Sitting Down With… Chris Walby

Sitting Down With… is a Blue Bomber Talk series that is featured on the blog on a semi-regular basis. The mandate of the series is simple: to sit down with veteran or retired CFL players and give them a chance to tell their story. The player featured in this article is Chris Walby.

Chris Walby spent his entire sixteen-year CFL career with his hometown Winnipeg Blue Bombers. After brief stints on the defensive line and at tight end in 1981, Walby made his permanent home along the offensive line in 1982, starting at guard for two seasons before moving out to right tackle in 1984. Walby went on to play thirteen seasons at right tackle with the Bombers, earning nine CFL all-star nominations and winning three Grey Cups. Walby is a member of the Blue Bomber, Manitoba Sports, and Canadian Football Halls of Fame.

On July 8, 2015 I was able to conduct an interview with Walby reflecting on his career and life after football. Here is the edited transcript of that interview.

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Hodge: Chris, you were drafted fourth overall in 1981 and, though you spent virtually your entire career with Winnipeg, you were actually drafted by the Montreal Alouettes.

Walby: Montreal’s general manager that year was Bob Geary. Coming from the [United] States [to the CFL] was just overwhelming (Walby played college football at Dickinson State University in North Dakota). That Montreal team had some real legends: Vince Ferragamo; Billy ‘White Shoes’ Johnson; Doug Scott; David Overstreet, who’s no longer with us; and one of my favorite guys I ever met in my life, Junior Ah You. But unfortunately I started the season on the four-man taxi squad (ie. practice roster) and being on the taxi squad meant that you didn’t play, you just got your pay. Out of the blue, someone from the Bomber organization contacted my parents. My parents were always old school, you know, “Go to work, don’t play ball, not good for you, not going anywhere, get a job.” Anyway, the Bombers phoned my dad and said, “Tell your son he’s cut.” My dad goes, “What do you mean ‘he’s cut’?” “Well, I just found out he’s released,” they say. Well, you can’t tamper, but somebody, and I’m guessing it had something to do with Paul Robson, told somebody in Winnipeg, “Hey, Walby is off Montreal’s four-man reserve squad.” You see, what they were doing in Montreal was signing and forging my name on contracts, releasing me every so often in the process without telling me. The thing is I’d gotten my paycheck two days earlier and noticed my paycheck was half. So I walked over to Bob Geary and I said, “Bob, sir, I noticed my check’s not for the full amount,” and he goes, “Well, you know, if you’re not playing on the regular roster and you’re just on the taxi [squad] you only get half your pay.” That was never the deal, so I [call] my player [representative] and he agrees with me. So I go back to [Geary] and he says, “Oh, I’m sorry,” and calls out one of his receptionists and tears a strip off her for writing a wrong check. Meanwhile, he had told me a completely different story just days earlier. So that left a bad taste in my mouth. There were great guys in Montreal that I wanted to stay with. I’d had every intention of staying in Montreal. But when I called the Bombers they said, “Listen, here’s the deal: you’re a free agent. Montreal’s been forging your name back and forth. So if you’d like to come to Winnipeg, there’s a plane ticket at Dorval (Dorval Airport was renamed the Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport in 2003) for you right now. You have to leave tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, I’m living with six guys in Montreal in Ile de Soeurs, translated to Nun’s Island. We’re right on the Saint Lawrence Seaway, so I’m loving life.

Hodge: I can imagine the stories.

Walby: Oh yeah. I was twenty-four-years-old and nothing in Montreal even starts up until midnight. But anyway, the Bombers say, “You’ve got to make a decision. We’d like to have you here and we’ll re-do your contract.” So after tossing and turning and talking to my friends in Montreal I packed my bags about 5 o’clock that morning, caught a taxi, flew into Winnipeg, and they picked me up right at the airport. Within forty-five minutes I’d signed a contract with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers worth more money. Joe Scannella was the head coach for Montreal at the time, who’d won a Super Bowl with the Oakland Raiders. Big cigar, big ring, nice guy. But he was let go by the Alouettes and they made Jim Eddy the head coach, a guy who’d actually coached in the NFL for years. Eddy phoned my parents and said, “I want to talk to your son. We know he’s in Winnipeg,” and my dad says, “Well, he’s not available right now.” And then [Eddy] just tore a strip off my dad. “Your son is the most disloyal piece of frickin’ garbage I ever met in my life,” Eddy says, “he didn’t even give me a chance to talk to him, he’s made a decision he shouldn’t’ve made, he’s hurt his career, he’ll never play.” And that was really tough because my parents didn’t understand the game, so they’re thinking, “Oh, Chris, you’re in trouble.”

