December 13, 2013 Sections
Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Marcel BELLEFEUILLE might just have the toughest job in the entire CFL -- turning around the moribund Winnipeg Blue Bombers offence.
But the good news for Bombers fans is if Bellefeuille actually pulls it off, it will only be the second-hardest thing he's ever done.
The first hardest thing? Well, that's a tale of long odds and redemption that begins with Bellefeuille growing up in a public housing project, the son of desperately poor teen parents and surrounded by drugs and violence.
Yes, it turns out the French-Canadian guy with the poetic surname -- 'Pretty Leaf,' if your French is rusty -- has the kind of backstory you usually only hear in the CFL from American players with roots in the Deep South.
And it begins, appropriately enough, in Ottawa, which -- like the American capital in Washington, D.C. -- has the shame of hiding some of our country's most gripping poverty behind all those shiny taxpayer-funded national edifices.
"I grew up in the projects in a neighbourhood called Heatherington, which is a little off the beaten trail. It was public housing, probably about 240 units," Bellefeuille said following Bombers practice Thursday.
"And we were a very young family. I was the first-born -- my mom was 15 and my dad was 17. Four years later, there were four of us -- four kids, two parents. And my mom was still just 19."
That, of course, is a recipe for dysfunction. But Bellefeuille, 46, said he and his siblings enjoyed one critical advantage few of his neighbours had.
"We had both parents still together and working, whereas just about everyone in that area was single-parent families," he said.
"And you'd see the residuals of all those single-parent families all the time. I had a friend two doors over who died of an overdose, there was a murder across the street that I witnessed when I was young..."
"I was 11," he said. "I was coming home from the store one day and one of the neighbours shot his spouse. He ran out in the street and chased her down and, you know, shot her. We were just coming around the corner and we saw what was happening and just took a hard right when we realized what was going on."
If Bellefeuille sounds matter of fact about the episode, it's because it was kind of matter of fact, he said.
"If this happened today, you'd hear all these stories about the community coming together. But this was the late '70s and this stuff just happened in the projects and people got on with it... We knew those people, too -- banging on their door at Halloween, that kind of thing."
With both parents working -- his father was a furniture mover, his mother a waitress -- the job of shepherding his younger siblings quickly fell to Bellefeuille.
"Being the oldest I had responsiblities -- making lunches, being around when they came home from school, all that type of thing. And it helped me, helped me be a leader," he said.
Maybe, but did you ever get a chance to be a kid?
"I don't know," he said. "I always kind of hung around with older kids. I was always the youngest person in the room"
With his parents determined to see their children see another life, Bellefeuille said they were shipped to a school in a different Ottawa neighborhood. The poverty was less gripping in that school, Bellefeuille recalled, but riding a city bus at the age of eight was not without its own challenges.
"I matured early," he said. "But my parents were the example because they had to mature early. They had a lot of stresses, financial stresses, raising kids and not knowing how to do it -- they were basically kids raising kids."
And yet, in what must surely be one of the more remarkable marriages in this country, the Bellefeuilles recently celebrated their 47th anniversary despite the fact they're both barely in their 60s.
"I asked my mom how they did it one time and she said we had one rule, 'You never walk out the door no matter how bad it got. One simple rule -- you can't walk out no matter how hot it gets because eventually it will get resolved,' " he said.
Those qualities of perseverance and hard work would serve Bellefeuille well. Despite a small 5-8 frame and partly because there were no equipment costs, Bellefeuille chose football as his sport and excelled as a defensive back, first in high school and then later at the University of Ottawa.
"Sports was a driving force for me. That's what drove my grades -- because I wanted to play football. And not only did it teach me other things, sports also put me in front of different kids from different neighbourhoods and exposed me to a different way.
"It gave me a different picture -- that my norm wasn't the norm."
Having defied the odds to emerge from that kind of upbringing with a degree from the University of Ottawa, it was as though everything after that came easy for Bellefeuille.
A playing career in Europe was followed by, at age 31, Bellefeuille becoming among the youngest head coaches in CIS history. Three years later, in 2000, he won a Vanier Cup, which he then parlayed into a series of coaching jobs in the CFL, each building on the last until he was named the Hamilton Tiger-Cats head coach.
In one season, Bellefeuille turned a Hamilton team that had come off back-to-back 3-15 records in 2007 and 2008 into a 9-9 team in 2009 that hosted a playoff game. In 2010, the Ticats hosted another playoff game. In 2011, they won a wild semifinal shootout in Montreal to make it to the East final, where they lost to the Bombers.
And then the bottom fell out -- Bellefeuille was fired by Hamilton after the 2011 season and suddenly, for the first time in his professional life, had to deal with a setback.
It was a sobering moment.
"There's only a handful of people who get a university education coming out of the situation I was in," Bellefeuille said. "So when I did it, I felt like 'OK, if I can do this, I can do anything...
"I was having breakthroughs ever since I was a kid. I was like a stock that kept climbing and climbing and never declining. And now (after getting fired in Hamilton) suddenly my stock dropped and I had to ask myself, 'Why is my stock declining?' "
Instead of whining about it, Bellefeuille dusted himself off, got a job as an offensive co-ordinator in the UFL and used the extra time to do some consulting and write a book on leadership, Ten Discussions for Effective Leadership, with some old Ottawa friends. The book came out in the U.S. last January.
Which brings us to today. What started a couple of weeks ago as a simple consultants job to assist former Bombers OC Gary Crowton became the job itself when Crowton was fired.
So, in a lifetime of challenges, where does this one rank?
"In my professional career, this is my biggest challenge," said Bellefeuille. "Even more so than Hamilton because it's mid-stream and there's more layers as I get here that need to be developed and tooled.
"But I relish it. I've learned in my travels that if you do things for the right reasons, it will work out for you and for whoever you're trying to help."
today's bomber report C3
Marcel Bellefeuille's coaching bio
1995-97: Ottawa Gee-Gees (assistant)
1998-2000*: Gee Gees (head coach)
2001-02: Saskatchewan Roughriders (assistant: RBs/WRs)
2003-05: Roughriders (offensive co-ordinator)
2006: Montreal Alouettes (assistant: RBs/WRs)
2007: Alouettes (offensive co-ordinator)
2008: Hamilton Tiger-Cats (offensive co-ordinator)
2009-11: Tiger-Cats (head coach)
2012: Omaha Nighthawks, UFL (offensive co-ordinator)
2013: Winnipeg Blue Bombers (offensive co-ordinator)
* Won Vanier Cup
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 30, 2013 C1
Updated on Friday, August 30, 2013 at 7:01 AM CDT:
Changes headline, replaces photo, adds video
Updated on Friday, August 30, 2013 at 9:15 AM CDT:
adds missing word to headline