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

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

Not many players get to end their careers on a championship high. Why did you choose to retire before the 1994 season?

What you’ve got to realize is that as an athlete, you can always convince yourself to come back for another year. You can always justify and make yourself believe that you’ve got just a little bit more left in the tank to give. Even if you think you’ve decided to walk away, you immediately fill your mind with questions like, “What am I going to do if I leave now? What if they win another championship without me?”

What I’m trying to say is that knowing when to pull the plug is hard, thankfully, I had a good teammate who was at a similar stage in his career and was thinking along the same lines as me. Having someone to talk through scenarios with made it easier to know I was making the right decision. That teammate was Randy Ambrosie. We both arrived in Edmonton in 1989 and wound up leaving and retiring together after the 1993 season.

Ultimately, even though I felt I could go back and maybe earn a spot I knew it was the right time to make a clean break. So I wrote Ron Lancaster and Hugh Campbell a letter saying thanks for the memories and the opportunities and I officially entered the next stage of my life, which was destined to be back in the States. I had an important promise to keep.

When I married my wife in 1984 in Sun Valley Idaho, the deal was that she’d come with me to Canada while I pursued my football career, but that whenever it ended, we’d return to the States. She had never been out of the U.S. and I’ll forever admire her courage for agreeing to a journey that might have only lasted a few weeks.

Well, a decade later, it was time for us to move back to the States. Before we finally moved back, I asked her if she was sure she wanted to move back to Boise, Idaho, because I was worried that after ten years living in major urban cities, our family might struggle going to a slower, small place to live. But that’s what we did. It was a great move — we love Boise and the state of Idaho.

I always tell people in the U.S. that the CFL is the only pro league that you can play in for ten years and you better have a career plan and a job lined up when you’re done because you won’t have a big bank account that lets you sit around and watch the sun set. When we arrived in Boise I tapped into my contacts and people I knew from when I’d gone to college and managed to land a job fairly quickly.

Ironically, I became the Canadian account manager for a tech company based in Boise. So roughly a month after moving back to Boise and thinking I was done with Canada and that my Canadian life was in the rearview mirror, I was on a plane heading back to Ottawa going to a technology show for the federal government. For the next couple of years I flew all over Canada, from Halifax to Victoria, working with governments (federal, provincial and municipal) and corporations on tech projects.

One thing that was great about that job is that it often coincided with CFL games, especially in Toronto and Edmonton and I’d always try and make a point of going. In 2003, I was in Toronto for customer visits, and one of my former teammates from Ottawa, Greg Marshall, was the defensive coordinator of the Eskimos, was also in town for a game.

After work, the plan was for me to meet him at the stadium but as I was walking out of the office on the corner of Yonge Street & Bloor, the power went out. That was the massive blackout which was a truly odd thing to experience.

I wound up flying home on the Saturday of that weekend so I didn’t see the game, which was postponed, but Edmonton went on to win the Grey Cup that year and I believe that their Grey Cup ring from that season has a black stone to commemorate that weekend and the Toronto game because they were stranded and had to stick around.

You were credited with 22 career sacks. I’m sure each was satisfying in its own way, but is there one quarterback that was just a bit sweeter to bring down?

You can imagine that living in the States, whenever the CFL is brought up, Doug Flutie’s name is never far behind. Everyone who finds out I played defensive line in the CFL always wants to know if I ever had the chance to sack him.

So I tell them that once I did indeed have a chance to flatten him. He was walking out of his locker room and looking the other way, so I can’t be completely sure, but I’m fairly confident I would’ve laid a great hit on him. Ha! That’s probably as close as I ever got because on the field, he was so shifty and evasive.

He was one tough hombre, too. I remember a game from when I was with the Eskimos, my teammate Leroy Blugh (an incredible talent in his own right), came off the edge unblocked. The ball had been snapped early, hit Flutie in the chest and popped up.

While he was waiting for it to come down, Leroy came in like a freight train and just smoked him. I swear I heard the air leaving Flutie’s body and I thought to myself, “Oh good, we got him out of the game,” but I’ll be damned if he didn’t pop right up and kept playing.

In terms of a guy I actually did sack, I’ll go with Ken Hobart. He and I were at rival schools in college, with him at the University of Idaho and me at Boise State. He was a quarterback and they ran a lot of veer option stuff and scored a lot of points. We beat them a few times, but I never had the chance to sack him.

Fast forward to 1986 when he was with Hamilton and I was with Ottawa. I finally got him down and I remember that after the play, I took my sweet time getting up, really laying there and not letting him get up.

