It's not often in this line of work that you get to spend the better part of a decade being teammates with the same player. Though there are more than 50 players on a professional football team in the CFL, average careers are less than four years and in conjunction with free agency, trades, cuts, and injuries, to spend 10 years with anybody is unusual and happens infrequently.
Jon Oosterhuis and I had a strange association as teammates from the get-go. Back in 2001, Calgary traded my rights to Winnipeg for first- and third-round draft picks and in 2002, the Stampeders selected Jon with that first-round pick (eighth overall) out of the University of New Hampshire. Later that same year, he was snatched from the Stampeder practice squad and put on our active roster, which essentially meant that the Bombers only ended up giving up a third-round pick to acquire my rights and got a non-import, unheralded contributor in Jon to boot. Brendan Taman still considers this one of his slickest personnel napkin moves of all time.
Through our time together in Winnipeg, where we were locker-room neighbours and road roommates, we won and lost many a game together, hosted playoff contests and went to the Grey Cup. He sequestered himself in the bathroom of our hotel room and slept in the bathtub when I was breaking up with my now ex-fiancée. He always saved a chair next to him in our team meeting room for me, and he unwillingly gave me full access to the toiletries in his locker. Jon has been my moral compass and sounding board on countless occasions, and when I couldn't get my garage door open to make it to practice one day, he was the player I called who came over and freed me from the trappings of my own house without hesitation.
To fully appreciate the kind of impact a player like Jon Oosterhuis has on an organization, and in the community, though, we need to better examine the words selfless and unsung.
This community-owned football team has a lot of players on it that do an extraordinary amount of charitable work, but a lot of these deeds are initiated by the football club and recognized and rewarded in the press. Sometimes our involvement is mainly superficial, where our names end up carrying most of the weight and our expenses are almost always covered. Jon is the type of person that involves himself in activities and charitable causes on his own accord that bring him little or no recognition. He simply does good things for the good of doing them.
For instance, you probably didn't know that Jon volunteered as a Big Brother for years, taking high-risk kids out on his own time and dime, and also that he volunteers to coach the defensive line on the junior varsity football team at St. Paul's High School. Jon was never the highest-profile player, so his good deeds in the community weren't as publicized as a Milt Stegall or a Khari Jones, but that never impeded his efforts. The dictionary tells us that being selfless means "having little concern for one's own interests" and unsung can be defined as "not praised or acclaimed." That is Jon Oosterhuis' legacy as a professional football player in Winnipeg, always putting everyone's interests ahead of his own and expecting nothing from anyone in return.
Buck Pierce and Chris Cvetkovic have already come out and said that the reason they are in the best shape of their lives going into this season is because they trained with Jon. For the last four years of his career here, in the off-season he would go from working nights at the airport straight to the stadium at eight in the morning for a gruelling workout with our athletic therapist and whatever in-town guys that showed up. Some players require workout clauses or constant prodding just to get them to go through an off-season conditioning program when they have nothing else to do. Jon would work through the night clearing snow at the airport and show up at the gym at the end of his shift because he cared that much about his craft.
Free Press sports writer Ed Tait, who covered the Bombers for 20 years, called Oosterhuis a 'glue' guy because what he does to help a team stick together is immeasurable.
In the decade that Jon had his locker next to mine, I never knew him to have a riff with another player. Of course he has taken issue with other athletes, but he always managed to keep his opinions to himself and be the consummate teammate. Whether he was on the defensive line or working as a fullback or a tight end, in the nine training camps I participated with him he never got in a fight with another player.
As hard as he played, studied and practised, he was just too good of a guy to ever take exception with anybody. This 2011 season will not be the same without him.
Doug Brown, a hard-hitting defensive tackle with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and even harder-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays in the Winnipeg Free Press.