Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/9/2018 (362 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Gerald Rivers can remember it like it was yesterday.
He was in his senior season with Ole Miss, in 2012, and the historic NCAA Div. I college football franchise had just come off a disappointing 33-14 loss to No. 1 Alabama. It was the second defeat in five games for Mississippi and, with their playoff lives now on the line, the Rebels were faced with a must-win game against Texas A & M, led by rookie sensation Johnny Manziel.
It’s at this point Rivers, now a defensive end with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, would like to say he dominated the line of scrimmage, getting to Manziel early and often en route to victory, salvaging the season for another week. Instead, Rivers had to sit out the entire year due to academic and personal reasons. So rather than doing battle omin the field, he watched anxiously from the sidelines, as Manziel led the Aggies to a 30-27 road win.
"It was one of those things that because I wasn’t playing I was mad and it was tough watching the game. I just kind of remember him running around everywhere," Rivers said after Bombers practice Wednesday, six years later. "I was talking to my guys on the sidelines, telling them to work on this or try to do this move. It didn’t go the way we wanted to but it was so close – so close."
Rivers would wade through the rest of the season, and despite not playing a single game managed to carve out a four-year career in the NFL, with stops in St. Louis, Jacksonville, Miami, Denver, New York (Giants), and Houston. He would finally head north to the CFL this season, first joining the Edmonton Eskimos for five games before signing with Winnipeg late last month.
What more people will be familiar with is what happened to Manziel, who rose to college stardom only to fall from grace in the pros.
Months after defeating Ole Miss, Manziel would become the first true freshman to win the Heisman Trophy – awarded to college football’s top player – after passing for 3,706 yards (26 TDs) and rushing for another 1,410 (21 TDs).
After college, Manziel was drafted in the first round to the Cleveland Browns. But inconsistent play and issues off the field, including charges for domestic violence, eventually led to his release and the search for another football home. After a secret – and questionable – vetting process by the CFL, Manziel signed with Hamilton this year, only to be flipped to the Montreal Alouettes in a trade July 22.
On Friday, the Bombers welcome the Alouettes to town with Manziel as their starting quarterback, bringing life somewhat full circle for Rivers, who will be in just his second game with the Blue and Gold.
"I was killing myself back then so this will be some good redemption," Rivers said.
It won’t just be Rivers looking for redemption, either, but the entire Blue Bombers organization.
At 5-7, and mired in a four-game losing streak, Friday’s game against Montreal has quickly become a must-win. Winnipeg sits in last place in the West, and with a tough schedule for the final six games, Montreal, who is dead last in the CFL, at 3-9, is the only opponent they’ll be favoured to beat.
As is the case for every football game, shutting down the opposing team’s quarterback is often the best indicator for success. Manziel, then, becomes a target for the entire Bombers defence, who will be tasked to figure out a once-great college pivot, but with little CFL tape on his resume.
"It’s our first time seeing him and there are a lot of good things he’s done and there are a lot of things he’s capable of doing," said Bombers defensive coordinator Richie Hall. "He reminds me, when you go back to my era, of the Doug Fluties, those types of players who are hard to defend. You can defend them but you can’t contain them just because of the extra dimension that they bring."
It was high praise for someone who has had limited pro experience in recent years. Manziel played in just nine games for the Browns, starting six, and boasted a record of 2-4. After being released in 2015, Manziel hadn’t played a reputable game of football until joining Montreal midway through the season. He lost both his starts with the Alouettes, completing just 58 per cent of his passes (27-for-46) and no touchdowns compared to four interceptions. He suffered a concussion in his last game and has missed the last four.
Still, there remains plenty of intrigue around the 25-year-old product of Tyler, TX. Many still believe he can return to his once dominant self, back to a game where he was consistently firing the ball down field and extending plays with his feet.
Manziel’s history of hurting teams with his run-game has the Bombers defensive line preaching a need to play through the whistle. Because Manziel can often buy himself a few more seconds with his elusiveness, it’s about knowing where he is at all times and stopping him when he’s within reach.
"If I get a good hit, that’s legal and very vicious, I’m going to take it" – Tristan Okpalaugo, Bombers defensive line on Montreal Alouettes quarterback, Johnny Manziel
"I’ve seen guys fall on the ground, get up and then get the sack. You could think you’re completely out of the play but you’re really in the play," said Bombers defensive end Craig Roh. "It could be the second, third, fourth guy that actually gets the sack. So more just keeping on him and keep rushing."
Roh added that although every sack feels great, the fact that Manziel is still followed by millions – he has nearly two million followers on Instagram – means more eyeballs and therefore more joy in taking him down.
"The more people who see it makes it exponentially more fun," he said.
"For me, honestly, as long as we get to him, and it doesn’t matter who he is, we’re going to go for him," added Tristan Okpalaugo, another member of the Bombers D-line. "If I get a good hit, that’s legal and very vicious, I’m going to take it."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.