Dennis Brewster admits it’s something difficult, even slightly embarrassing, to talk about after all this time.
It’s not that, after 25 years, he doesn’t still relish the fact his Churchill Bulldogs put together a perfect 10-0 season, capped off with a come-from-behind win over the Sisler Spartans to claim the 1992 Winnipeg High School Football League Championship. That couldn’t be further from the truth — in fact, Brewster takes a great deal of pleasure from the accomplishment, adding it’s something he and many of his former teammates credit for helping shape the men they are today.
It’s just that, for those who weren’t there to witness it — or, perhaps more importantly, to live and feel a part of the culture that encompassed the team, the school and the community — it probably doesn’t make all that much sense.
To be there, however, was to be a part of something bigger. That’s something Brewster can say with pride.
"Not everybody gets it and it’s hard to explain what it means," said Brewster, 43, during a phone interview from his home in Steinbach.
"I still think about it and all those life lessons that we learned and I wouldn’t have had it any other way."
He added: "It’s not very often that you have a goal that you work with everything you have in your life to achieve and then it comes true."
That dream was again recognized on Wednesday, with the 1992 championship team inducted into the Churchill Bulldogs’ Hall of Fame Class of 2017. It’s the 15th straight year the event has been put on, organized by committee chairman Yussef Hawash, a coach for 31 years now, and includes a dinner and speeches from various alumni.
Other inductees this year included Don Pincock, Randy Helme, Randy Engel and Bryan Dewit, all of whom were honoured in the Hall’s players category, while former team trainer Ruth (Browne) Asper was presented with the Lottie Armstrong Award for exceptional volunteerism.
On the surface, there are plenty of moments such as the one Brewster describes. After all, every year a new champion is crowned, another cherished memory born out of a long and gruelling football season. But few tales resemble that of the Bulldogs, a team that constantly defied odds on the field and battled social and economic obstacles off it, and yet were still able to rise to the top.
"This was all we had, man. No one that was born in Fort Rouge was born a winner," said Tony Capasso, a former kicker with the Bulldogs who later went on to captain the soccer team at the University of Notre Dame before settling in Austin, Texas with his family.
Capasso, 41, who returned to Winnipeg to take part in the celebration and to speak about the teachings he learned during his years at Churchill, painted a picture of a Fort Rouge community made up of mostly blue-collar families with little money and even less chance for glory.
"The point is: everyone was all-in on this," he said. "For the coaches, the teachers, our parents and the entire community, we really thought that this was our world. We weren’t ever going to be pros, so this was our chance to do something great and no one was going to let that slip by."
To better understand where the Bulldogs ended up, rallying back from being down three touchdowns to score 44 unanswered points in a 44-21 win over the Spartans, it’s important to realize where they came from.
A team built on pride and tradition — the longtime motto of the club that has since been adopted by the entire school — the Bulldogs first dominated the local football scene in the late 1960s, winning three straight championships under legendary coach John Puchniak.
Puchniak guided the Bulldogs to 32 straight victories — a total that, at the time, set a league record — en route to three consecutive championships from 1967 to 1969. At one point, the Bulldogs were ranked No. 20 in the North American high school football rankings, stealing attention away from a number of storied programs in the U.S.
History became an important part of the school’s program. By understanding what players had done before them, the school hoped it would inspire those who joined to continue that success. It wasn’t odd to see packs of kids at games, most of whom were able to name off each player and who dreamed of one day filling their cleats.
"I remember going to watch Bulldog football in elementary school," said Brewster, who, along with other alumni, has since returned to the school to share old stories. "I was in awe of these guys when I was young."
Churchill would win two more championships — in 1981 and 1983 — before falling on tougher times. It was only a few years later that the school would hire a new coach in Brian Dobie, now in his 22nd season with the University of Manitoba Bisons, to right the ship.
Dobie, who spent 21 years patrolling the sidelines for the Bulldogs, can recall many fond memories from that 1992 season. It remains one of his favourites over his coaching career, not only for what they were able to achieve on the field but also for the bonds that developed within the team and into the community.
"The culture was about caring, about doing something together that mattered," Dobie said. "It wasn’t just about winning football games or championships, it was about going through a process together."
Dobie can’t remember ever cutting a player — "there was always a home in the football program" — but that was as much by necessity as it was a courtesy. With a school that went from grades 7 to 12 and had a little more than 300 kids, tryouts weren’t exactly budding with eager prospects. While most teams had as many as 60 players, the Bulldogs were closer to 30, with half that number playing on both sides of the ball.
Over the season there were many memories for Dobie, who recalled a game late in the fall when the weather suddenly went from a heavy wind to blowing snow — the parents worried it was too dark for the kids to see the ball — lined their cars up against a dike near the river and turned their headlights on. After away games, he recalled a bus full of players that would break out in song once the team returned to Fort Rouge, screaming at the top of their lungs all the way back to the school while onlookers stopped to give applause and share in their joy.
Dobie’s greatest memory of the championship game came shortly after the Spartans took a 21-0 lead late in the second quarter. Feeling some doubt in his own mind, he can remember Brewster running up to him on the sidelines and declaring that a comeback was imminent.
It was at that moment Dobie suddenly felt at ease. He had seen this before, where his team, with the odds stacked against them, was able to find a way through it.
"Adversity brings out so many great things in people," Dobie said.
"If you can grow through experiences that strengthen you, you gain that strength forever. It doesn’t fade away unless you choose for it to fade away. It’s something that becomes part of who you are and you can bring that out in you any time you need to."
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