January 21, 2020

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Opinion

Thrill of victory for a generation of Bombers fans

CALGARY — It was the moment an entire generation of long-suffering sports fans have been dreaming of, one that many thought might never come. But all that waiting, all that worrying, came to a cathartic end on Sunday night as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers ended their Grey Cup drought in dominating fashion.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers celebrate winning the 107th Grey Cup against the Hamilton Tiger Cats in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, November 24, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers celebrate winning the 107th Grey Cup against the Hamilton Tiger Cats in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, November 24, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

That's right, the local football club is the best in the land for the first time since 1990, a rather foreign concept that's going to take a little getting used to around these parts. After all, disappointment has become embedded in our collective DNA. We're the lovable losers everyone feels sorry for, the little engine that couldn't.

But rather than the typical agony of defeat, the Bombers and their supporters are feeling something new right now — the thrill of victory. And what a scene it was following the 33-12 triumph, from the field at McMahon Stadium here in Calgary all the way back to the basements, bars and streets back home in Winnipeg.

You couldn't have scripted a better plot.

There was the hometown boy, Andrew Harris, standing on the podium collecting not only the Grey Cup, but also the awards for Most Outstanding Player and Most Outstanding Canadian. Not bad for the kid from Oak Park High School, who told me in the chaotic, celebratory aftermath how much he was thinking about the good folks back in Winnipeg.

"Our fans, all the city and the organization, they put so much into this. And they're so well deserving of a championship. I'm just so proud to be part of it," said Harris, who scored two touchdowns on 134 yards rushing and 35 yards receiving.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Andrew Harris pushes off Hamilton Tiger-Cats' Simoni Lawrence during first half football action in the 107th Grey Cup in Calgary. (Nathan Denette / Canadian Press)

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Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Andrew Harris pushes off Hamilton Tiger-Cats' Simoni Lawrence during first half football action in the 107th Grey Cup in Calgary. (Nathan Denette / Canadian Press)

Harris added a few more post-game yards through the air as family members and friends hoisted him up on their shoulders, jumping up and down to chants of "MVP."

There was a Gatorade-drenched coach Mike O'Shea heading into the stands to share high-fives and hugs with complete strangers who serenaded him with chants of "O'Shea, O'Shea, O'Shea to the tune of "Ole, Ole, Ole." And taking a photo with the crazed fan who can finally throw on a pair of pants again.

It wasn't that long ago that many wanted O'Shea and his crew run out of town. Now, he's the toast of it.

"These fans in Winnipeg have been waiting a long time. It's well documented. I know our players really respect the fans. They really appreciate what they do for every home game and how they travel, too. It felt like a home game out there for us. We had a lot of support," said O'Shea.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea gets a sports drink poured over him as his team defeats the Hamilton Tiger Cats in the 107th Grey Cup in Calgary. (Frank Gunn / Canadian Press)

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Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea gets a sports drink poured over him as his team defeats the Hamilton Tiger Cats in the 107th Grey Cup in Calgary. (Frank Gunn / Canadian Press)

There was another local boy, receiver Nic Demski, who was like a kid in a candy store as he surveyed the jubilation in front of him.

"I hope they're back home partying and drinking. It's crazy. we're going to do the same thing. We're champs. This is something nobody can take away from us. I'm just proud to be part of this team and happy to be here," he said.

"This is way more than what I expected. This feels great."

There were the children of players making snow angels in the Blue & Gold confetti. There were big, hulking offensive and defensive linemen overcome by emotion and brought to tears as they embraced wives and girlfriends and parents.

There was defensive coordinator Richie Hall, who put together a flawless game-plan which saw the Bombers give up 14, 13 and 12 points in their three playoff victories, thinking of his brother, Mike, who died of a heart attack in September.

There was offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice, whose high-powered arsenal included a memorable trick play in which receiver Darvin Adams threw a first down completion to backup quarterback Chris Streveler, thinking of his mother, Elizabeth, who passed away earlier this season.

And there, again, was Harris, who admitted he came into the game with a "boulder" on his shoulder, the result of not only being excluded from year-end CFL award honours due to a two-game suspension for having a performance-enhancing drug in his system, but also the snub of his peers in being excluded off the league's All-Star team.

On the podium, as he accepted his collection of trophies, he dedicated it to the "haters" who doubted him

"It's everything. It's a dream come true. When you accomplish your dreams and what you set out to do, that's what it's all about. It's a lesson to everyone that you can accomplish your dreams. If you set goals and envision things, you can make anything happen," said Harris.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Jeff Hecht reacts to a tackle during first half football action in the 107th Grey Cup against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, November 24, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

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Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Jeff Hecht reacts to a tackle during first half football action in the 107th Grey Cup against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, November 24, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

"Sometimes you need to face adversity to do some great things. And I was able to do that today."

And that's the thing. As much as this Bombers win will be celebrated, this never really was about a game, or even a team. Howard Cosell once said, "Sports is human life in microcosm". And that's certainly true.

In the build-up to the Grey Cup game, we saw so many things that make us fall in love with sports. We took a great trip down memory lane, looking at the glory days and rich history of the Bombers and what they mean to so many. We were reminded of a simpler time. Of something pure and innocent.

We saw the the connection to the community, with players like Winston Rose forging bonds with an injured young fan. With "Dancing Gabe" being flown to Calgary by the club. With schools and community clubs rallying together. With families and friends come together for Grey Cup parties, big and small, and making their own memories that will last a lifetime.

With warriors like Adam Bighill, the bullied kid with the cleft lip and palate, reminding us all why he's a leader on the field and a role model off it. With a veteran like quarterback Zach Collaros, who many thought might be at the end of his career, breathing new life into it in a most stunning way.

From the moment I first laid eyes on this team back in June, there seemed to be something special about it. Perhaps it was that so many key players were back, with a focus and determination that make you question how you could ever doubt them. Resilience. Character. Intensity. O'Shea rattled off a whole list of terms to describe his group.

And now, their date with destiny has arrived. And a city that certainly could use an emotional lift, where bad news seems to be so prevalent lately, has something positive to rally around, to be proud of. Sure, we get knocked down. A lot, in fact. But we get back up again. And sometimes, like Sunday night, we stand tall.

"It's a really neat story, isn't it. I'm sure it's going to be told over and over," said O'Shea. "I think the city of Winnipeg, the die-hard fans around the province, our Bombers fans who travel or are scattered around the country, they should feel a tremendous amount of pride for their team. And they do. I'm very happy for them. This is awesome."

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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