Tristan Okpalaugo wasn’t playing for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers when head coach Mike O’Shea made a lasting impression on him.
After all, it’s not every day someone saves your mother from being hit by a car.
The first-year Bombers defensive end recalled O’Shea’s quick thinking three years ago after the team practised Friday in preparation for Sunday’s CFLWest Division semifinal against the Edmonton Eskimos.
Okpalaugo played for the Toronto Argonauts back in 2014. He was the East Division’s nominee for most outstanding rookie and was in Vancouver for the awards event during Grey Cup week.
His mother, MaryAnn, came up from California and they went out for dinner. O’Shea was at the same restaurant with other people and they happened to leave at the same time.
“It was dark and we were walking out and my mom didn’t see that the sidewalk was ending so she walked onto the street and there was a car driving by with no regard for pedestrians,” Okpalaugo said.
“Coach O’Shea ended up just grabbing her and pulling her back onto the sidewalk.”
Okpalaugo played one more season with the Argonauts before trying to stick with an NFL club last year. That didn’t pan out and he inked a deal with Winnipeg in February.
While he hasn’t forgotten the close call, he said it wasn’t a big factor in his decision to sign with the Bombers.
His mother, on the other hand, is glad he chose to play for O’Shea.
“She’s been to two games so far and every time she’s like, ‘How’s your coach doing? Tell him I say hi,'” Okpalaugo, 28, said. “She brought him some chocolate last time.”
O’Shea, a Hall of Fame linebacker, said his actions were a reflex.
“I was aware of the situation. It was instinctive,” O’Shea said. “The average person does that. There’s somebody doing that every single day.”
But he did appreciate the chocolates.
“She’s a very kind lady, very nice.”
Okpalaugo’s mother can’t make it to Winnipeg for the game, the Bombers’ first playoff match at home since 2011 and first since Investors Group Field opened in 2013. More than 26,500 tickets had been sold by Friday morning.
Her son and his defensive counterparts will play a key role in the game, especially as the status of Bombers injured starting quarterback Matt Nichols remains a question mark.
Nichols (calf) didn’t practise Friday, but it was because he was with his wife, Ali, for the birth of their second daughter, Parker. He showed up on the field toward the end of practice and got congratulatory hugs and handshakes from his teammates.
Dan LeFevour led the first-team offence and O’Shea said Nichols’ status remains the same. He’ll play, but he’s not saying who’s starting. Receiver/running back Timothy Flanders was hurt at the end of practice, and O’Shea had no update.
Winnipeg (12-6) won both regular-season games against the Eskimos (12-6), the first a 33-26 victory in August that snapped the injury-riddled Edmonton squad’s seven-game win streak. The second was on Sept. 30, a 28-19 win that was Edmonton’s sixth loss in a row.
But times have changed. The healthy Eskimos have won their last five games while the Bombers only have two victories in their last five.
Bombers cornerback Chris Randle had a memorable outing in that second victory. He took a late interception of Mike Reilly in for a touchdown, his only pick-six of the season. He finished the 2017 campaign with five interceptions.
He described Reilly, the West nominee for most outstanding player, as “tough as nails” and confident in his top-notch receivers that include Brandon Zylstra, who led the league with 1,687 yards off 100 catches, five for TDs.
“I believe if we can kind of corral him and contain him from running and creating more time (to throw), I think that gives us a better advantage defensively,” Randle said.
The Eskimos know how to protect Reilly. They gave up a league-low 29 sacks while the Bombers and Hamilton were tied for fourth with 38 sacks.
Okpalaugo had three sacks in a 23-5 win over Calgary last week, plus six tackles and a fumble recovery he took 51 yards for his first CFL touchdown.
He wants Reilly to experience the same.
“I plan on being in his face and getting after him all game,” he said. “That’s my game plan – rushing the passer, get some hits, sacks. Be as disruptive as I can be and make it easy for my DBs and linebackers to play.”