Brad Tierney: ‘I’ll forever relish that I got to live out a dream’

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/

Brad Tierney grew up loving football but never imagined he would one day be playing it professionally.

Despite not being the most physically gifted athlete, Tierney carved out a seven-year career for himself in the CFL with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Ottawa Rough Riders thanks to a relentless work ethnic and dedication to his craft.

Brad Tierney Ottawa Rough Riders 1992-Photo: Scott Grant

Let’s get something out of the way immediately, what is going on with your football card?

Haha, strong start! As I’m sure you’ve noticed, my football card is a mess. It lists my birthplace as Wolfville, Nova Scotia and says I went to school at Texas Tech. In actual fact, I’m from Richmond, Ontario and went to Acadia University.

I think what wound up happening is that someone mixed up a couple of different players when they were putting in the info. For example, Tyrone Thurman, our kick returner at the time, was listed after me in the program. He went to Texas Tech but he’s also not from Nova Scotia, so know really knows. It makes my card somewhat of a collector’s item, I guess.

What are some of your earliest football memories?

I grew up a massive Rough Riders fan and idolized guys like Tony Gabriel, Jim Coode, Tom Clements and Condredge Holloway. In high school, my best friend used to have season tickets and we’d go to games together at Lansdowne all the time.

It was the George Brancato era and he was a heck of a coach and had some great teams. In those days, the Rough Riders were all the buzz. We’d spend our free time at school talking about the team the way people talk and debate about the NFL nowadays.

As you mentioned, you played at university football for Acadia. At what point did you feel like you had a legit shot to go pro?

Funny enough, I didn’t even start playing football until my last year of high school. So just making Acadia’s university team felt like a real stretch for me.

I managed to start in my first year, but I really came into my own during my second year when I realized, ‘Hey, I’m not too bad at this.’ Given that I was more than holding my own, I figured that if I put in the work and took football more seriously, I had a chance to be drafted in a couple of years. So that’s what I did — training hard, eating right and in my last year, it paid off.

In 1988 you were drafted 25th overall by the Bombers. Not only did you play 14 games in your rookie year, but you capped it off with a Grey Cup ring. Tell me about that season. 

It was an incredible start to my career. By the end of university I felt I was a pretty good player but as soon as I got to the pros I realized everyone was better than me. There was a steep learning curve, but thankfully I had some great veteran teammates that took me under their wings — guys like Lyle Bauer, Nick Bastaja, Chris Walby and Bob Molle. It was a good situation to be in because we had an experienced head coach in Mike Riley and a strong general manager in Cal Murphy. He was a different breed.

Things really kicked off for me that year when my wife came down from Nova Scotia to spend the summer with me. She was a teacher and as soon as the school year finished, she joined me in Winnipeg. It was amazing having her around as I was settling into the league and learning from more experienced guys, seeing what it took to win.

Although we squeaked into the playoffs with a 9-9 record, we managed to get hot at the right time and won an epic Grey Cup over the favoured B.C. Lions by a single point (22-21). That game was in Ottawa, too, which was amazing.

Looking back, I don’t think I truly appreciated what we accomplished that year, simply because I didn’t know any better. When that happens to you as a rookie you just think it’s going to happen every year. Obviously it didn’t and I never played for another Grey Cup, but that just makes it all the more special.

I’ll forever relish the fact that I got to live out a dream and play for my hometown Ottawa Rough Riders.

During the 1989 preseason you were traded to Ottawa. What was your initial reaction when you found out you’d be going home?

I was ecstatic. The Bombers’ first preseason game that year was in Toronto and I had a whole bunch of family and friends drive down from Ottawa to watch it. Little did I know that there was a deal in the works to bring me to Ottawa.

The following week I was traded home and I went from being a backup rotational player in Winnipeg to a full-time starter with the Rough Riders.

Ottawa was a struggling team, but I got a lot of playing time, which was instrumental for me to continue to learn and develop. You really can’t beat living and playing at home for the team you grew up watching and loving.

Winning the Grey Cup in Ottawa the year before was magical but having the experience of getting to play at home every week with that white R on my helmet was a dream come true. I almost had to pinch myself because it seemed so unbelievable.

Your time with the Rough Riders coincided with some of the franchise’s most tumultuous ownership groups. Did the off-field stuff affect the team’s on-field performance? 