Hodge: Wow. I’ve always been under the impression you were traded to Winnipeg. Though, thinking about it now, I’ve never been able to find out what the compensation was going the other way.

Walby: There never was a trade. Everybody always says I was traded, but I wasn’t. Basically, they had released me and were forging my name so I was free to re-sign anywhere I wanted as long as another team wanted me.

Hodge: So they were literally forging your signature on new contracts every week to continually re-sign you to the practice roster without your knowledge?

Walby: That’s right, just to move [me] around. They figured, “He doesn’t know, what’s the harm?” I’m thinking I’m just on the taxi. Meanwhile they’re going, “We’ll move him over here, move him over there.” Plus they’ve got other players coming in and they’re trying to fit in those other guys and keep them as well.

Hodge: Just trying to find creative ways to evaluate new guys, I suppose.

Walby: Exactly.

Hodge: Was that common practice back then?

Walby: You know, it probably was, but I can’t really speak for other teams. But it’s funny because years later Glen Weir (Weir was a defensive lineman with Montreal from 1971-1984), who’s a hall of famer himself, I got to present his hall of fame ring. And he gets to speaking and he says, “the guy we never should have let go was the guy who just presented me this ring.” That was the nicest thing I ever heard from an ex-teammate, because I got along with those Montreal players.

Hodge: On that note, Chris, a lot of people call you the greatest CFL offensive lineman of all-time. You won two league Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman Awards, tied for most ever. You are a nine-time CFL and eleven-time divisional all-star, both most all-time among offensive lineman. And in 2006, TSN ranked you twenty-second on their Top 50 CFL Players list, highest among offensive lineman. Is that title something that’s meaningful to you? Is that something special that you wear as a badge, or do you look at it and say, “Other guys were great, too?”

Walby: You know, there’s a lot of great guys. Pound-for-pound, the most athletic offensive lineman I ever met was Miles Gorrell. Miles was a great guy. He was just all about loving everybody, just friendly. Miles could come into the gym and bench 400 pounds like nothing and then walk around the gym on his hands. He was just an incredibly talented offensive lineman. But I always knew there were guys that were good because on the o-line, as you well know, you’re only ever one part of the puzzle. There’s five of you. And then you have to take the components of your team into consideration like running backs, quarterbacks, and receivers. One of the things I’m really proud of is that we won the rushing title every year, it seemed like, that I was with Winnipeg. And that’s a really great testament to an o-line.

Hodge: Willard Reaves, Robert Mimbs. You guys had a plenty of great running backs.

Walby: Reaves, Mimbs, Michael Richardon — even going back to William Miller in ’81, ’82. So many great runners.

Hodge: You talk about your longevity in the league, Chris, playing with the Bombers for sixteen years. Nine of your eleven divisional all-star nominations came after the age of thirty, with five coming after the age of thirty-five. In today’s CFL there are just two active offensive linemen over the age of thirty-five: Tim O’Neill, who’s the sixth offensive lineman in Hamilton; and Wayne Smith, who’s currently playing guard in Toronto. Do you think that guys playing for as long and as well as you did into their late-30s and even early-40s is a thing of the past or do you think that we might see that type of longevity again someday?

Walby: Well, first, to your one point, the thing I always talk to people about when I do speaking engagements is don’t let people influence what you do, believe you can achieve whatever you believe. Because when I was forty-years-old, and that was the last year I played, I made east all-star. That’s probably one of the more proud moments of my career. But I was also blessed in the fact that it wasn’t until my last couple of years that I started to get injured. In ’88 I had a knee injury and unfortunately missed the Grey Cup game, getting hurt in the semi-final against Hamilton. The injuries started coming in my later years. I remember I blew a bicep against Birmingham in that failed attempt to go to the States, but playing for one of the toughest coaches around, Cal Murphy, I was only out for two weeks. They taped me up like a mummy, put me in a freakin’ sleeve. I gotta play Bobby Jurasin and I can’t ever put my hand down because I’d blown my bicep. “We need you,” they said. And the last game of my career against Montreal my knee was so messed up. We didn’t need the game because we were going to the playoffs next week in Edmonton, but Cal says, “You gotta play. We need you in the line-up.” So, what did I do? Stupidly, I shoot my knee up.

