"Man," James West said, smacking the table at a Fort Garry hotel and cracking a grin. "Can you imagine us playing there back in thsoe days, when we had that team?"
In that moment, the iconic Winnipeg Blue Bombers linebacker was holding court on the sound of Investors Group Field, the way it amplifies the roar of Winnipeg crowds. He saw it in action back in November, when he and some of his old teammates got a tour of the new digs during the 25th anniversary reunion of their 1988 Grey Cup-winning team.
Tonight, West will return to the stadium, where he is set to be roasted at the Winnipeg Rifles' annual fundraising dinner. His teammates Chris Walby and Rod Hill will do the roasting honours -- "they have no idea what they're getting ready to face," West chuckled. A chance to remember what was, and smile over what could have been.
"Man, we just could really see ourselves playing in that stadium," West added. "That place would be rocking, you wouldn't even be able to get a ticket for years. If we would have been that team, at this time, in this stadium... we already had the best fans in the CFL. They would have been raucous in there, they would have been encouraging, and it would have made us play even better."
Oh, that sounds like a scene from a Bombers fan's dream. To put it delicately, fans have been waiting awhile to see another team like the ones West helped lead, those ferocious squads that snapped up two Grey Cup rings. The ones that burned to win and usually did.
"When training camp started, we already knew we were going into the playoffs," he said. "Anything short of that, we were wasting our time... You didn't see no laughter in our locker- room after a loss. We hated losing."
Well, West is 56 now, with nine grandchildren -- old enough, he laughed, to be a father to any Bomber today. Still, it's hard to believe he's been retired for almost 20 years.Other than the salt and pepper in his stubble, West looks as if he could squeeze his 6-2 frame right back into a Blue and Gold uniform.
"If I suited up today, you'll really see bad," he laughed. "I left it all on the field. I got nothin' left."
Nothing except his booming personality, that is. It's served him well, in his post-playing career. Today, West works with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, motivating young players on and off the field. From his home in Atlanta, he watched the Bombers struggle over so many of those seasons -- "my heart still beats Bomber blue," he said -- and mused, as fans did, about what was missing.
"Sometimes you gotta look back, before you can move forward," West said. "Some people don't know the history of what happened here in Winnipeg. We have always been winners in this city."
As for what made West's teams winners, he pointed to accountability. Those teams were tight, he said, and did everything together. If someone brought an attitude that dragged the team down, West recalled, the players pushed him out. If there were discipline problems, the team took care of it themselves.
"Myself and Lyle Bauer appointed ourselves the captains of the football team and had no argument," West said. "Can somebody say, 'I'm the captain, and everybody follow me?'
"If you don't have nobody on the team then this team's gonna be the same it's been for the last few years. If you have nobody to follow, you have no direction."
There is a cautious sort of optimism that now beams over the new Bombers regime, West is shining some of that light, too.
"I think they're going to do a really good job," he said, praising the addition of assistant GM Danny McManus and head coach Mike O'Shea. "I respected him as a player. And he has a good temperament. He's the type of person who can probably give this team a kick in the butt, and still come back and love 'em at the same time."