Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 9/2/2018 (711 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In a decade of professional football, Willard Reaves played with some of the biggest names in the history of the game.
After a terrific college career at Northern Arizona, Reaves played for the Green Bay Packers under head coach — and childhood hero — Bart Starr. His first taste of CFL experience came in an Edmonton Eskimos jersey, playing in the pre-season with arguably the greatest quarterback in league history, Warren Moon, before being traded to Winnipeg.
As a member of the Blue Bombers, he played under Hall of Fame head coach Cal Murphy and with a laundry list of Hall of Fame players before trying his hand at the NFL a second time, spending time with the Washington Redskins — one season removed from winning the 1988 Super Bowl — and finally the Miami Dolphins, where he played for legendary head coach Don Shula and quarterback Dan Marino before retiring in 1990.
But none of that was supposed to happen. Not because Reaves wasn’t capable of having a career in pro football, but because he originally had no aspirations of scoring touchdowns for a living.
"That wasn’t my goal at all," he said. "I wanted to be a police officer."
But Reaves, a native of Flagstaff, Ariz., got some valuable career advice from the local police chief.
"He said, ‘Look, you’re from Flagstaff. Nobody from Flagstaff goes anywhere in professional sports and you’ll never know if you don’t try it. We need you to go try it. If you don’t make it, you know you’ll have something to fall back on,’" Reaves said.
He did just that... to a point. After getting cut by the Packers, Reaves figured he’d given it a shot and was ready to head home to join the police academy.
But his wife at the time told him to take another run at it. So, he found himself up north in Edmonton before being traded to the Bombers prior to the 1983 season. It was not love at first sight for the Arizonan and Winnipeg.
"When I walked out onto the practice field, I said, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’ I look over and see boxes of OFF! and I’m thinking, ‘What is the OFF! for?’ The next thing I know, I’m seeing people slapping themselves because of the mosquitoes and I’m bathing myself in OFF!," said Reaves, who now calls Winnipeg home and has lived here since his retirement.
Reaves, who wanted to get back to Edmonton as soon as possible, let everyone know with his lacklustre practice effort. But Paul Robson, the Bombers’ new general manager, saw through it. He knew Reaves had talent and he let him know that he better get used to Winnipeg, because he had no plans to get rid of him.
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"I switched from not eagerly wanting to be here, to eagerly wanting to be here and the rest is history," said Reaves, who rushed for 898 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie and was named a CFL all-star.
In five seasons with the Blue and Gold, Reaves led the league in rushing three times, won the 1984 Most Outstanding Player Award and scored a pair of touchdowns in that year’s Grey Cup game, where the team blew out the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 47-17.
Reaves’ two sons Ryan and Jordan have shown that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as both of them have gone on to play professionally in their respective sports. Ryan is in his eighth season in the NHL and is currently playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Jordan had an outstanding basketball career at Brandon University before making the switch to football. He has been a member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders the past two seasons.
"I think (Ryan and Jordan) have surpassed me already," Reaves said with a laugh.
But with inductions into the Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Fame and Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame after his outstanding five-year career as a Bomber, you might have a hard time finding someone who agrees with Reaves on that one.
Taylor Allen Reporter
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.
Hall Call is a weekly podcast series hosted by Taylor Allen that shares the stories of local sport icons by interviewing members of the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.
Taylor will talk to a new member every week, with a story featured in the Saturday edition of the Winnipeg Free Press and an hour-long podcast interview. The series can be found online at wfp.to/hallcall. You can also visit the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame inside the Sport for Life Centre building located at 145 Pacific Ave.
To hear more about Willard Reaves' career, including his first impression of the CFL, winning the Grey Cup, being recruited to play for the Philadelphia Eagles by Cris Carter and Reggie White, why he played such a physical style, playing for Bart Starr, Joe Gibbs and Don Shula, following his son's NHL career and much more — listen to the podcast.