Hodge: Painkillers?

Walby: Painkillers. I couldn’t feel a thing. And the next thing I know I slide out to block Elfrid Payton and my knee just buckles. Just buckles. Torn ACL. Done. Finished. That was my last game. Funny thing is I almost came back the next year. I had every intention of coming back. I worked my bag off that whole off-season and I was in great shape. I’d lost a bunch of weight, I felt great.

Hodge: So did the CBC job come before the end of your career or after?

Walby: Well, CBC needed a colour guy for a playoff game in 1997, I think. Kent Austin was supposed to be the guest analyst but ended up not being able to do it. I’d previously done this thing with a camera called Walby’s World where I did all kind of crazy things – got people married on a plane, did skits in the locker room, a lot of great, fun stuff. Anyway, Scott Oake told Joel Darling of CBC, “You gotta take a look at this guy,” and Darling says, “No, we want a quarterback.” That’s the mentality. Quarterbacks know the game, offensive lineman are just grunts.

Hodge: Quarterbacks are always the biggest names, of course.

Walby: Exactly. But Scott’s just relentless. Finally Joel says, “Bring him on.” So I agree to do the game, the Western Division Semi-Final in Calgary, and when I get there Darling gives my hand a shake, one of these two-finger shakes (Walby grabs his left index and middle fingers daintily with his right hand and shakes them), you know, like, “Nice to meet you, probably won’t see you again after this,” right? So during the game I’m supposed to get three or four hits, that’s it. I end up getting, like, six to eight hits. I started talking about what the players are doing on the field – rotations, stunts, and blitzes. After the game, Darling comes up to me and asks me if I’m available next week. I say, “No. You told me it was one game and that Kent’s coming back. One game it is.” Later that year or early in the next spring the late, great Don Wittman says to me, “Come and do a colour test with me. We’ll do a fake game.” I really didn’t want the job. But finally Wittman asks me, “Chris, what do you have to lose?” So I said, “Okay, let’s do it.” So I do the fake game – you know, pretend we’re calling it from the booth – and Don says to me, “You’re in the wrong career – you should be in this career.” So I took the CBC job. And that’s when I retired from football. It’s funny how one door opens and another closes. Looking back, if it wasn’t for Scott Oake, I never would have worked as a football analyst for CBC.

(L-R) Joe Poplawski, Willard Reaves, Frank Robinson, and Chris Walby pose together at the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony in November of 2010.

Hodge: So, as we know, you got into television right after playing. But did you ever considering getting into coaching or management? Or once the pads were off, were you just prepared to back away from the game?

Walby: I actually did want to coach. Coaching is a fraternity, as you know. A bunch of us Bombers were coaching the Winnipeg high school all-star game on the May long weekend one year – I think I got to coach it about three or four times. Anyway, one year I got the opportunity to serve as the head coach. I brought on a bunch of my ex-teammates – Paul Bennett, Stan Mikawos, Danny Huclack, and we just had a blast coaching those kids. I thought about [coaching professionally], but I’ve heard too much about the time constraints. You’re there from morning until night, morning until night. Come to think of it, though, we were just at the 1990 reunion. I’m sitting there on Wednesday night and Danny [McManus] is there – he was our quarterback then, of course, one of the best I ever played with – and we’re standing around talking when he asks me, “Chris, have you seen our coaching facilities?” and I say, “No, I actually haven’t, man.” Because, you know, doing TSN 1290 radio now, I don’t really get a chance to go down to the stadium much. “Well, c’mon, let me show you,” [Danny] says. Anyway, we end up running into offensive line coach Bob Wylie. I’d never had the opportunity to meet him, but I’d always wanted to. That guy’s a legend – coached in the NFL for almost twenty years, the whole bit. So I say to Coach Wylie, “Wow, it’s really an honour to meet you, I know everyone who plays for you loves you,” and he was just the nicest guy. I had a lot of really great o-line coaches, but he’s a coach that I feel could have made me an even better offensive lineman.