I think so. As much as we’re all professionals, when there’s that much instability at the top, it can’t help but trickle down. For example, I remember a couple of times when Jo-Anne Polak was general manager, come payday players would rush out and run down to the bank immediately after practice to try and be the first to cash the cheques. We never knew if there would be enough money to cover everybody’s payments.

When the Gliebermans arrived on scene, Bernie and Lonie brought the whole circus with Dexter Manley and so on. Ron Smeltzer was a good coach, but he was set up to fail. Every week we had a new crop of players coming in to try and make the team.

With so much turnover, we struggled to build chemistry because there was no consistency. And that was just on the field. Off of it, there was Lonie always scheming ways to make money, they were changing the logo and the uniforms, etc.

We tried not to let it happen, but of course that stuff ended up bleeding onto the field. From a player’s perspective, the hardest thing was just the constant rotation of new guys. It’s hard to get comfortable with each other and gel when you never know who would still be at practice the next week and who would get cut.

What was your view of the Damon Allen/Ken Hobart quarterback controversy?

I remember that controversy very well and I’ll give you my opinion on it as a guy who was protecting both of them.

Nobody can argue that Ken Hobart was a better athlete than Damon Allen. Allen was very talented and had every tool in the toolbox in terms of what you’d want from a football player at the quarterback position. But in terms of leadership, I really didn’t appreciate his style or how he treated his offensive line. He was a great athlete and of course made the team better, but Allen wasn’t a guy you wanted to play for.

Ken on the other hand, I loved playing for. He was the kind of guy you wanted to go out and block extra hard for. Even if he didn’t have all the skill Allen did, Ken was still a great quarterback. He might not have had Allen’s raw ability, but he was much more of a team guy and had the knack for connecting with guys on a more personal level. That resonated with me.

One other thing I’ll mention is that in the locker room. There was no obvious tension between the two. They both carried themselves professionally, so I wouldn’t say it ever affected the team, despite the fact that most guys connected with and preferred one over the other.

Part One: CFL legend Glenn Kulka honest to the bone

What was it like going up against guys like Glen Kulka and Loyd Lewis every day in practice?

Oh my god, you’re giving me flashbacks. They were monsters — big, strong, talented guys who played hard. They made me better every time I went up against them in practice.

Of the two, I preferred practicing against Glenn because he was more reasonable in understanding when it was time to go hard and when it was time to relax a bit. Loyd didn’t have an off-speed, he was full go all the time. If it was a week where I practiced against Loyd a lot, it felt like I’d played three games before we even got to game day.

Even though they had similar builds and skills, they were two very different people. Glenn was more of your typical football player but also a really interesting dude off the field. On it he was so tough to block because he was strong enough to pick you up and toss you out of the way, but he was also athletic and shifty enough dance right around you if you didn’t get set properly.

I learned a ton from both of them and I used to love being on the sidelines during games and watch the other team struggle to block them as they did their thing.

Offensive linemen love run blocking. Describe the feeling you got as a lineman when you pulled on a sweep and got to take a 15-yard run at a defensive back.

You lived for those plays. I was quite fortunate to have a couple of great offensive line coaches in Joe D’Alessandris and Dick Maloney. They were tough but smart and I owe a lot of the technique I developed to them.

Maloney used to call us (the offensive line) ‘road graders’ and always reminded us that when it came to running the ball, it was our turn to actually dish out punishment instead of taking it all the time like in pass blocking.

I really took that to heart so when I got a chance to get out and get a crackback block. It was fantastic. When it came to pulling or sweep plays, D’Alessandris and Maloney used to emphasize running to a spot, because if you tried to aim for a defensive player, you’d wind up missing.

That’s why I learned the right thing to do is pick a spot, run to it and let the defenders try to get through you. The best part of run blocking is when you caught a guy who wasn’t looking, because you could really light them up. As any offensive lineman will tell you, running the ball is what we most enjoy. It’s your chance to bear down, knuckle up and really go for it.

On the line of scrimmage pretty much anything goes if the ref doesn’t notice. What were some of your favourite tricks or techniques that you used to give yourself an edge that might not have always been legal?

Brad Tierney Ottawa Rough Riders 1992-Photo: Scott Grant

Defensive lineman will tell you the refs could call holding on every play and the reality is they’re not wrong. Haha. Offensive linemen are notorious for holding, but the trick is to get your hands inside to grab some cloth or pads. If your hands are outside, you’re getting called every single time.

