With a commitment to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers written in ink, Jason Vega walked out of the stadium on Monday ready to make a quieter announcement, one with a ring.
That night, in the mahogany embrace of 529 Wellington, the defensive end asked his girlfriend, Brittany, to be his wife. She's from Winnipeg, they met when he was playing here the first time, and so there too he is committing to putting down roots. For the record: she said yes.
"Everything's coming to a head in terms of me finding that I wanted to play here again," Vega said, before popping the question. "Me being back here with her, it's just growing up."
Growing up and settling down, or at least settling into his niche. Winnipeg is a good fit for Vega, 26, a Massachusetts kid who started his pro career here after graduating from Northeastern University. Undrafted by the NFL, the 6-4 defensive end signed on with the Bombers that 2011 season they made their run to the Grey Cup final. He was dynamite, often flat-out dominant, racking up 66 tackles and 12 sacks in 27 games, and the Bombers wanted to bring him back for 2013.
Instead, the doors to the NFL had edged open for Vega, and he pushed his way in, signing with the New England Patriots in January 2013. Despite turning some heads in training camp, Vega got banged up and was cut just before the season began. A week later, he signed with the Dallas Cowboys, and ended up figuring into a pair of games and notching a tackle in a win over Philadelphia before they let him go in late October.
On the plus side, he learned a lot from those 10 months in the NFL.
"More attention to detail," Vega said on Monday. "For better for worse, I tended to rely on ability... to try and do what I wanted to do. There, there was never enough you could do to get ready for the game, ready for the season and the off-season. It just kind of opened up my eyes to what I could be doing better to get prepared to play."
Through all of this, a few things remained constant. There was the support Vega had from Brittany, who stayed in Winnipeg as she worked towards her education degree. There were the memories he made those two seasons with the Bombers, the friends he still has on the team. When he decided to come back to Winnipeg, one of the first people he called was defensive colleague Bryant Turner Jr. So despite a pile of CFL offers, Vega knew he wanted to come back to the Bombers.
"I felt like this was my best opportunity," he said, and spoke of his interest in playing under the new Wade Miller-led regime. "I think it's in better hands now than it was, in terms of where they're going. I'm intrigued to see what happens."
And above all else, Vega added, there were the fans.
Of course, players always say that. But while Vega was plying the four-down trade, true-blue fans kept in touch on Twitter, asked if he'd ever return to Winnipeg. On the day that he did, he was deluged: After reporter Darrin Bauming broke the news at almost 1 a.m. on Monday, Vega's phone blew up with tweets and with texts, hundreds of people typing out missives to welcome him back. "The community looks at you as almost a family member, where they'll always check up on you," Vega said.
The NFL is always the dream. But it's also a big business, one of the most relentless machines, and its gears pull in so many men that play, but aren't really seen.
"It's kind of hard to explain, but I find that with the exception of top-level guys in the NFL, all the other guys that are there are more or less role players," Vega said. "They have stuff for players to get involved in the community, but it's not really geared towards them. It's more about the big names."
The CFL is a smaller pond, more familiar, there's more room to breathe. And Vega is the type of guy who wants to see, and be seen. When the Cowboys released him near the end of October, Vega kept going back to the memories of how his Bombers life used to be. "It was different. It was more personal here in the CFL than it was in the NFL," he said. "It was more of a connection to the fans, and that's more of who I am."
For instance: The last time Vega wore blue and gold, he leant his face to the Bombers' campaign against domestic violence. He wants to spend time at the Children's Hospital. He's a father of a two-year-old daughter himself so it hits close to home. He wants to help out cancer causes, and there too he's felt what it means: In September 2012, his fiancee's mother, beloved J.H. Bruns Collegiate teacher Brenda Mitchell, lost her life to the disease.
So here's Jason Vega, ready to slide back into Winnipeg, ready to rock and engaged to be married. Like everyone else, he's still waiting to learn who the Bombers' defensive co-ordinator will be, but the not-knowing doesn't have him worried. "Football's football," he said. "It doesn't really matter who's coaching in particular, or the schemes. My job is the same no matter what: To tackle the guy with the football. If he happens to be the quarterback, even better."