He started barking and complaining that I wasn’t getting off of him and that he wasn’t going to have enough time to call the next play but I said, “It took me six years to get you down, I wanna enjoy this one.” Funny enough, he actually still lives and works down here in Idaho and I run into him every now and again. It’s a small world after all.

It’s said that refs could call holding on every play if they wanted to. As a defensive lineman, what were some of your techniques or tricks to get off a block that might not have always been legal?

Well, I learned early in my career that there’s always five offensive linemen on the field and usually three, or at best four defensive linemen, so if you do anything to piss those guys off, they’ll go back to the huddle and you’ll suddenly have to deal with five guys coming after you for the rest of the game.

That’s my way of saying I had a pretty good relationship with the guys I played against. I worked hard on my technique and I definitely played hard, but I made sure not to do anything cheap on those guys.

If there was ever a sweep or anything like that, offensive linemen would run and you’d run with them trying to make a backside play, and once the play was over, as you’d be coming up from the pile, quite often you’d get a tap on the shoulder and an offensive lineman would let you know that they had a clean shot at your knee that they didn’t take. When you play a sport professionally you have to have some level of respect and understanding because although everyone is trying to win, we’ve also trying to keep a job, so taking out someone’s knee or something is just wrong.

I always tried to pay respect to every opponent but I went out of my way with offensive linemen because it was very apparently that they always outnumbered us and if they wanted, could end a career very quickly with a legal-looking chop block.

In terms of tricks of the trade, there were a couple of things we’d do, especially when I played in Edmonton to get an edge in cold weather games. When October and November came and the temperatures dipped, sometimes we’d spray water on our shoulder pads so they’d freeze and become a sheet of ice, making them harder and tougher for offensive linemen to grab on.

One of my old teammates from Boise, Randy Trautman, wound up playing for the Stampeders and he told me that in Calgary some of the guys would put silicone on their jerseys to make them slippery.

One trick to get around both the frozen shoulder pads and silicone would be that you could take thumb tacks and tape them over your finger tips, pointy side out, obviously, to give yourself little knubs that you could use to still get ahold of a slick/frozen jersey. The problem with that was that if you missed and hit a guy in the arm or neck he’d be wondering where the hell the scratches came from.

During your time in Ottawa, you wore No. 83, which is typically a number associated with the receiving corps. Why did you end up with it?

When I got off the bus Boise State the coaches hadn’t really seen me because they had no film of me playing. I was a six-foot-three, 225-pound guy, so maybe I didn’t look like a normal player. I think at first they didn’t know if they should throw me in with the receivers or the linemen, so they just give me No. 83.

When I was in contract negotiations with Ottawa after drafted me, I asked Don Holtby (the general manager at the time) if there was any problem with me using No. 83. He said he didn’t see why there would be, so that’s what I went with.

So why did you switch to No. 94 in Edmonton?

That’s just the one Dwayne Mandrusiak gave me when I arrived in town, maybe because I looked like a defensive lineman by then. Ha!

Danny Bass Edmonton Eskimos 1990. Photo F. Scott Grant

It’s said that when done properly, trash talking is an art form. Who was someone who stood out to you as an excellent smack talker?

One thing not many people realized is that I have a hearing impairment, and because of it use hearing aids. Obviously when I played I never wore them on the field, so in a sense when I was out there was in my own world.

That said, Tyrone Jones, a linebacker with Winnipeg, was a non-stop talker. Not only would he make plays all over the field, he made sure to let you know he was the guy making the play. I played him a few times when I was with Ottawa and then more frequently when I went to Edmonton. He’d yak a lot. One time I was getting him going during a special teams play and finally one of his teammates nudged him and said, “Don’t waste your time, he can’t hear you anyways.”

I used to talk a lot with Mike Anderson, who played centre for Saskatchewan. Funny enough it wasn’t smack talk but more friendly stuff, because in the off-season when I was working my other job, I’d often travel through Regina and I’d always swing by his place for dinner or whatever.

He’s a great guy and we became good friends and in-season our only time to catch up was during games so we’d often chat then about ordinary life stuff — our families and so on.

Was there one stadium you personally found more difficult to play at?

Saskatchewan. Without a doubt. The field there always felt more rough and they certainly never went out of their way to make a visiting team comfortable, offering up really poor facilities for us to use.

The locker room in particular was so cramped and crappy. I know some people associate Saskatchewan with cold weather games but I used to hate playing there on hot days. The sun would beat down and at old Taylor Field the home team bench was under the shade of the press box while the visitor’s bench was out in the sun.