One thing I used to do was that I liked short setting guys on the line of scrimmage. What I mean by that is showing run when it was actually a pass and then jumping guys, getting into them first before they got a head full of steam going.

But that wasn’t illegal or anything. To be quite honest, there’s kind of an understanding and a code for the guys in the trenches. Things do get heated, but for the most part, everyone knows we’re working to collect a paycheck, that guys have wives and kids at home and that mortgages and other bills need to be paid.

So typically, people had a mutual respect and tried to avoid going down on someone’s knees. That said, cut blocking was legal within two yards of the line but I rarely did. In fact, I probably should’ve cut more often.

Overall, I was very blue collar. Unlike some of my teammates (Irv Daymond, Gerald Roper, Kari Yli-Renko and Rob Smith in particular), I didn’t make playing offensive line look pretty, but I was definitely the kind of guy that if I got my hands on you, I could block you. In the end I was a lunch pail, farmer’s son who worked hard, but I wasn’t winning any style points.

During your time in Ottawa you made the playoffs every year, despite some rough regular seasons. Was there any year in particular where you felt like you guys could’ve made a legit run if you only could’ve gotten out of the East Semi-Final?

Oh yeah, for sure. The 1992 East Semi-Final loss against the Ticats in Hamilton stings. That was our best season to make some real noise. We were stacked on both sides of the ball. I’ve actually still got that team’s picture hanging on a wall in my basement.

On offence we had Tom Burgess at quarterback, Reggie Barnes and Darren Joseph at running back and Stephen Jones at receiver. On defence, Dave Ritchie maximized the talent he had at his disposal. Less Browne picked off a bunch of passes and defensive linemen like Angelo Snipes and Kulka caused havoc for opposing offences.

We went 9-9 that year, going 7-2 at home, even beating the Stamps and Doug Flutie at Lansdowne. In the playoffs we drew the Ticats and went down to Hamilton to play them. I remember it was a big snowstorm and we played them real tough.

In the fourth quarter we had a 16-point lead, but they came all the way back. To this day I’m not sure how Paul Osbaldiston managed to kick a 46-yard field in that blizzard to win but to his credit, he made the kick. I’ll never forget looking through the snow at the scoreboard and seeing the score 29-28 with eleven seconds left. I always believed that was our best chance to make a serious Grey Cup run.

It’s well known that offensive linemen pride themselves on ignoring the elements and always wearing short sleeves. Did you ever cave and cover up your arms? If not, what’s the closest you came?

I can’t say for sure, but I don’t believe so. At least not in games. I may have caved in practice a couple times if it was really cold and I can recall using sleeves during warmups a few times, but never in the games themselves.

As soon as I arrived in Winnipeg as a rookie, I learned from Chris Walby that offensive lineman don’t wear sleeves. As a funny aside, he was easily the biggest human I’d ever seen in my whole life and yet before games he would always do bicep curls in the locker room to make sure his arms looked huge.

So sleeves were a definite no-no. An unexpected plus of not using them was that it was one less thing for defensive linemen to grab.

The Rough Riders had a number of rebrands while you were a part of the team. Did you prefer a certain look? 

I’m a traditionalist and I’ve always liked the regular look with the original big white R. It’s clean and classic. Plus, that’s what I grew up with.

Unfortunately, the owners tinkered with both the uniforms and the logo multiple times. Things like the flaming double Rs never did it for me. To me, that iconic R on the helmet is perfect and that will always be the true symbol of Ottawa football.

Brad Tierney Robert Weir Michel Lamy Ottawa Rough Riders 1989. Photo John Bradley

What was your typical pregame meal?

We used to all do our own things in terms of food before games, so if I was cooking at home I ate a lot of chicken and pasta. But on game days I think the coaches saw that some guys were showing up at the stadium with burgers and buckets of KFC chicken and decided that they needed to do something to make everyone was eating appropriate meals.

So they eventually started taking us to Dave Smith’s place in the market called The Place Next Door before home games. We always ate well there — lots of chicken, pasta, salad, and so on.

On the road, we also ate well, too. Every meal had lots of carbs and protein to fuel us up. To be frank, in those days if the food was hot and ready, I was eating it. I was not picky in the least.

Why No. 55?

