Michel Bourgeau looks back on ten-year CFL career (part one)

For someone who never imagined professional football was in the cards, the game has given a lot to Michel Bourgeau.

As a teenager, it took him to Boise State where a national championship was won, All-American honours earned and the roots of a family began to grow. From there, the Montreal native returned to his homeland, carving out a gritty ten-year career in the CFL, playing in 142 games, making 133 tackles, 22 sacks and recovering nine fumbles.

Bourgeau’s time in the league began with five years on a basement-dwelling team in the nation’s capital and included all that disappointment that being a Rough Rider entailed before ending on a championship high with a powerhouse Edmonton squad.

Michel Bourgeau Ottawa Rough Riders. Photo F. Scott Grant

Growing up, where you a big football fan?

I used to sometimes watch the Alouettes or Rough Riders on TV and enjoyed the sloppy fields that came with rain or snow games, but when I started playing at eight years old, I honestly didn’t know what I was getting into.

My dad was the one who suggested I join up, so I did, and somehow managed to stay with it for 26 years. I didn’t even have a set position at first, the coaches moved me around both sides of the ball. I wasn’t that big of a kid but I liked playing and being on a team and getting to hang out with my friends.

How does a kid from Montreal wind up at Boise State?

It’s a funny story, actually. I began playing football with Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville in the South Shore, then spent two years in Cégep at Collège André-Grasset. During that time, the Alouettes had a weekend evaluation camp, which I got invited to.

The coach at the time was Joe Scannella, a former assistant with John Madden and the NFL’s Raiders. Ironically, there was another Montreal kid at Boise State named Doug Scott. He had just graduated and was being signed by the Alouettes. Some of the coaches at Boise State knew Scannella and asked him, half joking, “Hey, do you have another French kid to send us?” and since they’d just seen me at their evaluation camp, he gave Boise State my name.

In those days, there was no film and they really didn’t know much about me but in the spring of 1980,  they reached out and began a conversation with me. Initially, there was no scholarship available so I would’ve had to walk on, but in late April they called me up and let me know that a scholarship had opened up and it was mine if I wanted it. Despite never having been out of Canada, I jumped at the opportunity and accepted.

What sticks with you from your time with the Broncos? Personal accolades? The championship win?

The first thing you need to understand is how much of a system shock it was for me being there. As I said I’d never been out of Canada and when I got to Boise on August 13th, 1980, I just about melted. I was wearing corduroys and a tweed jacket and didn’t know anything about anything. The school had to send someone to the airport twice, because I didn’t get picked up the first go around. Turns out I didn’t look anything like what they were expecting.

I was blown away by the facilities and stadium but I couldn’t understand why we needed two practices a day in training camp. When I asked some of my teammates why we couldn’t get everything done we needed in a single practice and they just laughed.

Anyways, for me just being down there as an Eastern Canadian kid playing football in the States was huge. I’m proud that I was able to carve out a niche role on the team. I was fortunate enough to be given opportunities in my freshman year and actually started as a true freshman, contributing all the way through until we won the National Championship.

As an interesting aside, the quarterback for Eastern Kentucky (the team we played for the championship) was the recently deceased Chris Isaac, who played quarterback for the Rough Riders just before I got there.

Although I played for the Broncos for four years, I suffered a number of knee injuries in my sophomore, junior and senior years, so it’s fair to say I spent half my college career recovering from knee surgeries. Still, it was a memorable time in my life and I got to play a high level, making a lot of friends and meeting my future wife.

In 1984 you were drafted twice, first by the New Orleans Saints and second by the Rough Riders. Why did you end up in Ottawa and not the NFL?

My knee injuries. In those days, the New Orleans Saints used to buy a copy of Boise State’s game film every week, so they’d had their eyes on me for some time. They actually flew me in to meet Bum Phillips, their head coach, after the 1984 draft.

At the time, I was recovering from my latest surgery and about probably six months away from playing but he told me that they wanted me to get healthy and that after they cut down the roster down from training camp, they’d bring me in and give me a chance to try out and make the squad. They weren’t prepared to commit much money, but they did promise me an opportunity.

Meanwhile in the CFL, the Alouettes actually owned my territorial rights but they traded those to Ottawa in a deal for future compensation. When the Rough Riders drafted me, they made it clear that not only were they offering a significant signing bonus, but that they were willing to wait for me to get fully healthy and guarantee a roster spot. Given the dollars and the fact that the CFL was near and dear to my heart, heading back home (so to speak) made the most sense.

There was also a bit of interest from the USFL but I wasn’t really interested in going that route. 

Unfortunately, during your time in the nation’s capital, the team didn’t have a lot of success. How hard is it to stay motivated as a player when the team is struggling so much?

