I’m a member of Bomber Nation because of a watermelon. Yes, a watermelon.
My friend Chester and I, you see, were two kids who would hop on our bikes and pedal from Melbourne Avenue in East Kildonan to Canada Packers Field across the street from a rendering plant in St. Boniface. We would make this journey twice every day, morning and afternoon. We did it because Packers Field is where we would find our football heroes, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. These were the Bombers of Kenny Ploen and
Leo Lewis and Ernie Pitts and Pepe Latourelle and Herb Gray et al, and while they grabbed grass and growled in taking the first steps in a season that inevitably would lead to another Grey Cup conquest, we would stand on the sidelines of this sun-scorched field and observe as if we actually knew something about football.
“I see the jury has arrived,” Ernie Pitts said as he greeted us upon arrival one day.
Chester and I looked at each other. The great Ernie Pitts, the all-star receiver, had spoken to us. We didn’t know how to respond or react, so we did what most kids would have done. We giggled.
Shortly thereafter, Grant, the legendary coach, blew his whistle to signal a halt to the on-field activity. He gathered his players, spoke to them briefly and they began to trudge toward the sideline, most of them walking past Chester and I as they headed toward a white cube van parked near the west end of the field. They were sweaty. And stinky. This had been the final session of their two-a-day workouts, the most demanding, onerous and imposing portion of training camp. We followed them and watched with childlike curiosity as a man with a lumpy waistline opened the back door of the van. Watermelon. Inside was a truckload of beautiful, refreshing watermelon.
That was the players’ post-practice reward for making it through the two-a-days.
Chester and I collected our bikes and were about to leave when we heard a voice calling out. We turned and looked back. It was Bud Grant.
“Here,” he said, “you kids have been out here all week just like the players. This is for you.”
He handed us a watermelon. A member of the training staff cracked it open and two kids sat eating watermelon with the Grey Cup champions.
I’ve been a member of Bombers Nation since that day.
I share that fond recollection with you because I wonder about the current-day Bombers and their relationship with the fan base.
I mean, there are eight teams in the Canadian Football League and seven of them have been using the Winnipeg Football Club as a pinata for the past 22 years. Make that 22 years and counting, because the locals are rolling in the deep again this season and a Grey Cup parade down Portage Avenue in late November is as likely as palm trees sprouting in January.
Naturally, some in Bomber Nation are, shall we say, annoyed. They’re calling for a blood-letting. Off with their heads! Off with their heads!
Before we sharpen the blade on the guillotine, however, there’s something I’d like to know. That is, do the people responsible for this sporting travesty know why we take it so personally each time the Bombers stub their toes? Do they actually know why we rant, rave and demand that Gary Crowton be tarred and feathered? I ask that because of something Tim Burke said in the wake of yet another failed mission, this one a 27-20 loss to the B.C. Lions on Monday in Vancouver.
“I just ask everybody to give us patience,” the head coach of this 1-6, last-place, oh-for-the 21st century outfit told the Winnipeg Free Press.
Excuse me? Patience?
Yo, Tim! What part of 22 years without a Grey Cup don’t you understand? Seriously. Twenty-two years of face-plants and 30,000 people are still making the pilgrimage to the pews to watch Crowton’s pea-shooter offence. If that doesn’t say “patience” then Buck Pierce has never missed a game due to injury.
Bombers loyalists are patient like Bill Gates is rich.
Some, of course, might call us damn fools. Or suckers for punishment. After all, we keep running to No Wins Field out there in Fort Garry or, in my case, turning on the flatscreen just to watch our team find a fresh way to trip, stumble and fall, in large part because of an offensive co-ordinator who’s still operating with training wheels. But we aren’t fools or suckers. We’re owners. We, the people of Bomber Nation, own the Winnipeg Football Club. We care. That’s why many of us get royally PO’d when we endure yet another dreary defeat, then hear the head coach pleading for patience. Tim Burke just doesn’t get it. I doubt many of the Bombers get it.
The lads won’t be in a three-point stance again until Aug. 24 and I’m thinking they could use that down time for a crash course in Blue Bombers Football 101. They could recruit Kenny Ploen as their class prof, and I’m sure he’d repeat exactly what he told an audience the night the 1962 Bombers were inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.
“How fortunate we were to play in a city like Winnipeg, with the fans that we had,” he said. “It was always a great feeling to represent the province of Manitoba and city of Winnipeg. It was a thrill representing the Blue-and-Gold. It was an honor to wear their uniforms.”
An honor to wear the uniform. What a concept.
Do today’s Bombers feel the tug of tradition when they pull that blue-and-gold sweater over their heads? Do they recognize that it once served as a symbol of excellence? Somehow I doubt it, but it’s time they did.
Pass out the watermelon, fellas, then start winning some football games.