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This article was published 17/5/2018 (750 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Drew Wolitarsky remembers the catch, and doesn’t need to embellish its degree of difficulty or torque its significance to the team.
It meant plenty to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers receiver just as it happened, not only as a starting point to his career with a CFL offence, but as a sign of bigger things to come.
"First play on offence, I swear, very first play," Wolitarsky, speaking Thursday with reporters on the end-zone turf at Investors Group Field, said with a grin. "I’d play some more special teams, but that was my first snap with the offence. Dom (Dominique Davis) was quarterback. I came around, 15-yard dig, a gap opened up and, honestly, I just knew it was coming to me, and I’m like, ‘OK, here it comes. Just catch it.’"
That’s exactly what he did, hauling in the toss from the now-departed quarterback for a first down during what would eventually be an entirely forgettable 30-13 defeat to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in early October.
"It was cool to know that was my first-ever professional catch," Wolitarsky, a participant at Bombers rookie camp this week, said. "It gives you a taste, right?"
That reception stoked his appetite for what could possibly be on deck for the 23-year-old from Santa Clara, Calif., and he’s aiming to make far more crucial plays for the Blue Bombers during the 2018 season.
An opportunity at the wideout position is there for the taking for Wolitarsky, 6-3, 220 pounds, who had a stellar college career at the University of Minnesota. Winnipeg is hoping to go with two Canadian receivers, including Nic Demski, who looks to have a lock on the slotback position.
Wolitarsky, chosen in the CFL’s supplemental draft last June, spent the bulk of the 2017 campaign on the practice roster before dressing for five games in the fall. He turned some heads at the team’s April mini-camp, and the misfortune of Matt Coates — who broke his foot during an off-season workout and was released — immediately improved his odds of getting a starting job.
None of that matters if he fails to seize the opportunity this spring.
"I took the off-season and really got prepared, because I knew they were going to be looking for some guys to compete. And I felt like that was me," Wolitarsky said. "The credo of this group isn’t to just catch the football, it’s to score. It’s to push yourself past the norm. It’s to memorize every play, know everything about this team, and I really respect that and it’s something I want to be a part of.
"There are so many great character dudes here, from the coaches all the way to the third-string players. That’s something I really appreciate about this place, and it’s not like that everywhere. I’m really honoured to be here."
Wolitarsky admitted he was a pretty shy kid during his first foray into the locker room last season, barely getting the courage up to speak with No. 1 QB Matt Nichols.
"My locker’s right next to him now, so I actually started talking to him," he said. "I remember coming here, I didn’t talk to anyone for, like, five weeks, man. It’s good to see that these guys are just human, and just want to win and they want to make you part of that... definitely a good, welcoming feeling."
Wolitarsky’s designation as a "national" comes from the fact his mother is Canadian by birth, and he was able to get his Canadian citizenship.
This isn’t a guy who bleeds maple syrup, at least not yet. He talked playfully Thursday about his "great Canadian heritage," and how his ancestors "from Canada would be wishing they were still alive to watch me."
Indeed, he loves his new home and the CFL game.
"I’d seen a couple of games, but mostly it was NFL and college. But, I came here and love this game, the movements. It’s just really creative. And I love to be creative, I love to make stuff happen, change things up. For those who have a creative mind, it’s a very fun game," Wolitarsky said.
Winnipeg head coach Mike O’Shea has noticed a change in not only the young receiver’s demeanour, but also his consistency on the field.
"He’s taken the information from last year being around us, and he’s applied it in the off-season. It looks like he’s moving better," O’Shea said. "For a lot of guys in the second stint, their second time with us, their second game, whatever it is, you hear them always comment how things slow down and things make a lot more sense. I think every second-year guy goes through that. (Wolitarsky) is no different.
"I think things are going to be much easier for him this year in terms of him being able to compete and his knowledge level, his understanding of the CFL game, will all be elevated. So, it’s going to give him a much better shot."
Also battling for a job at wide receiver is Rashaun Simonise, Winnipeg’s first selection in this year’s draft. He was plucked in the second round (12th overall). The product of Surrey, B.C., is a big target at 6-4, 202 pounds, is a former first-team all-Canadian at the University of Calgary and had a brief stay with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2016.
The road to the CFL was a bumpy one for Simonise. He was ruled academically ineligible to return to the Dinos in 2015, and then, during his time with the Bengals, tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug and was suspended for four games by the NFL.
He’s looking at a career with the Bombers as a fresh start.
"It’s been a roller-coaster for a good two years or so. That’s all in the past now, and it’s all led me here, so I’m fortunate for the opportunity," he said. "This could be my home for the next few years.
"I’m hoping my play-making ability comes through. I’m the type of player able to change the game in critical moments. I’m a clutch player. Obviously, I have the height and the speed is there, so I’m trying to add other attributes, tighten my routes so that I can be a nice package for this club."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).
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