I’m pretty sure it was fake news but it seemed like every time we’d go there to play, rumours would tear through the locker room that the water was contaminated and unsafe to drink so we’d be dying of thirst in the sun but unsure if the water in the water bottles on our sideline was safe to drink.

Like all the western opponents we played when I was with Edmonton, it was a good rivalry and the fans always got excited for those games. Whenever we went there or they came to us, there was always a noticeable buzz in the stadium. But circling back to your question, I always found traveling there brutal, because of the s***ty field, the poor facilities and on hot days, the sun roasting us while being afraid to drink the water.

What are you currently up to nowadays?

I’ve been living in Boise since my retirement 26 years ago. In that time I’ve held a number of different jobs. I spent ten years working for Boise State in their athletic department, organizing fundraising as the coordinator of the athletic alumni. That was a very exciting time because it was right when the Chris Petersen era was unfolding and we were having undefeated seasons and winning Fiesta Bowls.

I really enjoyed being in the middle of all that and helping to build the university by organizing funds for super deluxe facilities. The entire school was in growth mode, with both the football and basketball teams taking off. I really learned a lot from those experiences.

More recently, I’ve spent the last four years selling crop insurance with an agency in Idaho. We target farmers and ranchers across Nevada, Oregon and Idaho offering them government subsidized crop insurance and property coverage.

It’s meant a lot of driving for me but it’s been a nice change of pace. I wear cowboy boots to work and keep a cowboy hat in the car. Quite often I find myself in the middle of nowhere and if you want to talk about keeping your distance in these COVID times, my clients are quite literally socially distancing twelve months, 365 days a year.

The neat thing about this job is that I’m going to places I never knew existed and meeting great people committed to their lifestyles and keeping us fed. It’s nice that in some small way, I can help by providing them the peace of mind that comes with insurance products. It’s interesting though — whoever thought a little kid from Montreal, fluent in French, would ever do this, but here I am at 60 exploring places in the States I’d never heard of.

*Via Michel Bourgeau’s photo collection

As a CFL alum who played for Edmonton, I’m curious to get your thoughts surrounding the name change. Some former players have been very vocal about the team dropping the Eskimo moniker, citing the famous “Once an Eskimo, always an Eskimo.” Personally, as an alumni do you care about the change or feel it changes anything about the franchise?

I do and frankly I’m not very happy about it. The thing so many people seem to miss is that the name was never intended as a slight but rather as a sign of respect. From my understanding, there’s even some recent research that shows that many of the Indigenous people across Canada were proud to have a team that represented them.

I think that “Once an Eskimo, always an Eskimo” will forever remain true and as someone who played in one Grey Cup and won another with Edmonton, I’ve really come to understand what the experience of playing in Edmonton is all about.

When you live there, you’re immersed in the team and community and you can’t help but realize that the club isn’t just a football team, but it’s an institution that’s woven into and throughout the history and fabric of the CFL. Like anything in life, the name can be changed, but you can’t erase history.

You can retire the Eskimo name and throw it in a closet but all those championships that city won, including the never-to-be-matched five in a row, will always be Eskimo Grey Cup wins, whether people like it or not. Anyone who has ever played for Edmonton is an Eskimo and former players will always remain a part of B.O.N.E. (Brotherhood of Nasty Eskimos).

The Edmonton Eskimos are CFL royalty and that won’t disappear overnight, no matter what anyone tries to do.

All that said, I’m extremely curious to see what new name they come up with. I know that all of the change has been put on hold when the league cancelled it’s season because of the pandemic, so I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Given that we’re living in unprecedented times with COVID, what do you think the league needs to do to come back even stronger whenever it returns to the field?

I’ll be the first to admit I was extremely disappointed to see this year cancelled, but I feel for Randy (Ambrosie). From spending years going to work with him I can tell you that he’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met and I think the league is in good hands with him. He’s been put in an awful situation and he’s really going to have to roll up his sleeves to make sure everything comes back stronger in 2021.

It’s easy to criticize but when you’re the guy making the tough calls you can’t make everyone happy. The thing is, he needs to juggle COVID while also reckoning with the fact that the dynamics in Canada are changing and the harsh truth that the CFL needs new fans.

That could mean fresh blood in terms of younger fans or new teams in new markets. Neither are easy things to achieve, but I have faith it’ll happen. The CFL is nothing if not resilient.

Thanks for your time, Michel!

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