“Calm, cool, collected, locked in, focused, ready to play.”
When it comes to how the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are feeling as they prepare to defend their 2019 Grey Cup title, Willie Jefferson may just be the coolest looking thesaurus around.
The all-star defensive end was, as per usual, dripping with confidence on Saturday as he addressed the media for the final time before the big game, but even when sporting shades indoors he had no lack of clarity as to where the quiet belief his team seems to carry stems from.
“The process that we’ve taken to get here,” Jefferson stated. “Coach O’Shea has led us to the right spot. He doesn’t lead us in the wrong direction. Everything that he says plays a key role in how we prepare and he speaks on process more than anything.”
The Bombers’ faith in O’Shea’s steady-handed leadership is well founded and entirely unsurprising. The hall of fame linebacker turned grizzled bench boss has slowly, but surely built one of the CFL’s best locker room cultures over the course of his seven seasons in Winnipeg. As a result, he leads all active head coaches with 67 career wins.
The Bombers improbable 2019 Grey Cup dominance was undoubtedly O’Shea’s crowning achievement, but the 2021 follow up may be even greater. Finishing 11-3, the Bombers posted their best winning percentage since 1961 and now have a shot at a an ultra-rare second consecutive Grey Cup victory, enough for O’Shea to be named the CFL Coach of the Year on Friday.
Underlying those wins and losses is the culture and expectations that the coach has installed in the Bombers locker room, something that Jefferson sees as paramount in the lead up to the Grey Cup.
“When it’s time to lock in and be focused, we strictly business. It’s no laughing, no joking around and stuff like that. It’s like a switch can get flipped and as soon as the meetings and things are over, as soon as you step outside the the stadium or the facility or whatever, it is all laughs. You know what I’m saying? Jokes, guys playing music, hanging out with one another,” Jefferson explained.
“That’s something that Coach O’Shea wanted us to do more this year than we did in 2019. He wanted us to be more together as a team. He wanted us to connect with one another, not as players, but as friends outside of the football aspect.”
As a result of that internal emphasis, as well as O’Shea’s well established preference for retaining veteran players, the Bombers are a far more tightly knit group than most teams. In moments of pressure, those bonds won’t crack.
“A lot of the guys that we have now have been here since training camp. We haven’t made a lot of changes and that’s good for us,” Jefferson continued. “To have everybody back that’s been there from the beginnings, you know how guys play, you know what they like, what they don’t like and things like that. I can know for a fact that I can lay my life on the line for the guy next to me and if I do that, he’s willing to do the same thing for me.”
With a championship on the line, that is a powerful x-factor and the Bombers have already proven what it can accomplish, namely a 33-12 drubbing of these same Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Grey Cup two years ago. The Bombers seemed almost unstoppable in that game and have looked much the same since, but another hallmark of Mike O’Shea’s Blue Bomber way is that nothing can be taken for granted.
That is an approach that players like Willie Jefferson have bought into hook, line and sinker, and while the Bombers will never lack for confidence, they know the important thing is taking off the shades and backing it up.
“This is a different ball game and the mindset that we have on our team is we haven’t done anything yet and what we have done isn’t good enough. We need to work harder and we need to finish, that’s the mindset,” Jefferson insisted. “We have one goal in mind and that’s to hoist that cup after the game. And Hamilton is in our way.”