Humbled by call to Hall Celebrating individual achievement isn't part of Mike O'Shea's makeup — hard work and teamwork are

HAMILTON — If it were up to Mike O’Shea, there would be no ceremony; no reason to roll out the red-carpet treatment. There would be no speech to prepare. No audience to listen to it.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/09/2017 (1796 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

HAMILTON — If it were up to Mike O’Shea, there would be no ceremony; no reason to roll out the red-carpet treatment. There would be no speech to prepare. No audience to listen to it.

It’s reasonable to believe if granted absolute control, O’Shea might not only choose to skip his own induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, but perhaps there would be no Hall of Fame at all. Not in its current state, at least, where the focus is on individual achievement above all else.

Toronto Argonauts Mike O’Shea holds his trophy after being named outstanding Canadian at the CFL Outstanding Player Awards in Vancouver in 1999. O’Shea, then an eight-year CFL veteran, had signed a contract with the fledgling XFL. (Kevin Frayer / The Canadian Press files)

Nothing, it seems, could be more anti-O’Shea.

“It’s a team sport so the bottom line is you don’t do this all by yourself,” O’Shea, 46, told reporters in a nation-wide conference call Tuesday (he declined interview requests).

When asked what his ideal induction ceremony would look like, O’Shea, now in his fourth season as head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, said he’d be preparing for a game.

When probed further, O’Shea finally caved, describing a much more intimate scene filled with all the people he believes are more deserving of credit.

“You’d have them gathered together in a room, in a private area where you could thank them personally,” he said. “That’s about it.”

O’Shea won’t get his wish, of course. Instead, he’ll do much like he did over his entire CFL career: be the ultimate team player.

Shedding his trademark T-shirt and shorts for a suit and tie, he’ll do his best to withstand the painful task of having to deflect a constant barrage of praise directed his way.

At least he won’t be alone. He’s just one part of the star-studded Class of 2017 to have their names forever enshrined in CFL history. Former running back Kelvin Anderson, receiver Geroy Simon and quarterback Anthony Calvillo round out the player inductees, while long-time Calgary Stampeders executive Stan Schwartz and former University of Saskatchewan coach Brian Towriss will be entering the builder’s category.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers Head Coach Mike O’Shea stands on the touchline during a 2014 game (Chris Young / The Canadian Press)

To those who know him best, O’Shea’s indifference to joining the hall is fitting for a man who over his entire football career never found the time to revel in his own accomplishments.

But they also know it comes from a place rooted in humility and not by a lack of affection for a league and game to which he continues to dedicate his life.

For O’Shea, the CFL is deeply ingrained inside his soul, part of his moral fabric, with football being the sincerest form of teamwork and sacrifice.

An autographed jersey of Mike O’Shea that hangs on the wall at Franco’s Barber Shop in downtown Guelph. O’Shea surprised Franco’s with the Grey Cup after winning it with the Toronto Argonauts in 1996. (Jeff Hamilton / Winnipeg Free Press)

He played 16 CFL seasons at linebacker, split between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (1993-95, 2000) and Toronto Argonauts (1996-99, 2001-08). He played more games than any other defensive player (271) in league history and is second all-time in tackles (1,151), behind only Alabama-born Willie Pless (1,241).

He’s won three Grey Cups as a player — all with the Argonauts, including back-to-back titles in 1996 and 1997 — and won another as an assistant coach with Toronto in 2012. Five times he was named a divisional all-star and, in 1999, was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian.

When Mike Morreale, a long-time friend and former teammate in Hamilton and Toronto, recalled his fondest memories of O’Shea, what came to mind wasn’t one of his many bruising hits.

Instead, Morreale remembered how O’Shea’s eyes used to water up during the national anthem. That raw emotion, he said, only intensified come playoffs, when military planes flew through the sky above the stadium as part of the customary pre-game rituals.

“That, to me, epitomizes him,” Morreale said in a phone interview from his Hamilton home this week. “That’s the guy that I know. All the other stuff is what makes him so great but that is what makes him so special.”

 

 


 

 

North Bay is a friendly and unremarkable place that overlaps Ontario’s rocky, interior heartland.

Situated along the Canadian Shield, 330 kilometres north of Toronto, the city of 51,000 people is rich in natural scenery, surrounded by lush forests and open, spring-fed lakes.

The unspoiled beauty contradicts its reputation as a tough, blue-collar town — a community unafraid to get its hands dirty and one that understands the importance of a hard day’s work.

“It’s a team sport so the bottom line is you don’t do this all by yourself.”–Mike O’Shea

O’Shea’s father Michael emigrated to Canada with his mother, Lynda, after serving with the Royal Air Force as a navigator-bombardier in a de Havilland Mosquito during the Second World War. Originally from Barkingside — now part of London — they first settled in Sudbury before moving an hour and a half east to North Bay.

