“It’s the best place for us. We love Winnipeg.” | 1st & 10 column
Pat Neufeld has been traded, negotiated his own contract, sat in on Canadian Football League collective bargaining negotiations and seen all the good and the bad of the wacky business that is the three-down professional game. And now the Winnipeg Blue Bombers all-star guard is going to get an even closer look at the inner workings of the CFL and how teams operate.
The CFL announced earlier this week the six participants in the second year of the Player Mentorship Program that allows for them to ‘engage directly with the league office to gain invaluable experience in business behind the game.’
Neufeld joins Jeshrun Antwi (Montreal), Larry Dean (Saskatchewan), Shaq Evans (Ottawa), Anthony Federico (Hamilton) and Kamar Jorden (currently a free agent) as part of this year’s program, and heads to Toronto next week.
“It’s a great idea,” began Neufeld in a chat with bluebombers.com this week. “It’s a great way for the CFL and our players to combine strengths and it’s a pretty cool opportunity for six of us, guys from all across the league, to be able to pull the curtain back at the CFL offices and see the inner workings of things. It’ll be a completely new experience, for sure.”
Neufeld had to apply for the program and then go through an interview process before being selected. The participants could indicate which aspects they are most interested in – promotions and events or football operations – and Neufeld chose the latter.
He’ll get to tour the CFL’s headquarters in Toronto, has the chance to meet with several of the league executives in marketing, communications, data and finance and will visit the TSN studios. Neufeld is also going to be taking in the CFL’s Invitational Combine next week at the University of Waterloo.
“That’s something I’m super interested in because when I was in school, I had a chance to go to the combine and it was a crazy, eye-opening process for me,” he said. “I was a late addition and wasn’t originally on the list of 50 players selected to go to the national combine. Back then there weren’t the regional combines that they have now, there was only the one combination. But getting that late addition changed my course in life, to get the opportunity to go in front of scouts and GMs and coaches and meet the best guys in that draft class. I’m really looking forward to seeing that process.”
Neufeld, who is spending this offseason in Winnipeg, is an admitted ‘football lifer’ who would love to stay involved with the game – and, specifically, the Blue Bombers – in some capacity when his playing days are done.
“There’s so much I do love about the game and now that I’ve been in it a while I’ve got more of a glimpse at the business side of things, especially now that I’m doing my own contracts and have connections with people in our organization,” he said. “That side has become a little more appealing to me.
“I want to be involved in the CFL and professional football and the Bombers for as long as I can when I’m done playing because I am passionate about it. Whatever avenue might present itself, whether it’s player personnel or in coaching in any capacity that’s something I would jump at, for sure. It’s something I’ve dedicated my life to and it’s something I want to keep doing. I just love it.
“I’ve loved every bit of being with the Blue Bombers and I’ve loved being in that building. All the relationships I’ve made there have been special. That’s the hope and dream – to continue to be a part of the organization and help in some way.”
Now 34, Neufeld, has had his eyes and ears open for the first 11 years of his playing career. There’s a ton of accumulated knowledge in that, but the doors don’t always swing open for players after their last snap.
“It’s funny you said that, because it’s exactly what I said in my interview for the mentorship program,” Neufeld said. “I’m going into my 12th year of professional football, and I feel like going through this amount of time, going through a couple CBAs as a player rep and now doing my own contracts and being around a lot of younger guys and doing some scouting on my own, you do acquire a ton of knowledge that is otherwise hard to get. And when you’re done it’s not like, ‘OK, here’s the next step into quality control role or an assistant personnel role.’
“It’s not like a university degree where you get your foot in the door into a finance department or something and then work your way up the ladder. In football it’s harder to do, and especially in Canada there aren’t nearly as many opportunities.
“I just feel like this program allows guys with some knowledge that they’ve accumulated over time combined with this really unique look from the CFL at how things are done that allows us to ask questions is super beneficial.
“I can’t wait to get out there and be a sponge and soak up as much stuff that could make headway for myself and a career in the game down the road. I’m so appreciative of the CFL and the CFLPA to put this interview process together.
