July 6, 2020

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Unlikely legend, Joe Pop became Mr. Popular to Bombers fans

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/1/2018 (913 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It's been over 30 years since Joe Poplawski played in the CFL, but you can still find fans at Winnipeg Blue Bombers games wearing his #71 jersey and talking about his illustrious career with the Blue and Gold — highlighted by a Grey Cup title in 1984.

Poplawski's popularity among the Bombers faithful is so high he was voted to be one of four legends to have their picture featured at one of the four main gates outside of Investors Group Field.

Former Blue Bomber Joe Poplawski with an inscribed game ball given to him for his part in a miracle comeback against Ottawa on Sept. 9, 1978. (Boris Minkevich / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Former Blue Bomber Joe Poplawski with an inscribed game ball given to him for his part in a miracle comeback against Ottawa on Sept. 9, 1978. (Boris Minkevich / Winnipeg Free Press)

But Poplawski never imagined his career would lead to such popularity. After all, he thought his career would consist of pulling teeth and telling people they should be flossing more regularly — not catching touchdowns.

"I thought I was going to become a dentist, not a football player," Poplawski, who grew up in Edmonton, recently recalled. "The University of Alberta had a great dental program. I thought I'm just going to stay at home, play a little bit of football and see what happens, not being very serious about the game to tell the truth."

For a guy who finished his freshman season with only five catches, it was probably a good idea to have a Plan B. But something clicked for him on the football field and he never had to become Dr. Poplawski. Instead of having patients dreading to see him, he had defenders dreading the idea of trying to cover him.

"I concentrated more on coming back to the football," said Poplawski on his improvement as a receiver. "That's not a great skillset, but I just did it more and better than anyone else that I remember."

Winnipeg Blue Bombers slotback Joe Poplawski in a game against the Edmonton Eskimos in 1983. (Ken Gigliotti / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

Winnipeg Blue Bombers slotback Joe Poplawski in a game against the Edmonton Eskimos in 1983. (Ken Gigliotti / Winnipeg Free Press files)

He went from five catches as a freshman to nearly 50 receptions in his third year at the U of A, leading to him being named a Canadian all-star. The football world took notice, including his hometown Edmonton Eskimos who used a territorial exemption on him to own his rights. But the hometown kid didn't get to play for his hometown team, as the Blue Bombers dangled all-star receiver Tom Scott in front of Edmonton and they agreed to trade their young prospect to Winnipeg.

"I grew up wanting to play for the Edmonton Eskimos and then this guy by the name of Dieter Brock shows up in Winnipeg and I started becoming a fan of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers," said Poplawski. "I remember walking home from school with a buddy of mine one time and I said 'If I could ever play in the CFL and not play for the Eskimos, I'd love to play for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.'"

However, the Bombers didn't bring Poplawski to Winnipeg to catch passes from Brock — they wanted him to challenge Bernie Ruoff to be the team's new kicker.

"For three days, I wasn't even given a playbook," said Poplawski, who had kicking experience at the University of Alberta. "I was told to do nothing more but kick."

"I grew up wanting to play for the Edmonton Eskimos and then this guy by the name of Dieter Brock shows up in Winnipeg and I started becoming a fan of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers."

Poplawski quickly realized he couldn't compete with Ruoff so he asked head coach Ray Jauch for an opportunity to make the team as a receiver. Jauch obliged and finally gave him a playbook. Poplawski spent that night hiding in his dorm room memorizing the entire book while the other rookies went out for beers.

"I knew it from first to last page," said Poplawski.

Despite knowing the offence better than anyone, including the veterans, Poplawski wasn't convinced he'd be around for long. He thought he'd maybe make the team, sit on the bench all year and have to move on from football at the end of the season.

He couldn't have been more wrong. Instead of warming the bench, Joe Pop finished the 1978 season with 998 receiving yards and eight touchdowns and was named the CFL's Most Outstanding Rookie. It was just the beginning of a nine-year career with the Bombers that included two Most Outstanding Canadian awards and being named a league all-star five times.

Not bad for a guy who thought he'd be dentist.

Twitter: @HOFPod

Taylor Allen

Taylor Allen
Reporter

Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.

Read full biography

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