By the time O’Shea was born, his parents had bought and were running a local Dairy Queen. Though the business brought the family an increased level of stability, in order to get there his father first had to save up enough money by working a series of odd jobs, among them pumping gas and walking door-to-door selling vacuums.

The Canadian Football Hall of Fame Class of 2017 was announced at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, Sask., in March. From left to right is builder Brian Towriss, player Geroy Simpon, builder Stan Schwartz, player Mike O’Shea, player Anthony Calvillo, and player Kelvin Anderson. (Mark Taylor / The Canadian Press files)

Even with a stable income, there were times where the family was just getting by.

“It took time and it took effort,” recalled O’Shea. “Both my parents were excellent role models in terms of ‘when it had to be done, it had to be done.’”

Watching his parents work tirelessly at the store — his dad, who passed away in 2012, worked days, while his mother ran the night shift — it wasn’t long before O’Shea inherited the family’s work ethic, developing the kind of hard-helmet approach to life that would later come to define his football career.

“Getting to know his mom and his dad over the years and just knowing how hard they worked, Mike just seemed to embrace the blue-collar, hardworking people up there,” said Chad Folk, a former offensive lineman who played 11 seasons with O’Shea in Toronto. “His work ethic is almost unparalleled and not just physically, but mentally as well.”

It wouldn’t be until high school, however, that O’Shea and football eventually crossed paths. And it was years after that before he was any good at the game.

Like most Canadian towns, hockey ruled supreme in North Bay and though he would give it an honest shot, as a small kid growing up, O’Shea was too stubborn to switch from his hard-nosed methods to a style more suitable for his size.

Soon, hockey became more frustrating than fun.

 

 


 

 

A worn-out football rests on a desk in a small office located in the bowels of Alumni Stadium, just steps from the on-campus field where the University of Guelph Gryphons football team plays.

Mike O’Shea (right) kisses quarterback Damon Allen as teammate Chad Folk looks on during the Grey Cup Parade in Toronto in 2004. (Aaron Harris / The Canadian Press files)

The owner of the ball is current Gryphons head coach Kevin McNeill, who picked it up before pointing to a message scribbled on its side. Written in black marker, it reads, MAC, keep playing hard, buddy!” signed by Mike O’Shea, followed by his No. 50.

“He has no idea the impact he’s had on me. I mean, how do you tell a guy like that he’s a big deal?” asked McNeill, a former linebacker at Waterloo’s Wilfred Laurier University. McNeill, who wore O’Shea’s No. 50 for all five seasons he played with the Golden Hawks, had the ball given to him through a friend back in 2000 and he’s cherished it ever since.

“He was the standard. He was the guy every Canadian linebacker aimed to be.”

By the time O’Shea stepped foot on the Guelph campus in the fall of 1989, he was 6-foot-3 and weighed nearly 200 pounds.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers Nic Grigsby (32) and Jake Thomas (95) celebrate head coach Mike O’Shea’s first win as their new coach in CFL action against Toronto Argonauts in Winnipeg Thursday, June 26, 2014. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

He was coming off his fourth and most successful season at Widdifield High School, where he led the Wildcats to their first-ever Nipissing District Athletics title.

By then, O’Shea was the best player on the team, a leader on both defence and special teams. He played every down in the championship game after he was the obvious choice to fill in for an injured teammate on the offensive line who suffered a broken leg during the semifinal.

Still, O’Shea wasn’t considered to be among the area’s top recruits, nor did anyone at the university ever court him. Instead, he chose Guelph because of the courses it offered. O’Shea wanted to study chemistry, engineering and industrial microbiology, with the goal of becoming a brewmaster.

But it became evident early on he was destined for a career in football instead.

“He always had a great motor and my impression right away was that he was going to do everything in his power to play at the next level,” said Dan McNally, who was head coach for all four seasons O’Shea played for the Gryphons.

“You won’t find many people who are as loyal and passionate and dedicated to the game as he was.”–Jeff Keeping, former teammate of O’Shea and current president of the CFLPA

“He was a very intense player who was completely motivated and relentless. And he played that way, too.”

The game that sticks out most for McNally — now a special teams coach at Acadia University — was in 1992, O’Shea’s senior year. The Gryphons had squeezed into the playoffs with a record of 4-3, and were one game away from clinching a berth into Ontario’s championship game — the Yates Cup. 

But to get there they would have to go through a tough University of Toronto team, led by standout Varsity Blues quarterback Euguene Buccigrossi.

Buccigrossi had just been presented with the Hec Creighton Trophy, which was awarded to the league’s most outstanding player. If the Gryphons were to punch their ticket to the final, they needed to contain the dynamic QB, who was just as dangerous with his feet as he was with his arm.

It would take some convincing of the defensive line coach, but McNally had come up with a plan and it all relied on O’Shea.

