Sitting Down With… Steve Morley

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 Steve Morley.

Steve Morley was a member of the CIS Atlantic Conference’s St. Mary’s Huskies from 1999-2002, winning back-to-back Vanier Cups in his junior and senior seasons. Drafted first overall in the 2003 CFL draft by the Calgary Stampeders, Morley spent the 2004-2007 seasons between the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, New York Jets, and Seattle Seahawks before returning north to play for the Toronto Argonauts in the 2007 campaign. After a one-year stint with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2008, Morley signed with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers as a free agent prior to the 2009 season. Morley went on to play for the blue and gold for six seasons, winning an East Division Championship in 2011. Over his eleven years as a professional football player, Morley received playing time at all five positions along the offensive line.

On September 13, 2015 I was able to conduct an interview with Morley reflecting on his career and his departure from the Winnipeg Football Club this past April. This is the edited transcript of that interview.

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Steve Morley (62) and Glenn January (69) celebrate after the Bombers’ lone home victory in 2013.

Hodge: There aren’t a lot of professional football players from the Maritimes, Steve. As a guy born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, how was it that you came to play the game?

Morley: My brother got into football before me. He was a big guy – not as big as I turned out to be – but he started playing in high school and I would go to watch his games. There was so much excitement at those games it was amazing. That’s really when I started wanting to play. I tried playing peewee but they couldn’t find a helmet big enough to fit my head, so I had to sit out that season and come back the next year to play bantam. We lost every game that year, but it still was a good experience.

Hodge: In 2003 you graduate from St. Mary’s University and it’s time to potentially go pro. You get an invite to what was known then as the CFL’s E-Camp (now known as the CFL Combine) to get evaluated by pro scouts ahead of the draft. Take us through what that experience was like.

Morley: I was really hoping to get to the E-Camp. They don’t really tell you until about a month before if you’re going or not, you just hope you had a good enough year to get the scouts’ notice. I started training right after the season that year. A lot of guys would end up running slow forty (yard dashes) because they didn’t know they were going to the combine, but not me – I was going to train as much as possible. I ended up running a pretty good forty-time for my size – I think I ran a 5.2 – and I was 340 pounds at the time, so that got a lot of attention from the scouts. But as a whole, even when I went there, I thought (the CFL’s E-Camp) was a really professionally-run combine. You got a shirt, shorts, equipment bag, good food, and first class accommodations. Everything was really well-organized. It was an amazing experience.

Hodge: So you end up getting picked first overall by the Calgary Stampeders. Was that a surprise? Or did you know they were picking you ahead of time?

Morley: I was just hoping to get drafted. That was my dream, to get drafted by the CFL. The next thing I know I’m getting a call from the Stampeders who were picking second overall – they didn’t have the first overall pick at the time – and they’re like, ‘Steve, Edmonton’s going to take someone else with the first overall pick. We’re going to take you second and we want to fly you out for a media event.’ So I fly out to Calgary and I’m just super happy to be going second overall. But when I get there, Hamilton, who were picking third, had found out that I was going second and tried to make a trade with Edmonton for the first overall pick. Edmonton told Calgary that Hamilton wanted the first overall pick and so Calgary ended up trading for it. And that’s when Calgary traded with Edmonton and I became the first overall pick.

Hodge: (laughs) I love hearing stories from past CFL drafts. It’s just the best draft in professional sports. So many amazing stories.

Morley: (laughs)

Hodge: You play your rookie season with Calgary. How much did you see the field that year?

Morley: At the time I was picked I was scheduled to go down to mini-camp with the Kansas City Chiefs, which is why I didn’t sign with Calgary right away. I still went there on draft day and did the whole media thing, but I explained to the team that I was going to see my free agent opportunity with the Chiefs through and they supported me in that. When I eventually got to Kansas City things started off pretty slow. It was a really crazy experience at first going up against all those high-quality players. But as the camp went on I had some good showings and they told me they’d like to sign me and bring me to training camp. I flew back to Halifax with the good news, but when I tried to fly back to Kansas City the customs officer at the Toronto Airport asks me where I’m headed. I say, ‘I’m going down to Kansas City – I’m going to a member of the Kansas City Chiefs.’ He’s like, ‘Wow! Where’s your work visa?’ And I’m like, ‘Uh, work visa? I don’t have a work visa.’