Hodge: Speaking of Wylie and the offensive live – though, if you’d like to branch out on this question to other elements of the game, please feel free to do so – how do you feel the CFL game has changed the most since your retirement?

Walby: I think the players are quicker. When I played there were guys like Dave Fennell, David Boone, John Helton, just a lot of big, big bodies that could move really well. Nowadays guys are so athletic, especially with the linebackers, there are a lot more ‘tweeners’ – guys who are really converted defensive backs. But the game is always going to evolve. It gets better. I can tell you one thing – the players are definitely a lot more athletically in shape than when I was playing. A lot of guys would come to [training] camp to get in shape and now these guys are in tremendous shape coming to camp. So that’s probably my number one thing is that now, guys are more physically fit from day one.

Hodge: Speaking of fitness, I have a contact who worked as a physician with the original Winnipeg Jets who said one of the biggest stars on the team would come back to camp every season having golfed all summer. That was his only form of training — golf.

Walby: You know, it’s funny you say that because I was talking with someone the other day who said that there are way more injuries in training camp now. Keep in mind that back then we did two-a-days for four weeks and always in full gear. Now you’re only allowed one contact day per week and everything else is shorts and helmets. And yet there’s way more guys getting banged up now than ever before when we played. What does that tell you? I don’t know — maybe our bodies are better not coming into the season so fine-tuned that you pull a hamstring on day one. We’re not machines. Our bodies need recovery time. I’m not saying you should show up to camp with a keg of beer on your back going, “Oh hey, here we go!” even though a lot of guys did in my day. But your body needs time to heal.

Hodge: As you know, the Bombers opened Investors Group Field in 2013. Along with the opening of the stadium the club put together a fan voting campaign for the naming of IGF’s four gates. The four players selected were Milt Stegall, Joe Poplawski, Kenny Ploen, and Doug Brown. Were you surprised or maybe even a little disappointed that you weren’t selected for that honour?

Walby: Honestly, I was humbled to be considered. Sure, you’re always a little disappointed, but the people spoke and that’s that. My choice would have been for the team to pick three and let the fans pick one. It didn’t happen that way. But then again, if it’s not you it’s somebody else, right? You don’t go crying over spilled milk. You say, “The fans have spoken” and respect that. Would it be nice to have [my name on the stadium]? Yes. Is it the end of the world? Not a chance.

Hodge: Now, on twitter you recently joked about renaming the Rum Hut at Investors Group Field Walby’s Watering Hole. Was that just a joke or was that a serious proposition that you’d throw your support behind?

Walby: It was just a joke that I tweeted out and it got a good response. But, you know, deep down it’d be cool to have something like that. I’m a rum drinker.

Hodge: When this interview comes out I think we should encourage Bombers fans who want to see the creation of Walby’s Watering Hole to tweet at the Bombers to let them know they want Walby’s Watering Hole to become a reality. After all, the Bombers have to make their stadium payments somehow, right?

Walby: Well, the Rum Hut is probably the most popular place to go. You watch that game last week and everybody’s there.

Hodge: That’s why I think we need a second destination for fans. The north end zone has the Rum Hut. The south end zone needs Walby’s Watering Hole.

Walby: I don’t think it’ll happen because I don’t think they want to put liquor to a name. That’s the thing. “Somebody was intoxicated at so-and-so’s hut or so-and-so’s place,” that just doesn’t sound good.

Hodge: Well, you never know – maybe the fans will be able to sway the club on this one. Anyway, speaking of last week’s loss to Hamilton, Drew Willy took a nasty head shot on Thursday night that forced him to leave the game with an alleged concussion. With all the research that’s coming out these days about head injuries, are concussions something you ever thought about?