The problem with Ottawa was that I got there right in the eye of the storm. George Brancato was the head coach but it was his last year. In the following four seasons we had a new coach every year — Joe Moss, Tom Dimitroff, Fred Glick and Bob Weber. So in total, I had five head coaches in five seasons in Ottawa.

As for staying motivated, the reality is that I was a professional, took care of myself and tried to control what I could, executing the game plan week in and week out to the best of my abilities by putting in a full effort. I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t have any control over what my teammates did or the revolving door of people coming in and out of the locker room. That said, I did enjoy meeting everyone who came through the doors because honestly, it was quite the cast of characters.

When I first arrived in Ottawa there were vets like Rick Sowieta, Greg Marshall, Al Washington, Ricky Barden and Rudy Phillips, guys who had been there when the Rough Riders were doing well. They were our connection to the glory years and brought a certain standard and a level of professionalism that they expected us all to meet.

But at the same time, we constantly had American guys coming in who didn’t know a lick about Canadian football and just thought they’d come up north, play and dominate. Watching them adjust was fascinating; some were humbled and others were pissed off, it was a mixed bag but the reality is the Canadian game has its nuances that take time and effort to pick up, learn and understand.

Basically my entire time in Ottawa was a mix of guys who had success and were trying to end their careers on a high (sadly, most didn’t) vs. American rookies finding their way. I navigated that by focusing on myself.

Despite the fact that things didn’t go well on the field, did you still manage to enjoy your time in Ottawa?

Michel Bourgeau Ottawa Rough Riders 1987. Photo John Bradley

Of course! One of the things I always really appreciated about Ottawa was that there was a strong, active football community. From the quarterback clubs that took place before home games, to the fans that continued to show up at the stadium and support us even with all the losing, you always had a sense that it was a football town.

I lived right down in the Glebe and owned a little row house on Adelaide, the street that leads into Lansdowne. It was a great deal because people were always so into the Rough Riders and when you walked around Bank Street people made sure to say hi.

I was very happy in Ottawa, my two kids were born there (one in 1986, the other in 1989) and I was committed to the area, living and working there year-round with my wife. I did grad school at Carleton and was a model example of what the CFL claims to want players to do in terms of being integrated into the community.

My wife loved it too, which was important. She is American and speaks English so it was probably easier for her to settle in and adapt than if we had gone to Montreal. Honestly, Ottawa was great and I loved the city, it was just tough playing for such a bad team at the time.

Talk me through the whirlwind of being cut by the Rough Riders and then immediately signed by Edmonton.

Given how entrenched I was in the community, it hurt. In 1989 the Rough Riders made wholesale changes again and Steve Goldman was the new head coach and director of football operations.

In those days, teams didn’t really negotiate with players, they just put something down on the table and you could take it or leave it. Right before training camp Goldman offered me an extension but said they couldn’t pay me as much as I’d earned the year before. That ticked me off but I accepted it and I figured that because I was a senior guy on the team, I’d go out to training camp in Kemptville, work my butt off and show I was still committed.

We had a few pre-season games and I played OK and I thought I was probably safe since there wasn’t anyone else on our roster threatening my position. On the final day of camp I got called into Goldman’s office and he told me they were releasing me. I asked who I’d lost my spot to and he said they weren’t sure but they were planning on taking someone from other team’s cuts. That was a brutal comment and I was extremely disappointed and thought to myself, “Guess this is what the end of a CFL career looks like.”

At the time, I had a job in Ottawa’s tech sector, my kids were in school and I thought maybe I was ready to move on to the next phase of my life. The next day, I got a call from the director of player personnel with the Edmonton Eskimos. They flew me out to Edmonton and when I got the locker room, Joe Faragalli, Edmonton’s head coach, pulled me aside.

He said “Listen, season starts next week and we’re glad you’re here. I don’t know if you know this but a few years back we offered Matt Dunigan to the Rough Riders in a trade and it would have been a huge swap. If it had happened, you were one of the guys I insisted had to come back the other way. Now, I got you for free, you’re going to have plenty of opportunities to play.”

Hearing that from him meant a lot. Edmonton was a strong team at the time and I knew from playing there as a visitor that Commonwealth was a hell of a stadium, so it was easy to accept the offer. Being released from Ottawa and immediately picked up by Edmonton gave me a huge shot of confidence and a new lease on life.

It must have felt surreal to go from a franchise that struggled to win five games a season to making the West Final every year you were with Edmonton.

It really was. Not only did I get to play a lot, but my defensive line coach was the legendary Don Matthews, who happened to be between head coaching jobs. Hugh Campbell had offered him the chance to coach the defensive line until he figured out his next move (he went to Toronto the following season), but it meant that in 1989 we had an incredible defensive line.