Hodge: Uh oh.

Morley: (laughs) The next thing you know, I’m getting detained in the border detention area. Eventually, I get kicked out of the airport and I’m on my way back east. It was a big mess. It was all over the newspapers in Halifax and, as it turns out, the work visa I needed would have taken almost twelve months to get. So I went to Calgary. I got there week one of the season after missing all of training camp, so I was pretty behind the eight ball. It took about eight or nine weeks of practicing with the team to get my first start at left tackle. I started every game there the rest of the year.

Hodge: After your season in Calgary you signed with the Green Bay Packers. I imagine that move came by way of the option year that was available to players who had signed 1+1 CFL contracts under the old C.B.A.?

Morley: Yes.

Hodge: How’d that come about? Did the Packers approach you?

Morley: Well, I’d just finished my rookie season in Calgary. It was a pretty bad year for the team – I think we finished with five wins – and I figured I was just going to go home, work out through the winter, and be back in Calgary for (training) camp. But I ended up getting a call in December from the Chiefs saying, ‘Steve, we want to fly you back down for a visit. We want to host you to watch a game and then we want to sign you.’ And so I went down on the trip and had a great time. Ricky Ray was there on the visit and (former Ottawa Renegade kicker) Lawrence Tynes was there, too. We just had a great time the three of us and I had every intention of signing with the Chiefs. They were going to get me a work visa and it was all going to work out. But then my agent calls me and he’s like, ‘Steve, the Jets want to work you out before you sign with Kansas City. Why not see what they say? They might give you a bigger signing bonus.’ Because, even today, the signing bonus is everything – that’s what makes it worth going down there (to the NFL). The bigger signing bonus you get, the better chance you have of making the team. So we told the Chiefs we wanted to put things on hold for a bit while we tried things out with the Jets. The Jets ended up wanting to sign me, but there was no signing bonus. Then the Packers call wanting a workout. I go to Green Bay and end up having an awesome workout and they loved me. (The Packers) ended up giving me a ridiculous signing bonus. I took it and it felt great signing with Green Bay.

Hodge: You’re there for the 2004 season, after which you get traded to the New York Jets with whom you appear in seven games in 2005. You spend 2006 out of football before getting a look the following year with Seattle.

Morley: Yup.

Hodge: And then you wind up back in the CFL that same season with Toronto.

Morley: Yes. I felt like the Littlest Hobo for a few years there, just going from city to city. I was getting compensated for the moves and all, but I wanted to settle down somewhere. I wanted to spend some of this money I was making – buy a house, buy something, you know? But I get to Toronto and it was similar to my rookie season – I missed training camp because I’d been trying to get a look from an NFL club. I was only three games shy of qualifying for the NFL pension plan and so I was doing everything I could to try and get in with a club down south. I mean, it was only three games, right? So I waited and waited but eventually realized I just wasn’t going to get it. So I signed with the Argos because they seemed pretty high on me, but unfortunately, just like my rookie season in Calgary, I’d missed all of training camp. And (the Argonauts) had really high expectations of me because I was coming from the NFL. I come back weighing in at 346 pounds and, as luck would have it, I tear my groin that first week back during practice. After that, the club started to get nasty with me – reminding me how much they were paying me and all. It was a long season. I think I played in six or seven games there and, admittedly, they weren’t the best games. I was out there playing right tackle and my mobility was limited after pulling my groin, so it was a bit tough. (laughs)

Hodge: We’ll get into your injury history in a bit, but first let’s chat about the last two stops of your professional career in Saskatchewan and Winnipeg.

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Morley (62) celebrates with Chad Simpson (5) after a Blue Bomber touchdown.

Morley: Toronto traded me to Saskatchewan in the off-season after the 2007 season. And it was funny because after my year in Toronto I honestly thought my professional career was done. It had been such a bad year – I had the injury, then I was benched for part of the season. I thought it was time to move on and find another job. But then Saskatchewan traded for me and they had a pretty good offensive line. The ’Riders told me they thought that I could still get back to my original playing form.

Hodge: Well, you would have still only been in your late twenties at this point, right?

Morley: Exactly, I was still a young guy. Now, when I got there they put me in a supporting role as a back-up. They had a lot of veteran guys – Gene Makowsky, Mike Abou-Mechrek, Jeremy O’Day – a lot of good players there. So I was basically a back-up – I think I only started two or three games.

