December 17, 2017

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Former QB Don Jonas takes stroll down memory lane for new book on Bombers

He was on the downside of his playing career, a 33-year-old quarterback contemplating retirement in favour of a more laid-back lifestyle in the form of a high school coaching job.

But then along came a phone call from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. They were desperate. The team was failing miserably, attendance was shrinking and whispers of possible bankruptcy were getting louder.

Don Jonas accepted the offer. It proved to one of the smartest things both he, and the organization, ever did.

"There's just no way in the world I'd ever believe in my wildest dreams," Jonas recalled Friday of how it all worked out. Now 78, the Pennsylvania native has spent the past several days back in town taking a trip down memory lane as a book about his brief but memorable stint with the Bombers hits the market.

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WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Former Winnipeg Blue Bombers QB Don Jonas is in Winnipeg as his new book <em>The Jonas Era</em> hits book stores.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Former Winnipeg Blue Bombers QB Don Jonas is in Winnipeg as his new book The Jonas Era hits book stores.

He was on the downside of his playing career, a 33-year-old quarterback contemplating retirement in favour of a more laid-back lifestyle in the form of a high school coaching job.

But then along came a phone call from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. They were desperate. The team was failing miserably, attendance was shrinking and whispers of possible bankruptcy were getting louder.

Don Jonas accepted the offer. It proved to one of the smartest things both he, and the organization, ever did.

"There's just no way in the world I'd ever believe in my wildest dreams," Jonas recalled Friday of how it all worked out. Now 78, the Pennsylvania native has spent the past several days back in town taking a trip down memory lane as a book about his brief but memorable stint with the Bombers hits the market.

The Jonas Era, by Roy Rosmus and Scott Taylor, is the second in a four-part series looking at the history of the organization.

The Bombers had been looking for a new face of their franchise following the retirement of the legendary Ken Ploen in 1967. It would finally arrive in 1971 in the form of Jonas, whose rights were traded by the Toronto Argonauts after they signed future Super Bowl winner and Hall of Famer Joe Theismann out of college. Jonas had come to Canada a year earlier following a brief NFL career and then several seasons playing semi-pro football in the U.S.

"The Jonas Era of '71 to '74 is, by fact as well as my opinion, the most important era in Bomber history. With the franchise in shambles and on the brink of financial disaster, one Donald Walter Jonas rode into River City and with his teammates turned it all around in two short years," Rosmus said Friday.

Jonas became the first Bomber to ever win the CFL's most outstanding player award in his first season, throwing for 4,036 yards and 27 touchdowns. He was also a kicker and led the league in scoring that season with 121 points. He took his team to the Western final after they had gone 12-51-1 over their previous four years.

"The big bad Bombers were back," said Rosmus.

Crowds began to return, the team's "rainy day" fund would eventually swell to $1 million and Jonas would play two more full seasons and part of a third with the team before he was traded to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. At that point, the Bombers had another star in the making in the form of Dieter Brock ready to take over the position.

"We had a great organization. It was a great operation. I'm just happy as hell to be part of it. It was just a tremendous honour to be able to play on that football team," Jonas said Friday. He joked that he probably would have said "no thanks" to the original offer from the Bombers had he done some further research.

"If I knew their record I wouldn't have come," he said with a laugh. "We started, never knowing where we were going or how good we were gonna be, but we found out pretty quickly."

His ties to Winnipeg remain strong, in more ways than one. His community and charity work during his time here included helping launch the Shinerama campaign for cystic fibrosis, which continues to this day. He recalls doing more than 100 grassroots appearances in his first season.

"My main objective was to be recognized in the community and serve the community," he said. "I'm still so honoured to be with people from Winnipeg. They're the greatest community people in the world."

Jonas also helped inspire a future wave of football players and fans — including current CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie. Although he couldn't make Friday's official book launch, Ambrosie sent a congratulatory letter and photo to Jonas, which showed the Winnipegger in his Grade 3 Springfield Heights elementary school class photo wearing a Bomber jersey bearing the name and No. 7 of Jonas.

"My first football hero," Ambrosie wrote.

Jonas also spearheaded fundraising in the 1970s to start the football program at the University of Central Florida. This week, he got to meet one of the graduates from the program — current Bombers cornerback Brandon Alexander.

"That's what it's all about," Jonas said.

He ended up coaching for three years at the school following retirement.

Jonas has also been following the recent success of the Bombers following years of struggles — a situation not unlike the one he was involved with. He spent some time with head coach Mike O'Shea this week and marvelled at the entire operation, including Investors Group Field.

"He's fantastic. Great personality. He's got tremendous control of the football team, which you need," said Jonas.

Jonas said he's stunned at the physical condition of CFL players these days, recalling how they used to subside on diets heavy on fast food. He's in favour of ongoing efforts to make the game safer, particularly with growing medical evidence surrounding long-term brain damage many athletes experience.

"When we played... the guys never had the speed, they were never big enough, they were never fast enough for us to worry about it," he said. "They weren't going to hit us hard enough. But now, those guys, I'll tell you what."

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Read more by Mike McIntyre.

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