The season is still months away, but Winnipeg Blue Bombers long-snapper Chris Cvetkovic is already preparing to tackle one of the most important challenges of his career.
It has nothing to do with his unique ability to rocket a football with laser-like accuracy between his legs to one of the kickers on the local Canadian Football League squad.
It has everything to do with his dogged determination to help Canadian Forces veterans struggling with the nightmare of post-traumatic stress disorder.
But we'll get to that in a moment. First, a little background.
For Cvetkovic -- a father of two and, at 35, the oldest player on the Bombers -- helping others comes as naturally as slamming his 6-1, 235-pound body into opposing lineman on the gridiron.
Don't let the rest of the CFL in on this secret, but this special teams expert and Hamilton native, entering his 10th season with the Blue and Gold, is a bit of a softie.
When he isn't on a football field or in the gym, he's helping raise money for the fight against cancer, visiting up to six schools a week with an anti-bullying program, promoting literacy and lending his voice to a provincial campaign to inspire Manitobans to speak out against domestic violence.
But, perhaps more than anything, Cvetkovic has a long-standing love affair with animals, especially dogs. That's why last year he founded Cvet's Pets, a volunteer-run, non-profit group dedicated to helping raise cash and awareness for Manitoba's animal rescue programs.
Since last February, Cvet's Pets has helped raise more than $25,000. "It's simple -- I do it because I love animals," Cvetkovic explains recently over lunch. "To me, it's about lending a voice to those who can't speak."
In January, Cvetkovic and a group of CFL buddies -- Bombers QB Buck Pierce, former Bombers Ian Logan and Brady Browne, Toronto Argonauts' Andre Durie, Calgary Stampeders' Jabari Arthur and Saskatchewan Roughriders' Chris Getzlaf -- spent a week in Mexico working at a volunteer spay and neuter clinic.
In the Cancun area, he noted, there are more than two million stray animals roaming the streets, compared with about a million human residents. "It was jarring," Cvetkovic recalled. "They're everywhere -- on rooftops, on top of vans. You're blown away by the extent of the problem.
"In five days, the volunteer vets at the clinic spayed and neutered 1,327 dogs and cats. We pulled starving dogs and cats off the streets, administered anesthetic, prepared the animals for surgery, helped with the breathing tubes, cleaned their wounds, picked ticks out of their ears... The only thing we didn't do was surgery."
When he returned home, along with a renewed sense of commitment, Cvetkovic brought back Lobo, an emaciated boxer-terrier cross puppy that now lives the good life along with his two other rescue dogs, Cody and Jersey.
"When you saw Lobo before, he was just ribs and hips," the snapper with a sharp sense of humour says, chowing down on a salad. "He was kind of bug-eyed. Now he's awesome. He's just like any other dog."
Then, at a Super Bowl party in February, Cvetkovic met an Air Force employee who told him about a program that would let Cvet's Pets kill two birds with one stone -- helping animals and traumatized veterans at the same time.
In a heartbeat, he decided to throw his weight behind Courageous Companions, a made-in-Manitoba project that provides specially trained service dogs for free to veterans struggling with PTSD and other disabilities.
The canine project was launched eight years ago by MSAR, a non-profit organization whose volunteer members conduct search and rescue operations on Manitoba First Nations and train service dogs for almost every duty imaginable.
"All the dogs come from shelters," Cvetkovic noted. "These are dogs that nobody wanted. They are amazing dogs. The dogs have a calming effect on traumatized veterans. I know there has been a reduction in suicides. It's that unconditional love.
"These are people that gave a lot to our country and now it's our turn to give back and serve them."
Capt. George Leonard, search commander and master trainer with MSAR, formerly known as the Manitoba Search and Rescue Association, launched Courageous Companions in 2005 after meeting a Manitoba veteran crippled by PTSD.
Since then, MSAR has placed 70 service dogs with veterans in Canada and the U.S., including 21 in Manitoba.
The vast majority of the dogs -- trained to help with every kind of disability from autism and dementia to serious depression -- are rescued from animal shelters. They are trained by volunteers, a process that typically takes at least a year and can cost in excess of $100,000, Leonard says. The program receives no government funding.
"There's no charge to the veterans of any kind," the master trainer stressed. "We've even had recent requests from the U.K. We're not going to turn away a NATO ally."
He said a service dog can literally mean the difference between life and death for traumatized veterans.
"With PTSD, you withdraw into your own little world. A lot of guys attempt suicide. The dog builds a bond with the person. It starts pulling them out of the darkness. It changes their life. The dogs keep them in the here and now, so they don't have any flashbacks."
About a year ago, a Manitoba veteran, at the end of his rope, was sitting in a local Tim Hortons, writing a suicide note, when, by sheer accident, a family with an MSAR service dog trained to help their autistic child came into the coffee shop.
The vet and the service dog locked eyes. The desperate man struck up a conversation with the family, who told him about Courageous Companions.
"He called me the same day and now he has one of our dogs," Leonard explained. "He had been planning to take his own life that night. He's doing much better now. The timing couldn't have been better."
He said having Cvet's Pets and a squad of CFL stars -- Bombers Pierce, Kito Poblah and Carl Volny, Edmonton's Don Oramasionwu and Eddie Steele, Saskatchewan's Joe Lobendahn and B.C.'s Andrew Harris -- join his pack is a blessing. "That's huge for us," he said with delight. "I can focus on training and not worry about other things."
For Cvetkovic, the goal is to raise cash and awareness for Courageous Companions. But Job No. 1 is to cover the cost of the $300 "starter kits" that are given to every veteran who receives a service dog.
The kits contain everything from a kennel and a dog bed to collars, leashes and dog dishes. Eventually, the longtime Bomber hopes his organization can also pick up the costs of adopting the shelter dogs trained by MSAR.
"A lot of people are in the dark about this program," Cvetkovic said. "I know I was. I think a lot more people need to know about this. And I want to absorb some of their costs. This is a national issue. We're helping veterans across the country."