Obby Khan isn’t sure what day it is.
The morning after a Winnipeg Blue Bombers home game — a resounding win over the visiting Toronto Argonauts — Khan is seated in his flagship Shawarma Khan location in the Exchange District, piecing together the last 24 hours.
Game days are "killer," says the former Canadian Football League all-star-turned-successful-entrepreneur. Besides owning and operating three Shawarma Khan restaurants in the city — the newest one opened at 392 Graham Ave. earlier this year — he also manages a trio of Shawarma Khan In A Snap outlets at IG Field, snap being a nod to his playing days as a centre.
"(Game day) usually starts bright and early, running supplies back and forth," he explains, twisting the cap off a bottle of 7-Up. "Once the fans start rolling in, I’m there taking orders, working the till, dishing out food, whatever needs attention, pretty much.
"After the game we all pitch in and help clean up, which means it’s usually around two in the morning by the time I finally make it home, and four (a.m.) by the time I’m relaxed enough to fall asleep."
Quite often, customers at the stadium seem surprised by how hands-on Khan is. Or that he’s even wearing an apron in the first place, inquiring whether they want pickled turnips and banana peppers in their wrap. (Uh, peppers, yes, turnips, no.)
"Hey, it’s my business, my name," he stresses. "Plus I love interacting with the fans. It’s been eight years since I played for the Bombers and it still blows me away how many people ask to take selfies with me."
Remember the 2017 promotional video created by Economic Development Winnipeg that featured Khan pitching Winnipeg as the ideal site for Amazon’s planned second headquarters, a $5-billion investment eventually awarded to Arlington County, Va.? Here’s a question for Alexa: what business did a person born and raised in Ottawa, who attended university in British Columbia before returning to the nation’s capital to suit up for his hometown team, the Ottawa Renegades, have extolling the virtues of Winnipeg to the powers-that-be at Amazon?
"Even though I knew very little about the city when I moved here in ‘06 after the Renegades folded and the Bombers picked me up, it felt like home almost right away," he says, recalling waiting for his luggage in the airport terminal and spotting a dozen people clad in blue and gold, holding up signs reading "Welcome to Winnipeg, Obby." (Get this: born Ibrahim, he doesn’t have a clue where the nickname Obby came from or who started calling him that initially.)
"People make jokes about Winnipeg, about the mosquitoes, but seriously, I haven’t seen a mosquito in four years. Have you? Or how cold it gets in the winter. Newsflash: it gets cold in Ottawa, too. Seriously, you will never hear me say a bad word about Winnipeg."
In 1994, Khan, a Grade 9 student at Sir Wilfrid Laurier Secondary School, tried out for his high school musical. After failing to make the cut he was walking down the hall, getting cheered up by his older sister, when the school’s football coach spotted him and said, "You’re a big kid, ever play football?"
Khan, six-foot-one and 200 pounds at the time, had never given the sport much thought, fashioning himself more a song-and-dance man. Furthermore, he wasn’t well-acquainted with the rules or positions, he told the coach. Not a problem; within a week he was suiting up for his high school squad, as both an offensive and defensive lineman.
A quick study, Khan was scouted by a number of Canadian and American universities during his senior year at high school. He accepted an academic scholarship — in addition to being a stand-out on the gridiron, he was also a straight-A student — to Simon Fraser University.
One of his proudest moments there occurred in 2003, when he won the J. P. Metras Trophy as the top lineman in Canadian university football.
"The award ceremony was in Toronto and it was probably the first time in my life I’d ever seen my dad in a full suit. My mom was seated next to him in this gorgeous East Indian dress. You would have thought it was their wedding day," he says proudly, mentioning his parents moved to Canada in 1978 from their native Pakistan.
True story: during Khan’s first pro season with the Renegades, his dad approached him after a game to discuss something that had been on his mind for a while; specifically, what did Khan and his teammates talk about when they were "standing around in a circle," after completing a pass or executing a run up the middle?
"He wanted to know if we were just catching our breath or discussing where to get a bite after the game," Khan says, his eyes rolling.