“We said we won’t give him any lanes, we’ll kind of come across and not try to pressure him,” McNally said. “We had Mike spy him and eventually he’d have to throw the ball or spill out one way or the other and when he did Mike would chase him down.”

Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Kevin Glenn Fumbles the ball during tackle by Toronto Argonaut Mike O’Shea in Regina in 2003. (Geoff Howe / The Canadian Press files)

The ploy worked, with Guelph defeating U of T in overtime to advance to the Yates Cup final, where the Gryphons rolled over the University of Western Mustangs by a score of 45-10. O’Shea finished the game with 25 tackles.

It was just the second time in the program’s 43-year history that Guelph had won the Yates Cup, making it the perfect ending to a brilliant four-season collegiate career for O’Shea, who was set to enter the CFL draft the following year.

“I remember sitting with Mike at three in the morning after that game, and I look at the game sheet and right away I see how many tackles he had,” said Rob Kitching, former quarterback with the Gryphons who is still close friends with O’Shea. “I said, ‘that’s a career day for you and this is your draft year.’

He just looked at me, dead serious, and said, ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s all about the next game. You can always do better.’”

That season, O’Shea was named not only defensive player of the year for the Gryphons but for the entire Ontario Universities Athletics Association. He also earned CIAU All-Canadian honours and was one of three Canadian-born players to compete in the annual East-West Shrine Bowl in the U.S.

At the time, O’Shea held the school record for career sacks with 19 and was fourth in career tackles with 310.

When O’Shea won his first Grey Cup with the Argonauts in 1996, he returned to Guelph to show it off. On his list of places to visit was Franco’s Barber Shop, where owner Franco Figliuzzi used to cut O’Shea and his teammates’ hair after every victory (the tradition still lives on to this day and has included other big names like future NHLers Drew Doughty and Dustin Brown, both of whom played for the Guelph Storm in the Ontario Hockey League).

Franco passed away two years ago, but a glass box with O’Shea’s helmet from Guelph and photos commemorating the day still live on.

Toronto Argonaut Mike O’Shea (centre) takes the Grey Cup to the fans on the street during a parade celebrating the win in Toronto in 2004. (Aaron Harris / The Canadian Press files)

Franco’s sons Paul and Claudio run the shop now and Claudio said he’ll never forget that day O’Shea showed up at the shop holding the Cup.

“It was dark and the shop was closed and all of a sudden there’s a knock on the door. I look over and there’s this huge man with the Grey Cup, holding two beers in his hands,” said Claudio.

“He walked in and gave my dad a big hug. O’Shea put the Cup on the table, cracked the beers and poured them in the Cup and we all drank out of it.

“Then my dad cut his hair.”

 

 


 

 

Ask anyone who played with Mike O’Shea over his CFL career and they will tell you he has two sides  — the serious, no-nonsense player that would do anything to win and the pain-in-the-ass prankster you had to constantly watch your back around.

“When he was your teammate he expected a lot out of you and he didn’t always raise his voice because he didn’t have to,” said Morreale.

“He was always the most prepared, the guy who spent the most time in the film room and knew everything about everything. As an opponent, he would rip your head off and stomp on it.

“But you also had to watch your back because the moment you weren’t looking he’d so something to mess with you. Whether it was putting his kids’ dirty diapers under your windshield on a rainy day or something else… trust me, there are countless stories.”

Yearbook photo of the 1988 NDA Champion Widdifield Wildcats team, which included #51 Mike O’Shea. (Photo courtesy Sean Mullan)

Paul Masotti, the long-time Argonauts receiver, both played with and against O’Shea and saw firsthand each side of him.

As a former roommate of O’Shea while the two were together in Toronto, Masotti often found himself a co-conspirator to O’Shea antics.

One story that came immediately to mind was the time they pulled a prank on two offensive linemen, while in Winnipeg no less.

“He was always the most prepared, the guy who spent the most time in the film room and knew everything about everything. As an opponent, he would rip your head off and stomp on it. But you also had to watch your back because the moment you weren’t looking he’d so something to mess with you.”–Mike Morreale, former teammate in Hamilton and Toronto

Connected by adjoining hotel rooms and knowing that the first thing O-linemen like to do when they arrive on a road trip is to eat, O’Shea and Masotti thought up the perfect plan.

After the two linemen left the hotel to grab a bite, O’Shea and Masotti snuck into their room and promptly took all the bulbs out of the lights, batteries out of the TV controllers and toilet paper and Kleenex out of the bathroom.

Then, they waited.

“Right away one went to the bathroom first and you could hear him yelling, ‘hey, I can’t see anything, the lights aren’t working,’” said Masotti, unable to hold back his laughter. “This happened for like 30 minutes and they actually had to call the concierge. They were checking all the circuit breakers and I could hear them complaining, with one still sitting on the toilet.”

