In 1997, Tommy Condell walked into his head coach’s office and asked if he could draw up an offensive play. Just 25 years old at the time, Condell was a volunteer assistant trying desperately to make a good impression with his first professional team and was thrilled when the boss told him to go ahead.
So Condell put a series of Xs and Os on a white board, along with lines showing the pass patterns and blocking schemes. But when he was finished, the head coach just waved dismissively. The potential effectiveness of the play didn’t matter: it looked as if it had been drawn by the erratic hand of a five-year-old.
“Nobody is going to take you seriously as a football coach if you draw circles like that, ” said Jeff Reinebold, then first year head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. “Draw a thousand of them and get back to me.”
Eighteen seasons later, the two are together on the same staff, Reinebold as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats special teams co-ordinator and Condell in charge of the team’s offence. On Thursday, they’ll take on their old club in the city where they first met.
Condell got the opportunity in Winnipeg – an unpaid internship in training camp – by sending a letter to the Bombers. He was just a couple of years removed from a career as a diminutive receiver – Condell stands about 5-foot-7 – at Cortland State and was coaching with the Albany Firebirds in a second-tier Arena League. The missive landed on Reinebold’s desk.
“Tommy’s always been intelligent, hard working, and he doesn’t lack for confidence. In three days he learns everything we’re doing and he’s helping everybody, ” Reinebold said. “I don’t even know where he’s staying. He’s just there all day, every day. Turns out he’s sleeping in the facility and scrounging food where he could.”
After training camp, Reinebold cobbled together enough money to afford another assistant and Condell took a role guiding special teams. Condell’s energy and enthusiasm proved popular not just with the staff but with players as well.
During one particular practice, Condell started chirping with Milt Stegall, then a soon-to-be star wide receiver with the Bombers. The topic: who could put up better numbers on the bench press.
The exchange drew the interest of the entire team, and Reinebold – known for his unorthodox approach in those days – decided to make it happen. The staff moved a weight bench to the middle of the locker room and surrounded it with velvet ropes, likely ‘borrowed’ from a nearby movie theatre.
“Money is changing hands. We get the theme music from Rocky and bring in Tommy and he’s holding this giant belt buckle over his head. The entire team is around the bench screaming, ‘Tommy, Tommy, Tommy, ‘” laughs Reinebold. “He out-benches Milt, and Milt goes crazy. To this day, it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.”
Condell stayed just the one season in Winnipeg before moving on with his coaching career while Reinebold continued the nomadic football existence which has taken him to college and pro teams across the globe. The two stayed in touch, however, and were reunited in Hamilton before the 2013 season when Condell put in a good word with head coach Kent Austin about Reinebold. “There are a lot of people who don’t know me who have a preconceived notion of who I am, ” Reinebold said. “I really believe that I wouldn’t have gotten this job if it wasn’t for Tommy.”
The reunion has been particularly gratifying for Reinebold, who has watched from as distance as Condell developed into both an excellent coach and a husband and father who balances his ambition against the responsibility of raising four young boys.
“Perception is such a big thing in this business and if you’re Tommy, you’re a little guy who played at a small college and didn’t play pro ball – all the things that give you cred with players, ” Reinebold said. “Tommy has to earn it. What I was trying to get him to understand all those years ago was that when you get on the board, you’re going to have to be better than everybody else. He’s embraced that.”
Condell says he drew those 1,000 circles during the course of that first season, using the mirrors in his hotel room while the team was on road trips as a canvas. He didn’t really understand it at the time but sees the wisdom in it now.
“I will do anything for Jeff because he gave me that opportunity, ” Condell said. “I couldn’t ever thank him enough.”