December 9, 2019

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City roars love for its champions

Opinion

Twenty-nine years is a long time in the life of this city, and yet not so long at all. Things changed, but the portrait of the place stayed mostly the same. The cycle of life here remains familiar: skies haze into grey. Summer slides into fall, and then into the long, dark sleep of a wind-battered prairie winter.

And Winnipeg endured many things in those 29 years, because it had to, because it is a place where painful things are just as slow to change as any other. Where the accumulated sadness of years builds up in drifts on most of our civic conversations, swirling over broken streets, whispering of many and varied disappointments.

That is what nearly three decades in Winnipeg has looked like, sometimes. But then, on Tuesday afternoon, there is suddenly a new picture, captured in just a few hours on streets thronged with people and closed to traffic. This image tells the same story as the first, but from a more hopeful vantage, and it starts with chant from 10,000 people.

"Here we go Bombers, here we go!"

It is just after noon. The roar surges down the street, bouncing off the buildings that jab upwards from the edge of downtown streets, and now the Grey Cup victory parade is in full swing. Now there are players riding atop trucks, holding the trophy aloft as they go. They raise their phones, filming fans who are doing the same right back.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterbacks, from left, Trevor Knight, Sean McGuire and Chris Streveler celebrate their Grey Cup victory with Winnipeggers during the Grey Cup parade in downtown Winnipeg, Tuesday.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/JOHN WOODS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterbacks, from left, Trevor Knight, Sean McGuire and Chris Streveler celebrate their Grey Cup victory with Winnipeggers during the Grey Cup parade in downtown Winnipeg, Tuesday.

There is Bombers quarterback Chris Streveler, shirtless underneath a fur coat, sucking back slugs of Fireball whisky and playing catch with the fans crowded by his feet. There is linebacker Thomas Miles, a Winnipeg kid who wasn't yet born the last time his team hoisted the Cup, eyes alight, waving the gold team flag high for all to see.

And then, oh, look just down Portage Avenue, can you see? Can you hear the waves of fans chanting "MVP?" It surges up and surrounds Andrew Harris, once the pride of Oak Park High School's football program, now the Blue Bombers' ground yardage engine. As he passes, the crowd raises its arms as if to embrace him.

Blue Bombers running back, Andrew Harris, celebrates with fans during the parade, Tuesday.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Blue Bombers running back, Andrew Harris, celebrates with fans during the parade, Tuesday.

"Andrew, you did it baby, you did it," a fan yells out, as the running back's truck passed.

Harris points right back at him. "Nah, we did it baby," he shouts.

Truer words, as they say, have never been spoken, and Harris knows as well as anyone that to carry the Bombers through the last 29 years took a communal sort of determination. It was never a given. The CFL is many things, but above all it is a league whose primary asset is the tenacity of its fanbase, the stubbornness of their passion.

So in this, its 107th final celebration, there was an intimacy that spoke of those generations of longing. It was in the way that, as the parade passed, fans spilled in, around and behind its vehicles. It was in how the players stretched down to sign jackets and hats, to pose for photos, to grip outstretched hands.

And in the crowd, if you looked around, you saw the real story of Winnipeg written in shining faces. This was us, spread out through downtown, families and friends of all backgrounds and all ages. A story of joy and resilience, infused now into the sterling silver chalice that, for the last 29 years, was not part of the picture.

Hundreds of Winnipeggers line up along Portage Ave and Main St Tuesday afternoon as they cheer on their Winnipeg Blue Bombers Grey Cup Champions as they parade through Portage Ave and Main St. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)
Bombers and fans join in jubilation on Winnipeg streets
Hundreds of Winnipeggers line up along Portage Ave and Main St Tuesday afternoon as they cheer on their Winnipeg Blue Bombers Grey Cup Champions as they parade through Portage Ave and Main St. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)
Mayor Brian Bowman (right), Premier Brian Pallister (centre) pose with Dancing Gabe and Winnipeg Blue Bombers mascots Buzz and Boomer at the start of the Grey Cup parade in downtown Winnipeg Tuesday afternoon.  (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)
Mayor Brian Bowman (right), Premier Brian Pallister (centre) pose with Dancing Gabe and Winnipeg Blue Bombers mascots Buzz and Boomer at the start of the Grey Cup parade in downtown Winnipeg Tuesday afternoon. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)
Fans celebrate at the Grey Cup parade. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)
Fans celebrate at the Grey Cup parade. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)
Winnipeggers are crowding the downtown streets Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019, to celebrate the end of a Grey Cup drought that lasted almost three decades. The city is hosting a parade this afternoon after the Winnipeg Blue Bombers won their 11th Grey Cup with a 33-12 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Sunday in Calgary. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods - CP
Winnipeggers are crowding the downtown streets Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019, to celebrate the end of a Grey Cup drought that lasted almost three decades. The city is hosting a parade this afternoon after the Winnipeg Blue Bombers won their 11th Grey Cup with a 33-12 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Sunday in Calgary. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods - CP
Winnipeggers are crowding the downtown streets Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019, to celebrate the end of a Grey Cup drought that lasted almost three decades. The city is hosting a parade this afternoon after the Winnipeg Blue Bombers won their 11th Grey Cup with a 33-12 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Sunday in Calgary. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods - CP
Winnipeggers are crowding the downtown streets Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019, to celebrate the end of a Grey Cup drought that lasted almost three decades. The city is hosting a parade this afternoon after the Winnipeg Blue Bombers won their 11th Grey Cup with a 33-12 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Sunday in Calgary. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods - CP

The Grey Cup won't fix Winnipeg. It won't materially make anything here better. The days will pass, and the memory will fade; the players will head home in the coming days. Most will disperse back to the United States, where no one they meet on the street will know that, in one grey little corner of Canada, they got to be gods.

But that's also what makes the moment so special, and what makes it ours. The CFL is not the biggest league in the world, but it does feel like home. And the Bombers are, above all, a story Winnipeggers have told themselves about this place where we live for generations, a love passed down from parents to children, and open to all.

At The Forks, the players gathered under the canopy, heard but not seen by the sea of fans who craned their necks to get fleeting glimpses of the stage. They took turns at the microphone, speaking with voices frayed by two days of celebration, trying to find words to explain the euphoria that flowed up from their guts.

"I love you guys, man," Streveler said then.

And the crowd roared back its approval, and the wordless song that thundered from those 10,000 throats carried a message that is really this simple: sometimes, there is only love for the sake of love. And for a few glorious hours in the heart of a city which, over the last 29 years, has endured so much, that fact was enough.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

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