Once the two found out O’Shea was rooming next to them, it became clear who the culprit was.

“They short-sheeted our bed and turned them upside down that night,” said Masotti. “It was a long methodical joke that turned out pretty damn good.”

A football signed by Mike O’Shea rests on the desk of University of Guelph football coach Kevin MacNeill. O’Shea spent four seasons with the Gryphons, recording the 4th most tackles in school history with 310. (Jeff Hamilton / Winnipeg Free Press)

But it didn’t always work in Masotti’s favour when it came to dealing with O’Shea. When the two faced off while O’Shea was in Hamilton, Masotti was on the receiving end of a nasty tackle, one ending with him begging for mercy.

“The time he tackled me by my testicles,” recalled Masotti. “I was coming across the middle on a drag route and that’s the only thing he could grab.

“But for O’Shea, he doesn’t care, he’s going to get you down no matter what and he actually had my testicles and he wouldn’t let them go.”

It was only after a long plea and a guarantee from Masotti that he was down would O’Shea finally release his grip.

“He just looked at me and said, ‘alright, get back to the huddle.’”

Just like his multiple personalities, O’Shea and the CFL also had a relationship built on constant give and take.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers Head Coach Mike O’Shea watches scrimmage at the team’s practice at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg in early September 2017. (Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press)

He has suffered through broken bones and torn ligaments, playing one season with a fully torn ACL because he didn’t want to miss time due to surgery.

Another year he played through a shoulder injury so severe his teammates would cringe every time he delivered another vicious hit.

“You won’t find many people who are as loyal and passionate and dedicated to the game as he was,” said Jeff Keeping, a former teammate of O’Shea and current president of the CFLPA. “Every team he played for was lucky to have him.”

To this day, O’Shea still hasn’t filed his official retirement papers.

“Every guy does,” O’Shea said when asked if he wished he were still playing. “You can hear it in their voices.”

O’Shea then joked about playing one more down, though you could feel some truth through his chuckle. It made you think what he might do if it were up to him.

 

Mike O’Shea spent four seasons with the University of Guelph Gryphons, recording 19 career sacks and 310 tackles. (Supplied)

 

Mike’s Milestones

1970 – Mike O’Shea was born to parents Michael and Lynda O’Shea in North Bay, Ont.

1986 – Started playing football in Grade 9 with the Widdifield High School Wildcats, winning the school’s first divisional title in his senior year

1989 – Begins school at the University of Guelph, earning accolades for his play and a degree in Biological Science

Toronto Argonauts’ Michael O’Shea and his son Micheal, then 4, lift the CFL Grey Cup Sunday, Nov. 21, 2004 in Ottawa. The Argonauts beat the B.C. Lions 27-19. (Tom Hanson / The Canadian Press files)

1993 – Drafted fourth overall by the Edmonton Eskimos but was part of a six-player deal that sent him to Hamilton in exchange for Damon Allen. Played all 18 games in his first season with the Ti-Cats, winning the CFL’s most outstanding rookie award

1994 — Earned the first of five divisional all-star awards

1996 – Signs with the NFL’s Detroit Lions. After playing in every pre-season game, was one of the final cuts

1996 & 1997 – Returns to the CFL after being released by the Lions, signs with the Toronto Argonauts and wins back-to-back Grey Cup championships

1997 – Marries wife Richere. They have a son, Michael, and two daughters, Ailish and Aisling

1999 – Finishes season with 97 total tackles and three interceptions and is awarded the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian award

2000 – Traded back to the Hamilton

Toronto Argonauts Mike O’Shea sacks Saskatchewan Roughriders QB Kerry Joseph a game in in Regina in 2007. (Troy Fleece / The Canadian Press)

2001 – After one season with the Ti-Cats, new management in Toronto convince O’Shea to come back to the Argos

2004 – Wins his third Grey Cup with the Argos

2006 Becomes first Canadian to reach 1,000 tackles

2007 – Inducted into the University of Guelph Sports Hall of Fame

2008 – Finishes season with 86 tackles and one quarterback sack in what would be his final year playing in the CFL

Winnipeg Blue Bombers new head coach Mike O’Shea is introduced by the team’s general manager Kyle Walters at a news conference in December 2013 (Joe Bryksa / Winnipeg Free Press)

2009 – Officially released by the Argos after refusing to retire an Argonaut, O’Shea finishes his career second all-time in tackles with 1,151

2009 & 2010 – Works 15 months at a medical supplies company

2010 – Hired as special teams co-ordinator in Toronto, spending three seasons with the Argos

2012 – Wins his fourth Grey Cup — first as a coach

2014 – Hired as head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, finishing his first season with a 7-11 record

2017 – One of six to make of the Class of 2017 inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca   twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

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.

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