When I was at Acadia I got assigned No. 54. After Ottawa traded for me I couldn’t use that number anymore since it was Irv Daymond’s. I didn’t want to cause any hassle so, I took No. 55. Although 55 wasn’t my first choice, I grew to really love the old ‘double nickel.’

Who was the funniest guy you played with?

Gerald Roper, no question about it. He was the class clown and had the ability to perfectly time jokes in meetings or on the field that would have everyone cracking up. Roper was flat out hilarious.

Another name that comes to mind is Irv Daymond. He wasn’t known for his sense of humour by any stretch, but he could always get me going, too.

Hopefully the CFL comes back strong next year and we can get back to enjoying the stadium and game day atmosphere.

Going through your career stats I noticed that you not only notched a tackle, but also had a kick return. Do you remember those plays?

Absolutely. The kick return came when I was in Winnipeg. I was on the front line of the return team with Rob Prodanovic. B.C. tried a surprise squib kick but instead of doing in it the usual way, Lui Passaglia hammered it off Prodanovic.

Prodanovic tried his best to get out of the way but it hit his leg and started bouncing towards me. I remember thinking, “Holy jumping, don’t screw this up” and I had a mini-debate in my head, unsure if I should try to recover it or go and hit someone. I decided pretty quickly to just fall on it. So although I was credited with a return, I didn’t actually pick up any yardage on the play.

As for the tackle, that came in the East Semi-Final in 1990 against the Argos while covering a punt. You can imagine how the return was going if me as an offensive lineman had to make the tackle.

Your career spanned from 1988 to 1994 but it seems like you didn’t play in ’93. What happened there?

I got cut during training camp and given that I was already working as a paid police officer during that time — in those days they always encouraged us to have second jobs — that’s what I did full-time. In off-season there was a coaching change and they brought me back.

Was retiring in 1995 always the plan?

Not at all, but Ottawa cut me again. Haha! I was playing with the team but when the deadline came close on September 1 — right before they had to guarantee my salary — they released me.

They brought in a rookie American from Michigan to replace me, but he only lasted a few games himself before he got cut. As I mentioned, I was a blue-collar guy and I felt lucky to have lasted as long as I did in the league, so that’s when I called it a day.

Looking back on your career, what are you most proud of?

The whole thing. When I played I was extremely hard on myself and very critical of my abilities. I never held any illusions that I was some super football player, but I worked hard and carried myself properly.

I’ll forever relish the fact that I got to live out a dream and play for my hometown Ottawa Rough Riders. I was never the most talented guy on the field and I wasn’t blessed with a ton of natural ability, but I maximized what I had and I think I did more than okay.

I stuck around for a bunch of years, started a lot of games and got a Grey Cup ring, too. That’s why I’m proud of the entire thing. The fact that I had a career at all is a huge accomplishment.

What are you have you been up to since retiring?

I continued to make Ottawa my home and I’ve been an officer with the Ottawa Police for the last 30 years. Right now, I’m looking forward to being able to retire come February.

Do you ever go to any Redblacks games? If so, what side to you sit on? 

Yes! My wife and I love going together. She actually retired this year and originally the plan had been for us to get season tickets and start going to every game together. However, like so many things with COVID, those plans were shot. Hopefully the CFL comes back strong next year and we can get back to enjoying the stadium and game day atmosphere.

In the past, I worked a bunch of the games as an officer on duty. I just love being at Lansdowne and around the fans. When I go as a fan, I always sit on the South Side, because they’re just a little bit louder.

I remember that when I was a player, our benches used to be right in front of the South Side stands. And because I was working with the police while I was still playing for the Riders, guys from my platoon would come and chirp me. You can imagine what it was like having my entire platoon nearby, heckling me and telling me I sucked after every drive.

More than a few former Ottawa football players have made their way into the ranks of the city’s police. From yourself, to Darren Joseph to more recently, Connor Williams. In your opinion, why do CFL players make good cops?

You know what I think it is? The team environment. Whether you’re a part of a locker room or a platoon, there’s a sense of camaraderie and support. You are there for your brothers to lean on, but at the same time they’re there for you too.

There’s also the whole aspect of needing to stay fit, work out and be in shape. When you’re used to training for work, guys don’t want to give that up when they switch jobs. Not to mention that in my experience football players aren’t typically guys who like to sit behind desks, so being an officer or working with the fire department is something that gets you out in the community where no two days are the same.

Thanks for your time, Brad.

Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).