More on the Blue Bombers and the CFL in this week’s edition of 1st & 10…
1. Had a good chat earlier this week with Blue Bombers star defensive end Willie Jefferson during his visit back to his home state of Texas and we touched on a variety of topics, from the importance of Black History Month to his family feeling comfortable now in Winnipeg, to how the team has loaded up on offence and defence, to moving on from last November’s one-point loss to the Toronto Argonauts in the Grey Cup.
“Holly (his wife) and I were just talking to our daughter the other day,” said Jefferson while in Houston. “Black History Month is just one month. I’m glad that in the month of February a bright light is put on the great things African Americans have done in history, but Black history should be talked about year-round.
“It is so important to help educate anyone who wants to learn about it.”
We’ll have more on that subject in the coming days, FYI, as our ace Senior Manager of Digital Media, Riley Marra, filmed a conversation with Blue Bombers safety Brandon Alexander and Blue Bombers legend James Murphy. Stay tuned for that.
2. The Jeffersons have called Winnipeg their permanent home since last April. Much of that decision was based on simply keeping the family together all year, not just in football’s offseason. And the more settled they’ve become, the more the place has grown on them.
“It was important for me to be with my wife and have my daughters with me and see them grow up,” Jefferson said. “This is something we wanted to do and as long as we were together that was most important. I’m doing my best for the team and Holly is doing a lot of things with the team like bringing back the Women’s Club and doing other things in the community. Right now, it’s the best place for us. We love Winnipeg.
“We left to come to visit family in Texas. This is where my wife and I are from and we’re very familiar with things here. But we’ve grown to become familiar with the city of Winnipeg, just the way the city of Houston is, or the city of Round Rock where we lived for a couple of years. We’ve been in Winnipeg for the last year and a half or so and in the years before that when they would come up during the season. Now it feels like home when get back and do things in the community, or just the little things like grocery shopping or go to Uptown Alley, The Rec Room, to the car wash, all the regular things. We feel comfortable. That’s our city now. That’s where we’re at and we love it.
“We’re technically home now that we’re in Texas, but we tell everyone we’re seeing we’re only here to visit and y’all should come to Winnipeg and visit us.”
3. A couple more from the chat with Willie…
The Blue Bombers ‘Dark Side’ defence will see some turnover this year, what with defensive tackle Casey Sayles having signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, defensive back Nick Taylor not back after suffering an Achilles injury, with end Keion Adams still on the market and Canadian corner Tyrell Ford scooped up by the Green Bay Packers.
But dating back to last fall and before the market opened the club locked up Jefferson, Adam Bighill, Alden Darby, Jr., Winston Rose, Jackson Jeffcoat, Desmond Lawrence, Shayne Gauthier, Jesse Briggs, Kyrie Wilson and Jake Thomas – all of whom were pending free agents.
Couple that with Alexander being healthy to open the season – ditto for Wilson – and the growth shown in players like Demerio Houston, Jamal Parker, Evan Holm, Cam Lawson and Jefferson believes the defence is going to be solid – even if the offence has got a lot of love recently with Nic Demski and Rasheed Bailey re-signing, Dalton Schoen returning after NFL looks and Kenny Lawler coming back after a year with the Edmonton Elks.
“We’ve still got some big pieces on defence. We got things solidified on defence before free agency,” Jefferson said. “We just got Demski re-signed not too long ago, we brought Kenny back and ‘Sheed is staying… this was the time for the offence to get what they needed done and they’re totally fine.
“The defence is happy with the choices the team made to go get those offensive guys in free agency. We’ll build off what we had last year and what we’ve got coming in this year, including through the draft and the U-Sports schools and guys from the States.
“I’m glad Kenny is back. Kenny knows the team. Kenny was a piece of us, so to have him back is going to be good. Now, for example, Kenny and Schoen can get comfortable working together and do what they do with Demski and Zach (Collaros) and ‘Sheed and Woli (Drew Wolitarsky)… that’s something a lot of offences don’t get to have – a lot of guys who know each other, know how each other plays. They’ll get to build on what was already working.”
4. And here’s Jefferson on working through the pain from the Grey Cup loss this winter:
“I’m over it. I’m already over it emotionally. I’m not going to cry about it anymore. When it comes to the aspect of playing ball… I can’t wait for this year. I can’t wait to do my best to get back and do what we need to do to bring it back to Winnipeg.
