Know how the cool kids say, "OK boomer," whenever a person of a certain vintage tells them how easy they have it compared to the bad, old days?

Well, when James Deighton, the mascot co-ordinator for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, lets prospective employees in on how tough things used to be, how costumes weighed a ton, how being able to see where you were going was a pipe dream at best and how "you had to walk six miles to the stadium and back, uphill both ways and against the wind," their response is more along the lines of, "OK Boomer."

Deighton, 56, has been portraying Bombers mascot Boomer — one-half of avian duo Buzz and Boomer; he’s the tall, lean one — for 30 years. If he isn’t the longest tenured professional sports mascot in North America, he doesn’t know who is.

James Deighton in the ‘bird cage’ — the mascots dressing room — at IG Field.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

James Deighton in the ‘bird cage’ — the mascots dressing room — at IG Field.

"Terry, the fellow who plays Gainer the Gopher at (Saskatchewan) Roughriders games, has been at it quite a while; like me, he’s an older guy, too. But off the top of my head I can’t think of anybody else who’s been doing this as long as I have," Deighton says, seated in the "bird cage," a self-contained, 200-square-foot space in the bowels of IG Field that, during a typical Canadian Football League season, serves as the mascots’ dressing room.

Third and long johns

It’s the million-dollar question: the same way people openly wonder what Scotsmen wear under their kilt, curious gridiron fans are forever asking James Deighton what he dons inside his Boomer ensemble.

“Basically, you wear just enough to absorb as much sweat as possible, while also paying attention to the friction caused by all the padding and straps that hold the costume on, that will rub against your body and cause suffering later,” he says, adding “give me minus 15 (degrees Celsius) and no wind and I’m in heaven, to me, that’s room temperature.”

It’s the million-dollar question: the same way people openly wonder what Scotsmen wear under their kilt, curious gridiron fans are forever asking James Deighton what he dons inside his Boomer ensemble.

“Basically, you wear just enough to absorb as much sweat as possible, while also paying attention to the friction caused by all the padding and straps that hold the costume on, that will rub against your body and cause suffering later,” he says, adding “give me minus 15 (degrees Celsius) and no wind and I’m in heaven, to me, that’s room temperature.”

While he’s managed to avoid any serious injuries during his 32-year career as a mascot, he admits the Canadian Football League’s 1990s flirtation with U.S. expansion was a bit of a shock to the system.

“I had one really bad case of heat exhaustion back when we did a game in Sacramento,” he says, explaining because Buzz and Boomer were so recognizable, league officials recommended they accompany the Blue Bombers on away games to the States, to promote the CFL brand. “It was more the humidity than the temperature; give me a day at IG Field when it’s 30 above with a bit of a breeze and I’m A-OK. But that afternoon... man. At the start of the third quarter, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.”

Just like everyone else associated with the defending Grey Cup champs, Deighton misses the roar of the crowd terribly. What sets him apart from the ticket-takers, hot dog hawkers and (sniff, sniff) Rum Hutters, mind you, is that despite the 2020 season having been shelved owing to COVID-19, he and his team — there are currently eight individuals who take turns portraying Buzz and Boomer — still have a job to do.

"It definitely hasn’t been as busy a summer and fall as it usually is because so many of the public events we’re usually a part of — the half-marathons, the charity walks, the picnics — were a no-go this year," he says, surrounded by a variety of props and signs he and his squad have used in the past to ruffle the feathers of opposing teams. "That said, we have filled a few requests that suit what the times dictate, smaller gatherings like backyard birthday parties. We’ve also done two celebrations of life for longtime season ticket holders whose family wanted us to be a part of things. With everything that’s gone on this year, it was quite the honour to be asked."


 

Deighton, the club’s mascot co-ordinator, has been portraying Boomer for three decades.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Deighton, the club’s mascot co-ordinator, has been portraying Boomer for three decades.

Deighton, a John Taylor Collegiate alumnus, attended his first CFL game at age 15. He was hanging out with a group of friends in the parking lot outside Polo Park, he recalls, when they heard loud cheering emanating from Winnipeg Stadium, later Canad Inns Stadium, a couple of hundred meters away. Praying that the statute of limitations has run out —and that his boss, Bombers president and CEO Wade Miller won’t ding him the price of a ticket — he admits to sneaking into that contest, midway through the second quarter. Sure, he’d watched games on TV before, but being in the stands was something else entirely, he quickly realized. By the time he was attending Red River College a few years later, he was regularly screaming, "West side sucks!" at the top of his lungs, along with the rest of the crowd in Section S, the designated student area formerly responsible for such hijinks as the legendary beer snake.