"I was like, ‘Dad, we’re calling plays.’ He had no idea; because he didn’t grow up watching football, he assumed we were just out there, running around like a bunch of mad men."
Khan’s career blossomed after he joined the Blue Bombers. As the club’s starting centre, he was nominated for the CFL’s most outstanding offensive lineman award in 2006.
And while his subsequent battle with Crohn’s disease, which caused him to miss most of the 2007 and 2008 seasons, was well-documented, he never openly discussed how his health, or lack thereof, almost completely controlled his life prior to a surgical procedure during which his entire large intestine was removed.
“The thing is, I never told my coaches or team doctors, all the way back to my days at Simon Fraser. It’s like most injuries, you think you can play through it without people being any the wiser." – Obby Khan
"Basically I couldn’t go two hours without having a bowel movement. Going to movies was a nightmare and travel was the absolute worst. I knew where every clean bathroom in the city was, just in case I was driving somewhere and suddenly had to go," he says, noting because football games take a few hours to play, he was always deathly afraid he was going to have an accident on the field in front of 30,000 people, before making it to the dressing room at half-time.
"The thing is, I never told my coaches or team doctors, all the way back to my days at Simon Fraser. It’s like most injuries, you think you can play through it without people being any the wiser.
"Except in 2007 it got to a point where, after trying and trying, I hit a wall and had to tell the team, ‘Hey, I’m really sick.’"
Following his surgery, Khan dropped from 320 pounds to just under 200, a transformation that rattled his fellow Blue Bombers, the first time he stepped back into the dressing room.
"It honestly looked like he had been cut in half. We were like, ‘Where is the rest of Obby?’" says Doug Brown, Free Press football columnist and Khan’s former teammate. "We were thrilled to see him up and about, and healthy after his surgery. But you couldn’t help but think his playing days were behind him.
"Seeing him in the gym for the first time after that surgery, it was like he’d never lifted a weight before, he was that weak," Brown continues.
"And Obby used to be a beast in the weight room, one of the stronger guys on the team. It was just hard to fathom him ever getting back on the field, and it’s an incredible story of perseverance and triumph that he did."
Khan resumed his career in 2008. He played for the Bombers through the 2011 season, when they went all the way to the Grey Cup title game, only to lose to the B.C. Lions.
He announced his retirement in early 2012 during an emotional press conference, though he did return in August of that same year, playing nine games for the Calgary Stampeders.
But the writing was already on the wall, he says. Prior to his short tenure with the Stamps, he had already secured a location on McDermot Avenue for his first Shawarma Khan restaurant, and was busily preparing for a January 2013 opening.
"I started thinking about life after football around 2010," he explains. "I had a bit of a brand in the city — there weren’t many six-foot-four, 320-pound East Indian guys walking around with long hair and a beard — so staying in Winnipeg made perfect sense.
"Lots of (business) ideas came to mind, most involving sales, but I kept coming back to a restaurant. When I was growing up in Ottawa, it seemed like there was a shawarma shop on every corner but in Winnipeg, that style of food was definitely under-serviced.
"Still, if you had told me when we opened our first restaurant that, six years later, the top-selling booth at Blue Bombers games would be one specializing in Middle Eastern cuisine, I would have said you were nuts. But that’s exactly what’s taken place."
Khan, also the co-owner of three Green Carrot Juice Company locales, smiles from ear to ear when a scribe, closing his notebook, remarks that all in all, it sounds like life is pretty good these days if your name is Obby Khan.
"You know it, brother," he says, showing off a photo on his phone of his six-year-old son Sufi’s No. 60 Bombers jersey, which hangs side by side with his on the wall at Shawarma Khan’s Graham Avenue store.
"Entrepreneurship is the same as football in the sense you spend the first few years getting your ass kicked until you figure out what it is you’re doing. I’ve definitely been knocked down a few times in life but have always managed to pick myself up and learn from my mistakes.
"I’m almost 40 but I feel like I’m 25, like I did my first year in the league. It’s like I tell Sufi when we’re hopping into the car, headed to his soccer game; it’s time to rock and roll."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.