Family first: Winnipeg Blue Bombers' success story built on caring culture

WINNIPEG — It was 2016 and Jermarcus Hardrick was rushing to the airport to catch a flight.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were heading to Vancouver for a CFL playoff game against the B.C. Lions and the offensive lineman, in his first year with the club, feared the wrath of head coach Mike O’Shea if he wasn’t on time.

“My wife was pregnant and we were late. She was driving,” Hardrick recalled after a recent practice. “I didn’t know what to do when I got there and I was so scared and I was going crazy, snapping (at her) the whole time.

“As soon as I got there, I got out of the truck and O’Shea said, ‘You go apologize right now because I know you were late and I've been late before. I know you said some things (to her) you didn’t mean to say.’”

He and wife Samantha have never forgotten that day, and view it as an example of how the team is like a family from the top down.

“My wife always talked about it. She just respects (O’Shea) so much because I probably wouldn't have talked to her all weekend,” Hardrick said with a smile.

“You know how marriage is. He just understood that. That just lets me know he gets it. He’s lived the life we're living right now. It’s all about family. Make sure things at home is good. That's always stuck with me.”

The Bombers, who lost that 2016 West Division semifinal against the Lions, often refer to the team’s special culture and how they’re like a family.

They point to that as one of the reasons for their success, which includes back-to-back Grey Cup championships in 2019 and 2021 and the opportunity to three-peat after recording a franchise-best 15 wins this season (15-3).

This time Winnipeg is hosting the Lions (12-6) in the West Division final at IG Field this Sunday.

Finding the right mix of skilled players who buy into the team-first culture didn’t happen overnight, defensive tackle Jake Thomas said.

The longest-serving Bomber endured the evolution over his 10-year career, starting with some lean years. There were six wins in 2012 and only three the following season.

O’Shea and general manager Kyle Walters were hired in late 2013. The team posted seven wins in 2014, five the next season and finally hit double digits (11-7) in 2016.

“When I first got here, I don't think guys spent as much time together as we do now,” Thomas said. “Anytime you win, too, it makes things better.

“Usually the first thing that comes out of guys’ mouths when they first get here is just everything seems closer and guys actually care about each other.”

Players enjoy each other’s company outside work hours, whether that’s Willie Jefferson hosting barbecues for the defensive linemen, linebackers going to an escape room or groups bowling or playing paint ball, Thomas said.

Some teammates have even flown to Thomas’s home in Fredericton, N.B., in the off-season for a charity curling event he hosts, which benefits the city’s youth minor football and youth curling programs.

Hardrick said their kids attend each other’s birthday parties, while Thomas noted his wife, Sarah, went to a Backstreet Boys concert with other wives this year.

Thomas also experienced an O’Shea interaction he’s never forgotten.

“I got married on Jan. 2 of 2016 and he called me Jan. 1 to wish me best luck,” Thomas said. “I had no idea what he was calling me for. I was shocked that he even remembered it.

“I got phone calls and some gift cards from coaches when I had my son during the pandemic. It goes a lot farther than just football in this organization.”

Plenty of teammates checked in on veteran defensive back Brandon Alexander while he rehabbed a knee injury suffered in last year’s Grey Cup that required surgery.

Players also make sure a teammate is OK if he’s dealing with a family matter, Alexander said.

“When you’re here, we’re all like open arms,” he said. “Whatever you need, whatever you need to get through. Me, personally, I feel like it’s bigger than on the field.

“How do you put your body on the line for somebody next to you if you don’t care about that person?”

Jefferson saw how much the team cared for his family a couple of months ago.

The Bombers played in Hamilton Sept. 17 and Jefferson’s wife, Holly, was back in Winnipeg about to give birth to their second daughter. A team employee had met her at the hospital to offer support.

It was O’Shea’s actions, though, that Jefferson really appreciated.

The coach told players to quickly get on their charter flight.

“To actually see coach O’Shea put forward the effort to get everybody like, ‘Hey, sit down, let’s get ready,’” Jefferson recalled.

“Then as soon as we land, he says to everybody, ‘Sit down, let Willie get his stuff so he could go.’ It just shows he cares. He’s a family man.”

When Jefferson arrived at the hospital, Holly started pushing and he saw Rielley Rose come into the world.

Bombers receiver Dalton Schoen, the West Division nominee for CFL rookie of the year, has been impressed since joining the club.

“It’s 1,000 per cent different here,” said Schoen, who spent time with three NFL clubs. “As soon as I stepped in here I was like, this culture isn’t necessarily normal from what you see from professional teams, but in the best way possible.

“Just the way that these guys care so much about each other as people, and then care so much about the team success compared to individual achievement. It is really special and it is kind of that family aspect.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 9, 2022.

Judy Owen, The Canadian Press