Brady Oliveira’s official homecoming came with perfectly appropriate Winnipeg weather.
A cold wind mixed with intermittent rain greeted the 54 participants on the opening day of Blue Bombers rookie camp and Oliveira, a 21-year-old running back and one of the the club’s prize off-season acquisitions, soaked in every moment on the outdoor practice field adjacent to the Subway Soccer South Complex.
"The first thing I did here when I walked on the field here... was I took a knee, did a sign of the cross and thanked God for me having the opportunity to step on this field and continue the game of football and be a pro now — a professional," said Oliveira, chosen in the second round (14th overall) of the recent CFL Draft.
"It makes it better that I’m coming back to my hometown and representing my city. I had so much fun out here today. Probably the most fun I’ve had in football in a very long time."
Oliveira, coming off a stellar four-year career with the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks, was immediately put to work catching the ball out of the backfield and he relished the opportunity.
"I didn’t catch the ball much at UND. But being out here, it seems like every second play the running back’s getting released from the backfield and running routes, and I think that’s one of my strong suits," said Oliveira.
While Oliveira was signed earlier in the month, fourth-overall pick Drew Desjarlais, a 6-2, 307-pound offensive lineman, and wide receiver Malik Richards, a fifth-round selection, debuted on the practice field less than 24 hours after signing their first contracts with the Blue Bombers.
Desjarlais, a 22-year-old from the University of Windsor, had a private workout with the NFL’s New York Jets at their practice facility in Florham Park, N.J., on Tuesday but quickly decided to join the Blue Bombers, catching a previously booked flight and arriving in the Manitoba capital by 11 p.m.
"It’s been a whirlwind of flights and travelling and practising and learning playbooks," said Desjarlais, who also attended mini-camps with the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers but was unable to earn a contract.
"It wasn’t that hard (to decide to come to Winnipeg), because you get the best fallback you could ask for, right? You’ve got football at the end of the road."
The Jets announced the firing of general manager Mike Maccagnan early Wednesday.
"You don’t hear too much, they just kinda send you on your way," Desjarlais said. "They say they don’t really want to make any moves right now... I don’t think I was in contemplation yesterday with (Maccagnan’s fate) on their minds."
Desjarlais is joining the Bombers at an opportune time. With the retirement of centre Matthias Goossen and the departure of guard Sukh Chungh to the B.C. Lions via free agency, Winnipeg will have a healthy competition to fill those spots.
"I expect it to be tough," Desjarlais said. "At the end of the day, you’re fighting for spots. It’s nice to have the warm-ups, of course. My body’s already ready, and I got that first-week soreness out of the way. It’s a nice thing to have."
Winnipeg has now signed eight of its 2019 draft choices. The lone unsigned player is No. 5 overall pick Jonathan Kongbo, a defensive end from Tennessee. Kongbo is recovering from off-season knee surgery and will not be ready for training camp.
Another newcomer, 26-year-old American wide receiver Lucky Whitehead, is hoping to revive his pro career by making an early impression on the Bombers coaching staff after a standout performance at the club’s recent free-agent mini-camp in Bradenton, Fla. The former member of the Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets got an introduction to the nuances of the Canadian game at mini-camp and believes he can adjust quickly.
"I think I can pick it up pretty fast," said Whitehead, who was a college teammate of Winnipeg defensive lineman Brandin Bryant at Florida Atlantic.
"There’s a couple of things that are different, that I need to learn, especially being that I’m on the ball and a lot of people are doing motion. I feel like I’m getting off the ball a little slow. Cause they’re coming back from 10 yards, flying by (on the waggle)."
Whitehead is also considered a top candidate to return kicks for the Blue Bombers and said he wasn’t worried about adapting to a league without a fair-catch rule.
"Well, I don’t fair catch much anyways, so I’m looking forward to it," he said. "Just a better chance of always making a play."
NOTEWORTHY: rookie camp practices are scheduled for today and Friday at 10:20 a.m... Four quarterbacks took part in Wednesday’s action: Sean McGuire, Kevin Anderson, Sawyer Buettner and veteran Bryan Bennett. Participation by veteran QBs was optional, with Matt Nichols and Chris Streveler opting not to suit up.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
Updated on Wednesday, May 15, 2019 at 9:02 PM CDT: Removes extraneous fact box material
9:09 PM: Updates photo.