Hodge: And in 2009, you get a call from (then-Blue Bomber director of player personnel) John Murphy, I’d imagine?

Morley: Yes, John Murphy. He started talking to me right around when free agency started and my agent let him know we had a few other offers on the tab—

Hodge: After free agency started, you mean?

Morley: (laughs) Oh, yes, of course.

Hodge: As we all know, there’s no tampering in the CFL.

Morley: Yes, no tampering in the CFL. But I knew Winnipeg was pretty high on me and, though it was another different city, I figured I’d give (Winnipeg) a shot. (The Bombers) had a pretty good offer on the table and, though (then-Roughrider general manager) Eric Tillman told me (Saskatchewan) would match it, I decided to sign with Winnipeg. And so I came here (to Winnipeg) and six years later, I’m still enjoying the city.

Hodge: You sign with Winnipeg in 2009 and, if I remember correctly, you started at left tackle right away.

Morley: Left tackle, all eighteen games, yeah.

Hodge: That would have included Fred Reid’s 260-yard rushing game in BC that season.

Morley: Yes. And we gave up the fewest sacks in the league that season, too. Everyone said our offence was the worst in the league that year but we still put up the fewest sacks because we were doing a lot of varied protection schemes. Every year they give a huge framed poster and a plaque for the (offensive) line that allows the fewest sacks during the regular season and that year we won it. That was definitely one of the highlights from my six years with Winnipeg.

Hodge: And in your six years with Winnipeg you never missed a game due to injury.

Morley: That’s true.

Hodge: I want to ask about that because sometimes guys get labeled as being injury prone. Do you feel like you going six years without an injury was because of training? Was it genetics? Was it luck? How’d you avoid injuries for so long?

Morley: I started working with (Blue Bomber head trainer) Al Couture when I got here. I did a lot of different-style training with him – balance stuff, preventative maintenance stuff, a ton of stretching. Just lots of stuff I’d never done before and it made my body feel great. That’s where I give the credit, because (Couture) helped me through so many minor things – aches, pains, and little nagging injuries that I was able to play through because I was in such good shape.

Hodge: As most of my readers will know, the Bombers didn’t bring you back this year. Which, to be honest, is probably a good thing right now because at your current weight you’d get bowled over by every defensive tackle in the league (Morley, who is now over eighty pounds lighter than his peak playing weight of 345, more resembles a pass-catching tight end than an offensive lineman).

Morley: (laughs) Yeah, they’d love that.

Hodge: Obviously this year the Bomber offence has struggled a lot and that’s after going out in free agency and spending a lot of money on the offensive line. Currently they’re on pace to give up sixty-one sacks, just ten fewer than the seventy-one they gave up a year ago. Do you feel like you and Glenn January (January, the club’s longtime left tackle, wasn’t re-signed following the 2014 season) were scapegoated by the club this past off-season?

Morley: One hundred percent. Glenn and I were blamed for the team’s offensive struggles. It was surprising – shocking, even. Glenn’s making all-star every year, he’s an ambassador for the team, he’s spending his off-seasons here with me doing a lot of volunteer work for the team. And I can understand (the Bombers) not re-signing us or cutting us, but to go into the media and say, ‘We’re better now, we’re bringing respect back, we’re tough now on the o-line’ – that was crazy! I had to stop reading the paper and stop watching the games. It was just so bad. Glenn felt the same way – he’s stayed quieter than me about it and all the more power to him – but it was pretty rough. But then as the season began people started calling me, tweeting me, and talking to me saying, ‘Steve, what’s going on with the o-line? It’s supposed to be better and Drew Willy just got knocked unconscious! What’s going on here?’ and I’m like, ‘Well, I guess they’re not as good as they thought they were going to be!’ So then I started following (the team) again and now I’m kind of back into it. I hate to say it feels good, but, you know, it’s entertaining for me to watch. (laughs)

Hodge: Well, I’m sure you feel vindicated to an extent. The team went out and spent all this money and they really haven’t improved.

Morley: Yup. (laughs)

Hodge: Especially because you and Glenn did a lot of volunteer work in and around the community throughout your time with the Bombers.