“There were so many things that kept us away from it. So, this year the little things are really going to matter. Everybody can look back at that game and find something small that they could have done differently. Those things matter.”
5. It was another big week of change in the CFL with the QB Carousel still spinning. In case you missed it, McLeod Bethel-Thompson opted to leave the CFL to join the USFL’s New Orleans Breakers to be closer to his wife and their family and that was followed by the Tiger-Cats shipping Dane Evans to B.C. for a fourth-round draft pick.
The 2023 season will open with a ton of change across the league at the game’s most important position. Worth noting: only two teams – the Blue Bombers and Ottawa – are scheduled to open ’23 with the same QB behind centre as a year ago. Here’s the updated scorecard:
2022 Opening Starter:Nathan Rourke
2023 Projected Starter: Vernon Adams, Jr. / Dane Evans
2022 Opening Starter: Nick Arbuckle
2023 Projected Starter: Taylor Cornelius
2022 Opening Starter: Bo Levi Mitchell
2023 Projected Starter: Jake Maier
2022 Opening Starter: Cody Fajardo
2023 Projected Starter: Trevor Harris
2022 Opening Starter: Zach Collaros
2023 Projected Starter: Zach Collaros
2022 Opening Starter: Dane Evans
2023 Projected Starter: Bo Levi Mitchell
2022 Opening Starter: McLeod Bethel-Thompson
2023 Projected Starter: Chad Kelly
2022 Opening Starter: Jeremiah Masoli
2023 Projected Starter: Jeremiah Masoli
2022 Opening Starter: Trevor Harris
2023 Projected Starter: Cody Fajardo
6. Still some surprise around the league that Rasheed Bailey opted to leave money on the table in free agency to stay with the Blue Bombers. We told that story, but Bailey himself put together his own take on his Instagram page. The man’s passion is always on display, and nothing is different here:
7. The Blue Bombers announced the signing of four players on Friday in defensive backs Abu Daramy-Swaray and Jordan Brown, punter Devin Anctil – that trio all hailing from the U.S. – along with Canadian offensive lineman Brandon Sanford, who was with the club last year in training camp.
Their details are here. For those interested, a good read on Daramy-Swaray from his time with the Cincinnati Bengals last year can be found here.
Anctil, the punter, has sparkling credentials from his days at Kansas State and has been staying sharp running his own working in the fitness industry while also owning Punt 21 Kicking Service offering training for kickers, punters and snappers.
8. Another plug for our ‘Handled Internally Blue Bombers Podcast’ co-hosted by myself and my compadre Darren Cameron, the club’s Senior Director of Player and Public Relations. Our most-recent guest was Kenny Lawler and he was fantastic.
One of the highlights from Lawler, talking about his growth as a person and the value in his road travelled in making him who he is today:
“Man, you’re making me a little emotional right now. I wouldn’t change it. The road that I’ve travelled… and the grit that comes with it, the tenacity you have to have to face hard days and not having any money, not knowing what you’re going to eat, having to worry about a son and a wife to support for.
“Those days, I wouldn’t change anything because they just build character, and they make the story a little bit more meaningful. The road that I’ve walked is a testament to who I am this very moment sitting with you having this conversation. It’s the road that I’d walk 10,000 times again because I love the person I’m becoming. It’s really special.”
9. FYI: Former Blue Bomber QB Tee Martin – who was with the club in 2004-05 – is now the Baltimore Ravens QB coach. He’s entering his third year with the club and spent the last two years coaching receivers… The XFL’s television numbers from Week 1 of their 2023 season are down. Discuss amongst yourselves whether that seems significant and if CFL observers should stop predicting doom and gloom with the rise and fall of every spring league.
10. And, finally, ICYMI a message from Dalton Schoen now that it’s confirmed he is back with the club in 2023:
Anyone else excited to see what @dschoen5 will do in Year 2️⃣!? pic.twitter.com/dqfa5VHdtP
— Winnipeg Blue Bombers (@Wpg_BlueBombers) February 20, 2023