Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/5/2019 (1135 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It was the third day of training camp last season when Jake Thomas made his grand entrance. As he walked onto the turf at IG Field, having just arrived for his first team workout of the year, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers veteran defensive tackle was greeted by his colleagues with a firm embrace.
Soon, as more began to notice his presence, they, too, extended a warm welcome. Eventually, the practice had come to a halt.
"What happened in practice was unbelievable, the way it stopped and the way people were cheering and excited," head coach Mike O’Shea said Monday, now a year later, as the Bombers wrapped up Day 9 of training camp. "That’s how important a guy like Jake is to our team."
Just days before, Thomas, 28, had been ruled out of the team’s 2018 plans, left unsigned and in need of another CFL home as the Bombers worked younger — and, in some cases, cheaper — options into the lineup. After all, Winnipeg had drafted Faith Ekakitie with the No. 1 overall pick in the CFL draft the year before, and it was time for him to blossom into a major contributor on the defensive line. The Bombers were also interested to see what they had in prospect Ian Marouf, another 2017 draft pick, if given more opportunity.
Soon, though, Thomas would be back in the mix.
Marouf went down with a serious knee injury that ended his season and, eventually, his playing career. And Ekakitie, showing few signs he would build on an underwhelming rookie season, was eventually released at the end of training camp.
That made room for Thomas to be signed to a one-year deal, back for his seventh season in Winnipeg and maintaining his status as the longest-tenured player on the team.
"I should have done that again this year, geez," Thomas said jokingly, when asked what a difference a year can make. "Maybe once it’s all said and done, I’ll kind of go back and think about it. Right now, it’s more of a last-year-was-last-year type of idea. I was happy to get the callback. That was kind of why it took so long, I was really just kind of waiting to get the callback from Winnipeg last year."
He added: "But you never know what’s going to happen. We have a really good group of guys here this year, so it will be very interesting to see how everything plays out up front."
Thomas was used as part of a rotation on the defensive line last year. Though he wasn’t a regular starter, he did play in all 18 regular-season games and both post-season matches, totalling 17 defensive tackles, three quarterback sacks and forcing three fumbles.
He led confidently in the locker room, with his familiarity with the city and organization an added asset to the newer players, both young and old. He contributed in the film room, helping break down opposing offences and identifying weaknesses he felt the Bombers could exploit.
Asked if Thomas, who is back on another one-year commitment, might be considered a tad underrated given how much he contributes to the team and how little credit he seems to get from it, O’Shea scoffed at the suggestion. Never one to care about outsider’s evaluations, the coach was succinct when explaining Thomas’s worth to the Bombers.
"His talent, maybe people don’t notice it as much, but we do. He makes a lot of plays and a lot of those plays maybe don’t turn into stats necessarily, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The play might not be the tackle or the sack. It might be the double-team. It might be holding the point. It might be cutting off a runner," O’Shea said. "I know his value to us. That’s why we keep on re-signing him and bringing him back... because he’s an unbelievable contributor, a good pro and a hell of a guy in the locker room. He’s an East-Coaster, right? He’s a guy you want to have around — you just love those guys."
If age is expected to slow a player down, it hasn’t prevented Thomas from earning more opportunity.
He’s currently pencilled in to start on the defensive line, as the Bombers continue to fiddle with the Canadian ratio.
But if Thomas, a native of Douglas, N.B., does crack the starting lineup when the Bombers open the season on the road against the B.C. Lions on June 15, it will be because he earned it. As for the respect of his teammates, that’s still very much there.
"First thing I really told him after having watched film on him, was ‘you have a superpower, did you know that? Whoever you touch on the offensive line, it’s like they have roller skates under their feet. That is your superpower, you put guys on roller skates and you walk them back to the quarterback and you just have amazing strength and power,’" said Adam Bighill, the Bombers middle linebacker, and reigning CFL most outstanding defensive player.
"He’s been in this league a long time because he knows what it takes, he knows how to get the football IQ side of it, he knows how to work on his body in the weight room, he knows how to take care of himself and show up on game day and be a very, very effective player. It’s not by chance that he’s here and it’s not by chance they brought him back. I only knew him from film before and getting to know the person and why he’s here is pretty cool."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.