In 1988, four years after Buzz and Boomer made their debut at home games, one of his buddies, a fellow who worked in the team’s marketing department, asked if he wanted to watch that evening’s contest from the sidelines. You bet, Deighton replied. Except what his pal really meant was did he want to watch from the sidelines, while dressed in a blue-and-gold bird getup? As it turned out, the person who normally played Buzz was injured and the club needed a replacement, pronto.

“It’s not a piece of cake, to put it mildly. Some people lasted two games, others lasted two seasons." – James Deighton

Deighton, whose only instructions were to wing it, no pun intended, rates his performance that night as OK, not great. At one point he held up a "make noise" sign when the Bombers’ offence was driving down the field, a bird-brain move if ever there was one. Plus, he danced like "that typical guy at the bar with a drink in each hand." His effort must have been adequate, however, because not only did he finish the season as Buzz — that November the team won its second Grey Cup in five years — he was invited back for the 1989 campaign, as well.

"Kelly (Ryback), who’d been playing Buzz before I came along, returned in 1990, so I slipped into the Boomer costume that season, instead," he says. "For the next few years it was just Kelly and me, and that’s when I really learned the art of mascotting, as now I had this very knowledgeable entertainer to feed off of."

In 2006, the Winnipeg football club hosted the 94th Grey Cup, a match-up that saw the B.C. Lions top the Montreal Alouettes 25-14. In the weeks leading up to the big game, Buzz and Boomer were in such great demand that Deighton suggested perhaps it was time to fashion together a crew of mascots to better serve the needs of the community.

Deighton was in the Boomer suit last November when the Bombers ended their Grey Cup drought.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Deighton was in the Boomer suit last November when the Bombers ended their Grey Cup drought.

Many of those who applied for the job had theatre training, or had danced professionally, he says. Still, there’s a huge difference between performing on stage in an air-conditioned hall versus busting moves during a summer heatwave inside a bird costume, which Deighton equates with "running on a treadmill in a sauna while wearing a fur coat."

"It’s not a piece of cake, to put it mildly," says the married father of two, who works out daily to stay in shape. "Some people lasted two games, others lasted two seasons. There were people who didn’t even know they were claustrophobic until they slipped the head on and were like, ‘Hey, wait a sec.’"

Deighton’s lanyards and event badges.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Deighton’s lanyards and event badges.

Although it’s been a few seasons since Deighton patrolled the sidelines on a regular basis — on game-day he’s generally perched high above the field, relaying instructions to a handler directly assigned to Buzz and Boomer — there was no way anybody was going to keep him out of the Boomer guise last November, when the Bombers sought to end their 29-year Grey Cup drought. The afternoon of the championship, he remembers being on one knee in the tunnel leading out to Calgary’s McMahon Stadium, the players lined up behind him and superfan Dancing Gabe to his left. In his right hand was a Bombers sign. When he glanced down, he noticed his hand was shaking uncontrollably, he was so nervous.

"Over the PA they announced Hamilton as the Eastern representative, and when they ran out onto the field a pretty good cheer went up," he says. "Then they announced the Bombers as the West Division champs and the entire place erupted. I remember looking up into the crowd and there were people in orange jerseys, green jerseys, red jerseys, all yelling ‘Go Bombers go!’ It seemed like everybody was pulling for us and I started to calm down thinking, ‘OK, this is our crowd. We’ve got this.’"

In the aftermath of the Bombers victory, Deighton-as-Boomer was busier than he’d ever been. In addition to a pair of sold-out events at the RBC Convention Centre held the week following the game, and a celebratory parade through downtown Winnipeg, he also hit the road with players such as Adam Bighill and John Rush, to show off the Grey Cup across the province. Get this: during their travels, he posed for numerous photos with babies of parents who, in turn, showed him pictures of themselves as infants, posing with Boomer in 1990, the last time the Bombers had won it all.

After 32 years as a mascot, Deighton says he is taking it one football season at a time.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

After 32 years as a mascot, Deighton says he is taking it one football season at a time.

Five years ago, Deighton, a sales agent for a major airline in his "real" life, was quoted as saying his goal was to make it to 30 years as a mascot before he would consider hanging up, his uh... wings. Two years past that milestone — at 180 pounds, his game weight is about the same as when he started — he’s presently taking things one football season at a time.

"This year’s been especially tough, because there we were back in February, looking forward to raising a (Grey Cup) banner and celebrating at the stadium with all our fans," he says, showing off the Grey Cup ring he was presented with at an employee ceremony held a few days after the players and coaches received their individual baubles. "Wearing the Boomer suit all these years has felt like being an ambassador for a well-loved institution. It’s afforded me memories that will last a lifetime and I’m not sure I want to give that up, quite yet."

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

David Sanderson

Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.

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