When the Canadian Football League returned after 620 days away from the field, it was far from the greatest game ever played in league history.
No, it wasn’t the sloppy mess that some expected, but neither was it the finest display of the principles of “wider, longer, faster” that commissioner Randy Ambrosie proudly touted while visiting the TSN broadcast booth. The 30,000-odd fans crammed into IG Field on Thursday had seen higher flying contests and more exciting finishes than a 19-6 grudge match.
But what they did experience was the thing that really makes CFL football special, one of those moments in time that is woven into its very fabric. A local kid, forced into action for his very first start, rising to the occasion and powering his team to victory.
Brady Oliveira is everything we love about Canadian football.
“It’s hard to explain to you the feeling that I got running out of the tunnel today,” the second-year running back said with a slight pause as he gathered his thoughts post-game.
“It’s crazy. Just the atmosphere, it was loud with so many people in the stands. Obviously with me being from Winnipeg, it was just like a childhood dream for me to run out that tunnel in the home opener for my first career start.”
There are a lot of numbers that can be associated with Oliveira’s debut for his hometown Bombers. 23 touches. 147 yards. Whatever numerical grade his coaches assign him for his stellar day in pass protection. But the one that matters most is 25 — the number of tickets he had to procure for friends and family to watch his debut. To see him blossom in to what they always knew he could become.
“It was truly a special moment and I’m glad that lots of my close family and friends were able to experience that moment with me,” he said beaming.
It was also fitting that after almost 20 months of hardship for the CFL, a struggle that came so close to costing everything, it was a player coming off his own personal struggle that grabbed the spotlight.
Drafted in the second round, 14th overall in the 2019 CFL draft, Oliveira broke his ankle three games into his rookie season and lost the whole year rehabbing from surgery. Then he lost another one to the pandemic. When fellow Winnipegger and future Canadian Football Hall of Famer Andrew Harris went down in training camp, it was finally his moment to make up for lost time.
“I was so hungry today. I’ve been so hungry coming off that injury in ’19. I just have one thing in mind and when I get the ball, I just want to run violent, run physical, do my job and just make them not want to tackle me,” Oliveira said.
“I was running out of the tunnel pissed off because I just really wanted everyone to feel me. I wanted Hamilton to feel me and I wanted to make my presence known to the league.”
He did exactly that. Despite some early struggles, the Bombers coaching staff stuck with him and when the game was in the balance he delivered time and again. They trusted him and they were rewarded for it.
“I think for a running back, it always takes a little bit to get in the groove of things, to start feeling it out. I started feeling it around the beginning to mid-second quarter,” Oliveira admitted. “I think just by me running physical and violent all game, when the second half came they didn’t want any of it anymore.”
Hamilton may not have wanted it, but Winnipeg did. The stadium fed off the energy of their native son and he fed off them. It was perfect symbiosis, a beautiful moment to watch after the aching absence of the game.
But as such beauty unfolded, the CFL still risks its loss. On the eve of the league’s triumphant return, Randy Ambrosie cracked back open the door on the seemingly dead XFL talks and dodged questions on protecting the ratio, the very mechanism by which Oliveira could star and Ambrosie himself was able to carve a career. The hometown hero remains in danger.
Would Oliveira have ever lived out his dream in a ratioless world? We may never know. His talent was undeniable coming out of North Dakota, but there are few opportunities handed to small school running backs. John Santiago, the former Bomber with whom he split carries in the Big Sky, got a chance in the XFL and recorded only one catch. He now plays in Germany.
Even if he had caught on, would a team have stuck with him through injury if he was just another player? Would he have even been the next man up who had to rise to the occasion? Would he have been given enough attention to earn the trust of his head coach, another Canadian who rose to greatness because he was given an opportunity at the professional level?
Better yet, in this world is there even an Andrew Harris to replace, a fellow Oak Park grad and a product of the Canadian junior ranks? What of Nic Demski, Winnipeg’s leader in receiving yards? Most importantly, what of that offensive line, whose sublime performance that gave him space to excel play after play? Are Drew Desjarlais, Michael Couture and Paddy Neufeld among the CFL’s elite if Canadian content isn’t forced to the forefront?
Each of those players are the physical embodiment of Winnipeg, of this country. They are the CFL in its purest, most perfect form. They electrify fans and give the next generation something to aspire to. Brady Oliveira is the manifestation of that idea, the kid once inspired who has now seized his moment and will keep the cycle going.
“I lived out a childhood dream. Me being from Winnipeg, I used to come to games here when I was a kid and sit in the stands and watch. Now I’m able to actually experience it and go out there and soak it all in,” Olivera said after the game.
“It was so much fun out there tonight. It was truly amazing, a game I’ll remember for the rest of my life and this is only just beginning right now.”
Let’s hope Oliveira is right and that the dreams of generations past, present and future will never die.