Garza and Lee Saltz. None of us must have done that well during camp, because near the end of it they made the trade for Tom (Burgess).

"Actually, that worked out well. I learned a lot from Tom and watching how tough he was in the pocket and it gave me the luxury from not being thrown in there too early."

Coincidentally, McManus' last game as a Bomber was the 1992 Grey Cup loss to the Calgary Stampeders when he relieved an ineffective Matt Dunigan in the second half of a 24-10 loss. But even though he went on to lead the B.C. Lions, Edmonton Eskimos and Hamilton Tiger-Cats to the championship game -- winning with the Leos in '94 and the Ticats in '99 -- and finished his career with the Stamps, you always remember your first club.

"I still have my jersey from when I played here, my No. 4," said McManus. "And the only Grey Cup ring I brought up here was the one from '90. I left the others back home.

"It's nice to come back. Some of the areas I used to live in have changed, the stadium has completely changed. I remember my locker was just a chair in a dingy special-teams meeting room. Now you walk into this locker- room and it's beautiful. The guys have everything they need. That's progress."

A small confession here: Danny McManus has always been one of my all-time faves in 25 years around this league. Sure, he could pitch it and he was a winner. But he never took himself too seriously. He's a Hall of Famer for what he did on the field, but is still regarded as one of the CFL's best ambassadors because he loved getting out to mingle with the league's faithful.

True story that speaks of the man's popularity: At the 2002 Grey Cup, yours truly ran into McManus exiting the washroom at the Spirit of Edmonton. Inside, there was a fully-grown man in a McManus jersey beaming.

"Can you believe it?," the fan exclaimed. "I just peed beside Danny McManus. How cool is that?"

"Those fans pay our salaries," said McManus. "Nobody ever wanted to go to the Grey Cup if they weren't in it. I always went. I told guys, 'Don't stay for the game if you don't want, but the Grey Cup is like our annual convention.' I started to drag more and more guys out with me. Football's a game, but there's more to life than it."

All of which is an interesting statement, coming from a guy who has made a career in the game.

He retired in 2007 and spent that season working with TSN as an analyst. A year later he was a guest coach with the Ticats and was added as a consultant to help then-Hamilton offensive co-ordinator Marcel Bellefeuille. That gig turned into a regional scouting position, then the Ticats head U.S. scout to his current job as the Bombers assistant GM and director of U.S. scouting.

And if it's true -- as some have suggested -- the quality of import talent in Bombers' camp looks better than in years past, it's in part because of the doors that open for the former FSU star and the network he's built in the game.

"I used to talk to Ron Lancaster a lot when I was playing about what the next step was after football," said McManus. "I wanted to find out about management and personnel. I kept asking him questions and then got the opportunity to work for Bob O'Billovich.

"It's a challenge now to try and find that player that a coach is looking for. I love it. It's one thing to watch a guy and judge his speed and height and what he does with a football. But you don't really know what's inside a guy's chest until he's up here between the white lines. Before that, I talk to coaches, people in the game, high-school guidance counsellors... anybody to try and find out.

"It's like being a detective. And, with all the miles I've put on, sometimes it also feels like I'm a glorified truck driver."

McManus laughs at this point, which he did a lot during his playing days and still does to this day. He's carved out a fine life in football, almost all of it in the CFL, that really began over two decades ago when his plane first touched down in Winnipeg.

"I fell in love in this league from the moment I first came up here," he said. "And after I was up here I never even thought about trying the NFL again (he spent 1988 with the Kansas City Chiefs). I've enjoyed this league, but I've always enjoyed the people more. It's something to be able to sit down and have a beer and talk football with fans. And it started here in Winnipeg," added McManus, with a grin, "because there are a lot of good places to have beers in this town."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 4, 2014 D2

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