Walby: Yes. More so now because of that. I know I’ve seen stars a few times. I know the equipment was not the same, either, and that’s a big thing. I remember I had an old bladder helmet and our equipment manager Len Amey would pump the air into the bladder and he’d say, “Yeah, you’re okay!” and I’d think, “Uh, I don’t know if I’m okay, as I just heard all the air go out the other side of the helmet.” In Hamilton I hit this middle linebacker, Tuinei Alapati. Big Hawaiian guy. Man, he was big. I hit him so hard when we hit heads that the next thing I know I’m in their huddle. I’m standing in [Hamilton’s] huddle and Mark Campbell, their defensive tackle, looks at me and says very nicely and very eloquently, “Walby, you fat s***, you’re in the wrong huddle,” and boots me in the ass towards my own huddle. Back then you go off to the sideline and all they do is give you smelling salts, put them under your nose and say, “You’re ready to go, get in there.” At a home game I got the tip of my finger cut off. I’m looking down at my hand thinking, “Son of a gun, blood blister,” and I see a piece of white bone sticking out here (Walby motions to the third knuckle of his left index finger). And every time my heart pumps, the blood’s shooting out. I head to the sideline and you gotta love (former Bomber head coach) Cal (Murphy), he didn’t like anyone leaving games. He looks at me and says, “Oh, I guess you can’t play now.” And I go, “Well, uh, I don’t think so. I got a bone sticking out of my hand.” Cal goes, “Well, take your shoulder pads off and go wait outside,” and I think, “Oh, good, there’s probably an ambulance coming.” No word of a lie, they called a cab. A damn taxi. The driver comes out and says, “You’re not going in my cab like that. You’re bleeding all over the place.” So the cab driver runs into the stadium and the next thing I know I’m sitting on a stack of newspapers on my way to the hospital. A surgeon comes to see me says, “We’re going to chop it off at the knuckle and you’ll be back in a week.” And for once in my life I stood up for myself. I said, “No. You’re not cutting that knuckle off.” I had just a little bit of cuticle left. They ended up calling a surgeon out of a theatre to fix my finger. And that took me two weeks. That’s how long I got off for that one: two weeks. They put a cast on my hand and I played.

Hodge: Two weeks for a severed finger?

Walby: Two weeks for no finger. I also got two weeks for this (motions to bicep). That’s just the way it was, man. You didn’t get to miss many games. That’s what it was. Anyway, to your concussion question, I think I’ve had a number of them and I do worry about them. But I’m glad to see the safety protocols in place now, I really am. I hope that they help people live a healthier life.

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Hodge: If you could go back in time to your rookie season and give yourself a piece of advice what would it be?

Walby: That’s a great question. I think that, looking back now, I’d tell myself to be tougher as far as sticking up for myself and allowing myself to properly heal. I was too loyal. I would do anything it took to play. We were coached with fear and the fear was that you’d be replaced. And every year [Cal Murphy] would bring in players to challenge us. Hell, there were seasons where he’d have me play in all four exhibition games. Other guys would play a quarter and I’d be out there for entire games and when I asked why Cal would just laugh. So I guess it would be injuries. I don’t know if I’d change anything else because the teammates I had were just so great. I think the only thing I might have done better would be when I tried out in the NFL in the spring of ’89.

Hodge: I had no idea you tried the NFL. You would’ve been thirty-three in the spring of ’89.

Walby: Yeah, I got invited to four camps: San Francisco, San Diego, Dallas, and Phoenix. And in San Francisco I did two drills and the guy goes, “That’s enough, get out of here,” and I’m thinking, “Oh, well this went great,” but he says, “No, I’ve seen you on tape and we like you. We know what you can do. We’ve got a tackle named Bubba Paris and we want you to either play with him or be the swing tackle. We’ve seen your film.” And that’s actually the year they won the Super Bowl with Joe Montana. They told me it’s all going to be taken care of, we were going to have a contract, and the next thing you know it was all pulled because somebody put out a rumour that I was injury prone. The only time I’d ever been hurt up to that point was when I did my knee in ’88 and I was totally back to 100% when I went for those tryouts in the States. I thought it was a done deal. When I got back to Canada they said they wanted me to fly out there every weekend, it was that serious. It was a done deal. And then all of a sudden I get a phone call from my agent, and he says, “You like Ottawa?” I’m like, “Ottawa?” and he says, “They’ll pay you.” And the hardest thing was, as much as I loved Cal Murphy, he was a hard guy. He made me take a paycut to come back here in ’89 when San Francisco didn’t pan out because he said that I was disloyal for trying to go [to the NFL]. Nowadays they encourage you to go. Back then, though, it was seen as a betrayal. But, you know, sometimes things don’t work out for whatever reason and you just gotta live with it, right? I don’t look back at it like this, but it would’ve been interesting to think what if I’d just agreed and told my agent, “Let’s just sign it, do it, get’r done.” It would’ve happened. But I wouldn’t have had all four of my boys, so, you know, you don’t begrudge that. It worked out good, man.

