Long-suffering Bombers fans face identity crisis
What's a Grey Cup-starved city to do if the Blue Bombers triumph in Calgary?
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/11/2019 (1215 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Winnipeg Jets are the most popular sports team in this province. They attract the overwhelming share of the sports fan’s dollar, draw the biggest ratings on television and are the elephant in all our living rooms for the better part of eight months every year.
But for my money, it’s the Blue Bombers — and, in particular, their fans — who best embody the uniquely tortured spirit of this province.
Our football team torments us just like the province in which we live. One gives us a brutal winter and mosquitoes; the other gives us botched fake punts and Kevin Glenn breaking an arm in the 2007 East Division final.
And yet we love them both, not despite the fact they torment us but precisely because of it.
Our identity, like our football team’s, is rooted in misery.
And in that, we take enormous and perverse pride. Because there is something almost noble in our allegiance to a province and a football team that continues to find new ways to hurt us.
There is something almost noble in our allegiance to a province and a football team that continues to find new ways to hurt us.
Look, it’s easy to live in Vancouver, where there are no blizzards in early October to knock out the power for weeks. And it’s always easy to cheer for the Calgary Stampeders, who until this year always seemed to find new ways to win instead of new ways to lose.
But it takes something special to stay — to stay a Manitoban and to stay a fan of a football team that for 28 years has found a seemingly endless number of ways to disappoint us.
While it is true that every Manitoban takes pride when one of our fellow citizens goes elsewhere and makes it big, we also, deep down, think a little less of them when they do.
Because anyone can make it in New York. The better test of whether you can truly make it anywhere is whether you can make it in Winnipeg or Brandon or Thompson or Plumas.
Anyone can make it in New York. The better test of whether you can truly make it anywhere is whether you can make it in Winnipeg or Brandon or Thompson or Plumas.
So what happens to our identity then if the Bombers — dare I tempt the Gods — win the Grey Cup on Sunday in Calgary?
In a province in which no one under the age of 30 has ever witnessed a drunken celebration at Portage and Main on one of the final Sundays of November, I might as well be asking what happens to us if winter gets cancelled forever.
So much of the identity of every Bombers fan has been wrapped up in the struggle and the suffering for so long now that it is worth asking what happens if all that angst is suddenly replaced by triumph and joy Sunday night?
I went looking for answers to that question from people that can understand what Bombers fans have been through these last three decades better than anyone — Red Sox nation.
The Sox, of course, endured the ‘Curse of the Bambino’ for close to a century before they finally won their first World Series in 86 years in 2004. So, was it worth the wait, I wondered?
“It turns out, when every part of your brain convinces you that it’s not going to happen — that this team will find some godforsaken way to blow it, even in the most unlikely of circumstances — your body sort of shuts down when you actually see it happen,” wrote Pete Blackburn, a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan and writer for CBS Sports.
“When Keith Foulke tossed the baseball to first base and shattered an identity rooted in misery, all I could do was sit on my couch, completely still with a slight smile. I remember just feeling completely numb.”
Hmmm. “An identity rooted in misery.” Sound familiar, Bombers fans?
And what about in the days and weeks and years that followed that monumental Sox win? Blackburn says that also didn’t turn out the way he’d expected.
“As wonderful and as satisfying as it is to finally capture the glory that seemed virtually unattainable for so long,” wrote Blackburn, “there’s a certain pride and charm in being part of a fan base that shows unbreakable allegiance to a team that continuously finds a way to let you down.
“The inability to win when it matters tattoos a fan base. The self-loathing, the jabs from opposing fans, the constant reminders of ineptitude — it brings an ‘us against the world’ mentality.”–Pete Blackburn
“The inability to win when it matters.” That should also sound familiar to Bombers fans.
Because while much is rightly made about the Bombers 28-year Grey Cup drought, it’s not like they’ve been a terrible team all these years. On the contrary — Sunday will mark the sixth time the Bombers have been to the Grey Cup since they last won in 1990.
That works out to a Grey Cup appearance roughly once every five years, which is pretty much what you could expect from a team playing in a nine-team league.
All of which is to say the problem over the years hasn’t been the quality of the Bombers teams — although that has also been a problem at times (hello, Jeff Reinbold).
No, the larger problem has been this team’s utter inability to “win when it matters.”
So why should Sunday night be any different? It very well might not be — the Hamilton Tiger-Cats have been the best team in the CFL all season and it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if they were the better team on Sunday.
But if you’re looking for hope as a Bombers fan that this time will be different, you can start by looking at how the Bombers got here.
This season has been both entirely familiar and completely different to Bombers fans. A midseason collapse precipitated by a season-ending injury to the starting QB? A steroid suspension for the star running back? Losses in four of their last six regular-season games to turn first place in the West Division into third?
We’ve all been there and done that with this Bombers team, over and over and over again over the years.
Only this time, it was different because this time none of it spelled doom. Andrew Harris returned from that drug suspension better than ever, the late-season acquisition of Zach Collaros has made Nichols an after-thought, and road wins in the West semifinal and final have the Bombers heading into Sunday’s big game with a very valuable asset — momentum.
Even in the West final, there were moments that had every Bombers fan cringing and wondering, ‘Here we go again?’ That seemingly game-ending Cody Fajardo fumble that suddenly wasn’t; that ‘immaculate reception’ by a Roughriders receiver off a batted ball near the Bombers goal-line — they were exactly the doom-struck plays that have been the undoing of the Bombers for decades.
Except not this time. Because as they have all season long, this Bombers team turned adversity into opportunity and, ultimately, a berth in the Grey Cup game.
So, are the same football gods that have so long conspired against Winnipeg finally on our side? We’ll see.
All I will tell you is to be careful what you wish for. Back in October 2016, when the Chicago Cubs had just won Game 7 to end a 108-year World Series drought, a voice in the crowd that had gathered outside Wrigley Field yelled out: ‘So now what?’”
The crowd, it is said, laughed, nervously.
Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.