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What the CFL Feels Like

On the 2014 season-opening night in Winnipeg, an old fanbase found new hope, a fledgling quarterback's star was born and all the quirky charms that make the Canadian Football League what it is were on full display

WINNIPEG, Manitoba, Canada — Concern had been in the air. You could feel it hanging over the city, just like the overcast gray skies. Winnipeggers apologized for the weather—even at this latitude, it’s supposed to be warmer in June—and confided their skepticism for their football team.

“All we have to do is win,” Kyle Walters, the team’s general manager, assured a fan last night, inside the 33,500-seat stadium no one was sure would sell out for the season opener.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers hadn’t done a lot of winning the past two years. Last season’s record was a dismal 3-15. Now, they were starting over, with a defensive scheme no one seemed to know anything about, and a new starting quarterback, Drew Willy, who had only a smattering of spot starts to his name at any level of professional football.

But it’s the same thing we say about parents: They worry because they love you. And boy, do Winnipeggers love their Blue Bombers. That only deepened when the NHL skipped town for 15 years, leaving the Canadian Football League Bombers as this sports town’s pro team.

So when Willy completed his first drive ever as a professional QB1 with a 27-yard touchdown pass—one of those fade routes that works so well in the vast 20-yard CFL end zones—there was a cavalcade of noises. Where were we, Seattle? The Bombers’ modern, U-shaped stadium looks like the Seahawks’ CenturyLink Field, and for being half the size—and far from full last night—it sounded a little like it, too.


Monday—Marc Trestman: Welcome to Canada Week

Tuesday—Doug Flutie: Reflections on my time in CFL

Wednesday—Bruce Arthur: The CFL’s small-town charm

Thursday—Emily Kaplan: CFL players' offseason lives

Monday — Peter King: MMQB from Calgary and Regina 

They ring cowbells here (a crossover from the sport of curling, one of the locals said) and, after every score, a little bomber jet driven by “Captain Blue” takes a spin around the end zone printed with the University of Manitoba seal. The Bombers’ 7-0 lead over the Toronto Argonauts was cause enough for a “LET’S GO BOMBERS!” chant to reverberate off the tin roof.

No matter where football is played, there’s a story behind every touchdown. This one—three minutes and 34 seconds into the new CFL season—meant hope was alive in Winnipeg.

* * *

Drew Willy is here in Winnipeg because his time on NFL practice squads and scraping for preseason reps had run its course. Bombers coach Mike O’Shea, on the other hand, is a lifetime CFLer who logged 16 years as the prototypical gutsy middle linebacker, which included playing half of one season with a broken clavicle.

“Growing up in New Jersey, whoever thought I would have been here, playing in Winnipeg,” Willy said. But he recites his mission like a native Canadian: Make the province proud.

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The Blue Bombers are a community-owned team, just like the Green Bay Packers, and with that seems to bring an added responsibility to players, coaches and executives. Bombers often end up staying here, and become embedded in the team’s fan base.

There’s Rod Hill, the cornerback who was a bust in the NFL but became the Bombers’ career interception leader (47 in five seasons). He manages a Superstore supermarket down the street from Investors Group Field. Ken Ploen, the Iowa quarterback who won four Grey Cups for the Bombers in the 1950s and 1960s, settled here, too. A few years ago, Ploen fulfilled one fan’s autograph request by inviting him to his home to pick up the signed photo.

And Obby Khan, who played six seasons as a Bombers offensive lineman, operates the “Shawarma Khan In A Snap” Middle Eastern food stand. It’s located inside the stadium next to the Rum Hut—that’s exactly what it sounds like—in a popular gathering area on the concourse. The thing about the CFL game and its 20-second play clock is that action happens quickly, so many fans were still waiting for rum shots or falafel wraps when the Bombers started to make their statement.

Willy was the underdog last night, particularly against Ricky Ray, the Argonauts veteran quarterback who completed an astounding 77.2 percent of his passes last season. In this game, though, Ray’s offense started with a punt, and then a fumble on the next drive, and then later on, one of those dreaded two-and-outs (three-down football, folks).

Ricky Ray (left) is a long-time CFL star, but it was first-time starter Drew Willy who shined on CFL's opening night. (Marianne Helm/Getty Images)

Ricky Ray (left) is a long-time CFL star, but it was first-time starter Drew Willy who shined on CFL's opening night. (Marianne Helm/Getty Images)

Just a day earlier, Willy had been describing the awe of meeting Peyton Manning during Willy’s stint as a reserve quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts in 2009. But in his Winnipeg debut, Willy was a gunslinger. A 41-yard pass. A 47-yarder. (Both traveled most of that distance in the air). When Willy heaved a 25-yard fade route into the end zone, putting his Bombers ahead 24-0, the crowd rose to its feet for a standing ovation—in the second quarter.

Around this time, a reporter from the Winnipeg Sun retweeted a Twitter message from a fan in the stands: Overheard at the bomber game: "Beer tastes so much better when there are no tears in it."

* * *

Lance Moore told his younger brother, Nick, long ago: Every football player makes his own path. The Steelers receiver was on the sidelines last night watching Nick, whose path led him to Canada, where he was the Bombers’ top free-agent signing this offseason. Nick Moore’s two-year contract reportedly earns him about $185,000 each season.

“I love coming up here,” Lance Moore said. “The game is fun. For a guy who loves catching passes, I don’t think it gets too much better.”

CFL rules create offense. Like the “waggle,” which permits a slotback like Nick Moore to take off toward the line of scrimmage with a running start before the ball is snapped. Moore “waggled” from some 10 yards or so behind the line of scrimmage on a 17-yard in-cut in the first quarter, and the defensive back didn’t have a chance to stop him.

The fans needed this win,” O’Shea said. “This community needed it. That’s important, too.

There’s also a new rule in the CFL this season that gives teams the ability to challenge pass interference calls or no-calls. You can imagine the debate, but the Bombers weren’t complaining last night. O’Shea pulled out the yellow flag from his pocket (that’s the color of the challenge flags up here) on a blatant pass interference no-call in the end zone. Winnipeg got first-and-goal on the 1-yard line and—in something else that is a distinctly Canadian tactic—put in the back-up quarterback to run the sneak for a 31-7 lead in the third quarter.

Remember that love the Bombers have for their team? That also makes them hard to please. With a 24-point lead in their pocket, the Bombers committed a silly too many men on the field penalty on a punt, which allowed Toronto to score a touchdown. “Nice penalty, guys!” one fan bellowed from the end zone.

Becky Kaufmann and Chuck Duboff have had Bombers tickets in their families for more than 50 years each. (Photo by Jenny Vrentas)

Becky Kaufmann and Chuck Duboff have had Bombers tickets in their families for more than 50 years each. (Photo by Jenny Vrentas)

Sure, leads have a way of vanishing in the CFL. The game moves so quickly, and inside the three-minute warning, the clock stops after every play. But this wasn’t a tease, not for those fans in the stands who have had season tickets in their family for more than 50 years, dating back to the dynasty years of Ken Ploen and Bud Grant. No, last night, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers knocked off the best quarterback in the league and the would-be favorite in the CFL’s Eastern Conference, and the score—45-21—wasn't even close.

“The fans needed this win,” O’Shea said. “This community needed it. That’s important, too.”

After the game, Willy found out that his friends back in the States were able to watch him play on ESPN 3. Then, he picked up his game check from a staffer sitting on a folding chair in the hallway.

This is the charm of the CFL. As fans sing over the national anthem at Bombers games, God keeps their land glorious and blue.