Hodge: Right on. So I’ve got ten quick questions here I’d like us to burn through. If you have to think about one, that’s fine, but these are going to be rapid fire.

Walby: Let’s do it.

Hodge: Favorite sport outside of football?

Walby: Hockey.

Hodge: Pregame meal?

Walby: Pineapple. That’s all. The guy from the Viscount Gort [Hotel], Harvey Nairn, used to bring me one before every game in a little sack and I’d be all full of pineapple.

Hodge: Defensive end who always gave you a hard time?

Walby: James ‘Quick’ Parker. Elfrid Payton, for sure. There was a guy who played for Toronto for a couple of years, Rick Moore. There’s a lot of them. There were a lot of great defensive ends. David Boone. Those guys were just the best.

Hodge: If you couldn’t have played your sixteen seasons in Winnipeg, which CFL city would you have wanted to play in?

Walby: Another great question. You know what, I like the prairie atmosphere. I think that I’d’ve had a great time playing in Saskatchewan. I had friends there that I played against who I respected so much in Jurasin, Bobby Poley, and Roger Aldag, so it would have been cool to play with those guys.

Hodge: Best moment of your CFL career?

Walby: ‘84 Grey Cup. Knowing that we finally won a Grey Cup after twenty-two years, to me, that was the coolest moment sitting on the sidelines. The snow was coming down, everyone was hugging each other. The game was out of hand, we were way up on Hamilton. It was kind of a bittersweet moment, though, as I was very happy for us and yet I had a bit of sadness for Dieter Brock (Brock, a two-time Most Outstanding Player Award winner, had played with Winnipeg from 1971-1983 before being traded to Hamilton in exchange for Tom Clements). Dieter was my quarterback when I first came to Winnipeg in ’81 and he was just a great, great guy.

Hodge: Beverage of choice?

Walby: I’m a beer guy.

Hodge: Best coach you ever had?

Walby: Well, I only had three. I’d have to say, as a head coach, Cal (Murphy) and then Mike (Riley).

Hodge: Best restaurant in the city of Winnipeg?

Walby: Well, I’m going to get in trouble either way here. There’s a number of them. I guess when I played it was East Side Mario’s and the Pommodores and that’s because everything was fifty percent off.

Hodge: (laughs)

Walby: Now, as I get older, it’s probably Jeffrey’s.

Hodge: They do have the best wings in town.

Walby: Yeah, we go there a lot.

Hodge: The primary reason the Bomber haven’t won a Grey Cup since you retired?

Walby: For me, and it’s only my opinion, it’s a lack of continuity. You have to keep those veterans together and build something. They’ve gone through a number of coaches and a number of changes and every time you do that they try to bring their own guys in and you’re building all over again.

Hodge: Last question. In your retirement video you talked about how you were excited to have four boys because, growing up, you were the last boy to have the Walby name. Do you have any grandkids yet?

Walby: Yes. I have two grandkids, both boys. My oldest boy, Brandon, has a nine-year-old named Ayden and a seven-year-old named Declin. It’s kind of cool how you go from one branch to another to suddenly rebuilding the whole bush.

Hodge: Well, ‘Walby’ is a good name and it sounds like it’ll be around for awhile yet. Thanks for doing this, Chris.

Walby: My pleasure. Thanks for the ‘cold one.’

John Hodge, Blue Bomber Talk

Twitter: @BlueBomberTalk

Email: [email protected]

Chris Walby now works for TSN 1290 radio in Winnipeg and can be heard on all Blue Bomber Game Day broadcasts alongside Darrin Bauming and Troy Westwood. Walby can be followed on twitter at @BigBluto63.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.