It was a bit surreal and I had an awesome time, it was the most fun year of my career up to that point. And I don’t want to be derogatory to Ottawa, because they gave me an incredible foundation and I truly do appreciate my time there but going from a team like the Rough Riders to a first-class organization like the Eskimos meant that I didn’t take anything for granted.

*Via Michel Bourgeau’s photo collection

To give you a very basic idea, my first year with the Eskimos we went 16-2, which was more wins than I had in my entire time in Ottawa (15 wins spread out over five years).

How painful was it to lose the 1990 Grey Cup?

I’m not sure painful is the word I’d use to describe it. I’d go with frustrating.

The CFL playoffs are short, so if you have any injuries you really don’t have much time to recover, especially between the West Final and Grey Cup. We were dealing with some injuries which left us shorthanded but more than that you have to tip your hat to Winnipeg, because they had a solid crew, especially on defence. Guys like James West, Greg Battle and Tyrone Jones were studs.

I’ll admit that that year, we had a pretty loose group in Edmonton across the board, and there were definitely some issues on the team in regards to discipline and that kind of that, so maybe we went into that Grey Cup a bit loosey-goosey.

All that said, at the end of the day, Winnipeg really had our number. They came up with a solid game plan and exploited the injuries we had on the offensive line, getting to Tracy Ham (our quarterback) early and rattling him a bit. Things got out of hand quickly.

I ended up starting that game at defensive end in place of Stew Hill, who was injured. I think I did okay but it was a tough game because Winnipeg had a star-studded offensive line, tough bunch of vets.

Those were Hall of Fame-type of guys and even though we lost in a frustrating manner, it was an exciting moment for me personally. Again, I’d gone from struggling not to check out on a bad team to a 16-win team and then playing and starting in a Grey Cup the next year.

I did my best to soak up the moment but as much as I was personally happy that we’d gotten to the championship game, you quickly learn that in Edmonton, nobody is okay with playing well when the team loses. The standard in that city is championships, and nothing less is accepted.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, that ’93 season was a magical one and was capped off with a Grey Cup win. What sticks with you from that season and game? 

The fact that I nearly wasn’t a part of it. That off-season I had been on the fence about continuing my career. 1992 was my ninth season in the league and I had injuries piling up. I let things calm down over the off-season but as my training ramped up heading into camp, I had a few things flare up which took some wind out of my sails.

At that point I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to go through the grind of another training camp and season. I’d spend a lot of time looking for non-football work in both Edmonton and in the States, so it really was up in the air if I was going to come back.

But then we traded for Damon Allen and I knew how great he was from not only playing against him a few times in college, but we’d briefly overlapped in Ottawa. I figured the combination of Allen as our quarterback and Ron Lancaster as our head coach meant good things.

As I mentioned before, I played for a lot of coaches but none were as good as Lancaster. He was an intense guy to play for, but his players all loved him. Plus he was an institution in the CFL. It also didn’t hurt that Rich Stubler was still our defensive coordinator, so when I looked at the big picture, I realized it was a good situation and I didn’t want to walk away from that without trying to be a part of it.

I went into training camp without any plans and just wanting to see how things played out. Like nearly every training camp I went into, I never really knew if I’d make the team or be cut. As I learned with the Rough Riders, even if you think you’re safe, you’re not. Teams make all kinds of decisions based on not only their personnel, but also based on guys other teams make available via cuts or trade.

Thankfully, I earned a spot on the 1993 squad. Things started out good, and before we knew it we were 6-3, but three losses in a four-week span got the media going and talk began about maybe firing Ron. Then in October we got hot (mainly because Allen got hot) and before we knew it we were in the West Final against Calgary, in Calgary.

Fans in Edmonton never like losing but they especially hate losing to Calgary and that year there was a lot of buzz about Calgary being Grey Cup favourites. Not only did they have Doug Flutie, but their owner (Larry Ryckman) had gone out and bought the rights to the Grey Cup.

If I remember correctly, it was going to be in Toronto that year until the Stamps bought it and moved it to Calgary. That meant that their stadium was all set up with Grey Cups signs, everything was red, white and black and the stage was set for them to be playing in their own Grey Cup at home. But first they had to get through us in the West Final.

We were huge underdogs but the cold temperature and gusty winds worked in our favour. We were able to keep Flutie off the field for long stretches and managed to upset them. You can imagine how pissed their fans were when that game ended and they realized their northern rivals would be playing in Calgary, on their home field, for the Grey Cup.

As for the Grey Cup game itself, Winnipeg was unfortunate in that they didn’t have Matt Dunigan under centre, as he’d torn his Achilles. They still put their best foot forward but Damon Allen was on and we got off to a quick start and never really looked back. Lifting that trophy at the end of the game was a special thing.

*From Michel Bourgeau’s photo collection

Editor’s note: this is part one of a two-part interview. Click here to read part two.

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