Morley: Oh yeah, we gave six years of our lives to the team. I guess that’s pro sports – it’s a brutal, cut throat business. But you have to blame someone, right? If you don’t blame us, who do you blame? They’re not going to blame themselves.

Hodge: Of course not.

Morley: If I put myself in (Blue Bomber general manager) Kyle Walter’s shoes or (Blue Bomber head coach) Mike O’Shea’s shoes I’m not going to say, ‘It’s my fault’ because then the fans the fans turn on you. So you have to blame someone else.

Hodge: This interview is supposed to be about you and your career, but I know my readers are going to be upset if I don’t ask you at least a little bit about the current team.

Morley: Go for it.

Hodge: Is Mike O’Shea the guy to lead this team to success? In the season that you played under him did you see enough to believe in him as a coach?

Morley: I think Mike has a lot of positives and a lot of upside, but definitely the biggest negative about him is his lack of experience. He just doesn’t have that to draw from at the moment, but I think that’ll come over time. His football I.Q. is through the roof – he knows a lot of stuff. I think it’s just a matter of getting the experience. You need to learn the ups and downs of being a head coach and what that takes. I think eventually he’s going to be a good head coach in this league.

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Hodge: This’ll be the last question before we get into our rapid-fire segment in just a moment and it’s a question I always like to ask professional athletes once they’re retired or at least close to being done: if you had an opportunity to go back in time to the very start of your professional career and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

Morley: Don’t take criticism too personally. If you mess up during a play, move one and forget about it. Back in my CIS days I rarely got beat for a sack. I think I gave up one sack in my entire university career at St. Mary’s. So when I got to the NFL and was getting beaten a lot I got pretty discouraged. Once I got over that, though, I got a lot more confident and positive and things became a lot easier. That’s what you have to do – just flush the bad plays and try to get better.

Hodge: Rapid-fire section. Here we go. You ready?

Morley: I’m ready.

Hodge: Pregame meal?

Morley: Quiznos subs.

Hodge: Toughest defensive lineman you faced in the CFL?

Morley: A lot of guys I faced were pretty good. I’d have to say Kelvin Kinney who was with Edmonton in my rookie year.

Hodge: Best head coach you had as a pro?

Morley: (long pause) That’s a tough one. I don’t want to offend anybody. I’ll go with Paul LaPolice – the safe answer. (laughs)

Hodge: Favorite sport outside of football?

Morley: Favorite sport playing or favorite sport watching?

Hodge: Both.

Morley: Favorite sport playing would have to be hockey. Favorite sport watching would have to be mixed martial arts.

Hodge: Favorite beverage?

Morley: Well, right now all I’m drinking is water and milk, but if I could have anything I wanted to drink it’d probably be chocolate milk.

Hodge: Post-football dream job?

Morley: I’d like to be a head coach in the CFL. That’d be the dream job.

Hodge: Favorite restaurant in Winnipeg?

Morley: George’s Burgers and Sandwiches on St. Mary’s. I do one cheat meal a week where I can eat whatever I want and they have the biggest cheeseburgers you’ve ever seen in your life. Big order of fries – poutine, too, sometimes. Definitely a good cheat meal.

Hodge: Now that you have two little ones, where’s your favorite place in Winnipeg to spend a lazy Saturday with the kids?

Morley: I just like taking them for walks around my neighborhood in St. Vital. There’s lots of green space, lots of playgrounds. We’ll go down to the Red River sometimes, it’s always peaceful, always quiet. I really enjoy it.

Hodge: Favorite CFL city to play in outside of Winnipeg?

Morley: I’d say BC. It’s just so beautiful there.

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Morley (62) and January (69) celebrate after the Bombers’ victory in the 2011 East Division Final.

Hodge: Last one – best moment of your professional career?

Morley: In 2011 when we won the Eastern Division Final in the sold out stadium. It was, like, minus-twenty-four at game time but the fans stayed until the very end when we raised the trophy. Glenn January and I were in the middle of the field being silly and the fans were just going crazy. It was a lot of fun.

Hodge: Thanks for doing this, Steve.

Morley: Thanks for having me.

Steve Morley can be followed on twitter at @SteveMorley62.

John Hodge, Blue Bomber Talk

Twitter: @BlueBomberTalk

Email: bluebombertalk@gmail.com

John Hodge is a CFL insider and draft analyst who has been covering the league since 2014.