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Self-proclaimed mayor of Swaggerville Odell Willis pumps the fans (left). At top, Jonathan Hefney, Alex Suber, Brandon Stewart and Jovon Johnson (from left) give Bomber fans some swagger.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Self-proclaimed mayor of Swaggerville Odell Willis pumps the fans (left). At top, Jonathan Hefney, Alex Suber, Brandon Stewart and Jovon Johnson (from left) give Bomber fans some swagger.

The men of Swaggerville will be making a concerted effort to dial down the volume -- and the swagger -- when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers return to work at Canad Inns Stadium on Sunday.

What began in 2009 as a small, inside joke on the Bombers' defence had grown into a national media monster by last week and just about everyone on the Bombers -- including the coaching staff -- has grown a bit uncomfortable with all the extra attention the Bombers defenders have brought on themselves.

So with a bye week this week between their last game -- a 30-17 win in B.C. over the Lions on Aug. 13 -- and their next game at Canad Inns Stadium Aug. 26 against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, expect to be hearing a lot less about Swaggerville from the Bombers.

"I was one of the people that started it," Bombers defensive back Jovon Johnson mused in Vancouver last week. "But it's getting old talking about it over and over and over again. We just want to go out and play football games, but people keep drawing us back to it; What does Swaggerville mean? Swaggerville this, Swaggerville that. But at the end of the day, we still have to play football and that's our main focus."

Bombers defensive end Odell Willis, the self-proclaimed mayor of Swaggerville and its loudest spokesman this season, said the whole concept of Swaggerville is being misunderstood.

"I'm not sick of Swaggerville, I'm sick of everyone making it out to be more than it is. The T-shirts was just a way for all of us to interact with the fans. This is a fan-happy league and we're a community-owned team and we were just trying to come up with a way to interact with the fans. That's all we were trying to do. It wasn't anything more than that."

It has become much more than that, of course, generating headlines all over Canada. And while they don't like the magnitude of the media attention they have generated, there can also be no mistaking the fact the Bombers defence brought this entirely on themselves when they produced 500 of their own 'Swaggerville' emblazoned T-shirts and decided to sell them via Twitter.

Local media immediately picked up on the story and within days the national media jumped on board. That caught the attention of opposing players, prompted at least one public war of words -- between Willis and B.C. Lions lineman Brent Johnson -- and started to raise the eyebrows of the Bombers coaching staff.

All of which is to say that while there's probably not too many times in his life that the 6-foot-1, 250-pound Willis has been called naive, this might be one of them.

"I didn't expect anything like it's become," protests Willis. "We were just having fun, making some shirts; it was just something that we came up with. But now, we got people taking shots at us, people blowing it up out of proportion. We just want to have fun and play football.

"We're not trying to make it more than it is. We're just having fun; a bunch of young kids, in their mid-20s doing something we're blessed to do. What else can we ask for? So if we got a little swag, who can blame us? We've just got to embrace it and keep playing football because that's our priority at the end of the day."

The problem, as safety Ian Logan sees it, is that all the Swaggerville talk might be making it harder to do just that. "The way it's become, we've just put a bull's-eye on our heads with it.

"I'm kind of tired of it."

While the Bombers coaching staff has been publicly, if cautiously, mostly supportive of Swaggerville, defensive coordinator Tim Burke did say last week that he's concerned some of the antics, in particular a new gorilla dance his defenders had been doing, might be crossing a line.

"Some of that stuff is a little over the top for me," said Burke.

But while the players plan to dial down all the Swaggerville talk this week, they're hopeful the concept will live on in the hearts -- and throats -- of fans.

"We only did it as a way of interacting with our fans," says Johnson. "We're having a good season and our fans are loving it, so why not get the fans involved, because they help us out.

"They're like our 13th man on the field -- even though we don't like to call them that after what happened to Saskatchewan."

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

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.

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