Blue Bombers players credit head coach Mike O’Shea for instilling a caring culture that puts family first

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 BC 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 going crazy, snapping (on her) all the time.

« As soon as I got there, I got out of the truck and O’Shea said, ‘You’re going to apologize 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.' »

He and his wife Samantha have never forgotten that day and hold it up as an example of how the team is like a family from top to bottom.

« My wife was always talking about it. She just respects [O’Shea] so much because I probably wouldn’t have talked to him all weekend, » Hardrick said with a smile.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea jokes with Jermarcus Hardrick during training camp earlier this year. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

« You know what marriage is. He just figured it out. It lets me know he gets it. He’s lived the life we’re living right now. It’s all about family. Make sure everything I’m fine at home. It’s still stuck with me. »

The Bombers, who lost that 2016 West Division semi-final to the Lions, often refer to the team’s unique culture and how they are a family.

They cite that as one of the reasons for their success, which includes back-to-back Gray Cup championships in 2019 and 2021 and the opportunity to triple the game after posting a franchise-best 15 wins this season (15-3).

This time, Winnipeg hosts the Lions (12-6) in the West Division Finals at IG Field on Sunday.

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

The oldest bomber has undergone evolution over its 10-year career, starting with a few 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 had seven wins in 2014, five the following season, and finally hit double digits (11-7) in 2016.

« The guys really care about each other »

« When I came here, I don’t think the guys spent as much time together as we do now, » Thomas said. « Every time you win too, it makes things better.

« Usually the first thing that comes out of guys’ mouths when they get here is that everything seems closer and the guys really care about each other. »

Players enjoy each other’s company outside of work, whether it’s Willie Jefferson hosting barbecues for defensive linemen, linebackers hitting an escape room, or bands bowling or bowling. paintball,” Thomas said.

Some teammates even flew to Thomas’ home in Fredericton, New Brunswick during the off-season for a charity curling event he organizes, which benefits the minor football and youth curling programs of the city.

As blue and gold confetti falls all around him, Winnipeg Blue Bombers offensive lineman Jermarcus Hardrick (51) wins the 2021 Gray Cup.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers offensive lineman Jermarcus Hardrick (51) hoists the Gray Cup after defeating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the 108th CFL Gray Cup in Hamilton, Ont., on Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021. The Bombers will look to make their third straight trip to the Gray Cup game when they host the BC Lions this weekend. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

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

Thomas also had an O’Shea interaction that he never forgot.

“I got married on January 2, 2016, and he called me on January 1 to wish me luck,” Thomas said. « I had no idea why he was calling me. I was shocked he even remembered it.

« I got phone calls and gift cards from coaches when I had my son during the pandemic. It goes way beyond just football in this organization. »

Many teammates have reached out to veteran defensive back Brandon Alexander as he was nursing a knee injury sustained in last year’s Gray Cup that required surgery.

Players also make sure a teammate is okay if they’re dealing with a family issue, Alexander said.

« When you’re here, we’re all with open arms, » ​​he said. « Everything you need, everything you need to get through. Me, personally, I feel like it’s bigger than on the pitch.

« How do you put your body at risk for someone next to you if you don’t care about that person? »

Jefferson saw how well the team cared for his family a few months ago.

The Bombers played in Hamilton on September 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 her support.

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

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

« He’s a family man »

« To see Coach O’Shea push for everyone to be like, ‘Hey, sit down, let’s get ready,' » Jefferson recalled.

« Then as soon as we landed he said to everyone, ‘Sit down, let Willie get his things so he can 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 coming into the world.

Bombers wide receiver Dalton Schoen, the West Division nominee for CFL Rookie of the Year, has been impressed since joining the club.

« It’s 1000% different here, » said Schoen, who has spent time with three NFL clubs. « As soon as I walked in here I was like, this culture is not necessarily normal from what you see from pro teams, but in the best possible way.

« Just the way these guys care so much about each other as people and then care so much about team success versus individual success. It’s really special and it’s kind of that family aspect . »

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