‘I had to do what I had to do’
Lawler says leaving Blue Bombers a business decision
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EDMONTON — Kenny Lawler thoroughly enjoyed being a member of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. It’s where he matured as a pro football player and, while in Winnipeg for parts of three seasons, he won two Grey Cups and led the CFL in receiving yards his final year.
Over the winter, as the Bombers were putting together the roster for a chance at a rare three-peat, Lawler didn’t get the love he felt he deserved. When Winnipeg refused to pay top dollar for his services, it only made sense to start looking elsewhere for a new football home.
“I felt like the time that I am in my career, with my age and my youth, that I have to maximize as much as I can,” Lawler said following the Elks’ walk-through practice Thursday at Commonwealth Stadium, where Edmonton will welcome Winnipeg for its Week 7 matchup Friday night.
“There was a small offer on the table. They had to do what they had to do for their business to grow and keep doing what they do. I had to do what I had to do.”
Lawler garnered strong interest across the league before eventually settling on Edmonton, with the Elks making him the highest paid player outside the quarterback position. The 28-year-old California native inked a one-year deal worth $300,000.
Currently second in receptions (33), fifth in receiving yards (384), and tied for the second-most touchdowns (three) in the CFL through the first six weeks, Lawler said talks with Winnipeg over the off-season about an extension were minimal. He added the Bombers knew they couldn’t afford him after the way he had played, most notably a 2021 season that saw him become the only 1,000-yard receiver, along with six touchdowns, in just 13 games.
Getting a payday in Winnipeg wasn’t going to be easy, not with general manager Kyle Walters needing to re-sign several players, many of whom were league all-stars like Lawler. Players such as quarterback Zach Collaros, defensive ends Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat, left tackle Stanley Bryant, among others, all needed new contracts.
Lawler was already being courted by teams during the legal tampering window ahead of free agency, where he was feeling the love from clubs desperately in need of a real threat to their attack. So, when the Bombers came in with an offer much lower than a few other teams, it became less of a personal decision and more of a business one.
“I could have taken $175,000 but instead I took $300,000,” Lawler said. “They knew they weren’t going to have the market for me, and I believe they were keeping more guys around than just having me there. I understand. It’s a business.”
Lawler is a welcome presence on an Elks team that ended the 2021 season tied for last in the CFL, at 3-11, and had an offence that ranked at or near the bottom of every statistical category. He’s brought a level of leadership and experience from his time winning back-to-back Grey Cups with the Bombers, as well as a skill set that makes him as dangerous as anyone on the field.
“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out he’s an awfully good football player. I mean, he catches everything thrown to him, for the most part, and he’s good, he’s competitive,” Elks general manager and head coach Chris Jones said. “That’s what I like about him the most, is the fact that every day he walks out here he’s competing. We need a lot of that.”
Jones said the motivation behind spending big money on Lawler is owing to the Elks’ unstable quarterback situation. Edmonton began the year unclear of who would be their starting pivot and have cycled through four players already despite playing just six games.
The way Jones sees it, if they couldn’t decide who their quarterback would be, what they could control was who they could surround him with. By collecting quality pieces on offence, Jones theorized, it would help create the best environment for whoever they chose behind centre.
“It was important for me to get as many people lined up around our quarterback, whoever that person would have been, that is the best that we could put out there,” Jones said. “We did our best to go out there and get the best guy in the league.”
When asked to reflect on his time in Winnipeg, from a practice roster player in 2018 and early 2019, to being among the best receivers in the CFL, Lawler said he cherished his time with the Bombers. He also noted he changed a lot, not just as a player but person, too.
Lawler said when he came to the CFL he didn’t give much respect to the league. He recalled almost looking down on the competition, with a sole goal of trying to return to the NFL.
But with the support of his teammates, many of whom encouraged him to keep his head down and work, he started to see his opportunity in a whole new light. Today, he’s among the league’s greatest ambassadors, and his respect for the CFL grows with each passing week.
“I came in here a young guy thinking I knew everything. When I came here, I was just a young guy trying to get back to the NFL,” Lawler said. “I’d talk my talk and everything, but just looking back on it now, it’s just like I’m blessed to still being able to play football. I’m grateful, and the CFL, the Canadian Football League has done so much for me in a small amount of a part of my life. That’s one thing, I’d say the maturity level. The maturity level within myself has grown a lot.”
As for facing his old team, Lawler looks forward to catching up with some old friends. But as the fierce competitor he is, he’s also determined to perform against a defence he spent years practising against, on a team that decided he was too expensive to pay.
“It’s gonna be different being on the other side of the ball, instead of being in blue and gold, but I’m gonna cherish every moment of it,” he said. “I’m gonna go out there and talk to the guys, try to hit them, try to make plays on the defence. It’s gonna be fun. This has definitely been the game that I highlighted this season, and I just can’t wait to get out there.”
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.