Coming back stronger: how the Blue Bombers helped me recover from mental illness

Photo: Zach Schnitzer

Clinging to a 14-10 lead late in the frigid 2021 West Final and trying to erase the ghosts of a tragic 1972 division final loss to their most bitter rivals, the unthinkable happened: the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ vaunted, record-breaking ‘Dark Side’ defence gave up a 67-yard touchdown pass to Duke Williams which gave the Saskatchewan Roughriders a 17-14 lead.

Defensive back Nick Taylor — speedy and ever-dependable — got beat and appeared visibly distressed as thousands of horrified and frozen fans looked on. As you well know, the Bombers went on to win that epic tilt. Who made the game-sealing defensive play? You got it: Nick Taylor. Why? His teammates came to his side. They consoled him, they reminded him that one play did not define him and they would need him to win the game. And guess what? He did.

My name is Zach Schnitzer. I’m a 39-year-old Winnipegger with a wonderful, patient, loving, and brilliant wife. I have two healthy and beautiful young children. I live in a great neighbourhood with parks and friendly neighbours. I have incredible family support. I have a stable job and am in reasonably good health. Oh yeah, I should mention I am an absolute diehard fan of the back-to-back Grey Cup champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers, a team that is a perfect 7-0 to start the 2022 season. I even get to talk about them on a biweekly YouTube show with Darrin Bauming, one of the best reporters in the business.

On the surface, it would seem that I should be happy, deliriously so. The truth is I struggle every day to stay well. You see, I have chronic depression, anxiety, and ADHD. I’m on medications to help me stay alive and have been hospitalized twice for mental illness.

Why am I telling you this? It’s because I desperately want to reduce the stigma of mental illness. We know that one in five people will struggle with a mental illness in their lifetime. This means you almost certainly either know someone with a mental health issue, or you have struggled yourself. It means that of the almost 30,000 ardent fans who recently attended IG Field in a CFL West Division heavyweight battle of the unbeatens — Calgary vs. Winnipeg — there were many fans who are just like me.

We struggle, often silently, to try and be like everyone else, even though it often requires a Herculean effort to do so. We often feel ashamed and isolated, as we battle overwhelming negative feelings and thoughts, squirming between any gap we can see to get a first down.

Luckily for me, I’m a season-ticket member of my beloved Winnipeg Blue Bombers. I have been for 25 years. I bleed blue and gold. Normally, a football team would just be entertainment. For me, and I know for many of you, this team is much more than that.

They’re a way of life, a culture; a representation of all that is good in Winnipeg; a tradition passed down through generations; they’re champions themselves, while they champion great causes; and, for so many reasons, they inspire me every day to fight to be well; to go 1-0 each day.

In honour of the 7-0 Winnipeg Blue Bombers, here are seven reasons the Blue Bombers have been a huge part of my continued recovery.

1. 1-0 Each Week

Despite their win-loss record, head coach Mike O’Shea always says, “We’re hoping to go 1-0 this week.” When I have a bad part of the day when my brain tells me I’m a failure or convinces me that the worst-case scenario will happen — even though part of me is fighting to think otherwise — I remember that it doesn’t matter what just happened; I must stay in the present.

I try to let go of the down parts of the day and remember that each moment provides an opportunity to go 1-0. Just as the team finds different ways to win each week, depending on their opponent, each day requires me to use different strategies to be well.

The Bombers ran the ball effectively against B.C.; when I’m more depressive, I try to get moving or be extra kind to myself. The run game wasn’t working against the Stampeders, so Zach Collaros threw the ball with flair; when I’m struggling with anxiety, I reframe my thoughts, breathe deeply, and remind myself I can do scary things.

The offence struggled in Edmonton, but the defence was fierce and Marc Liegghio punted the paint off the pigskin; when I’m struggling with inattention or lack of motivation, I create a schedule starting with easier tasks; I try to take on intimidating things, one little chunk at a time.

Each moment, each day is different and requires a varied response. How will the Bombers win next week? They’ll do whatever it takes that night, based on that particular opponent. I’ll be right there with them.

2. FIFO: Fit In Or… you know.

FIFO. The motto of the team. It’s even on the stunning 2021 championship ring. Of course, it’s on the ring. The players’ love for each other, collective commitment to winning, disregard for personal statistics, and love of football won them the Grey Cup — again.

FIFO inspires me to surround myself with people that love me for who I am, even when I don’t. I need people in my life who will be there for me at my worst, even when I feel hopeless.

Not everyone can be that person, and that’s okay. I fill my locker room with teammates who create a winning culture in my life, who remind me to engage in the daily habits that make me a winner: nutrition, exercise, rest, work-life balance, and self-compassion. These people don’t do it for recognition — though they know I’d be there for them if the circumstances were reversed — they do it because they love me and know that family wins when they’re in it together.

3. Everyone’s a starter

Unlike other diseases, depression tells you it’s your fault that you have the illness in the first place. Sometimes this faulty reasoning is so strong, the feelings of shame are so deep, it’s hard to go on. But then I think about members of the Bombers like L.B. Mack III, Donald Rutledge Jr., Malik Clements, and Cedric Wilcots II.

These are “back-ups” in place of all-star players, who have come in and played like starters (case in point, the defence still hasn’t given up a rushing touchdown). Coach O’Shea always says when injuries happen, the team expects the back-up to go in, start, and be successful.

Even if I’m having a bad day, despite mine and my loved one’s best efforts, I remember that I’m still alive, that I have a chance. “Back-up” me, on a bad day, on a day where I’m at my worst, is still worthy to be on a winning team, and I can win each day. It might just look a bit different that day.

It might mean I have to take a sick day and just go for a walk, and maybe, if I can, have a shower. It doesn’t mean I don’t belong on the team. Maybe the entire day has been one fumble after another: I will still do my best to hold onto the ball into the fourth quarter.

4. Watch the Tape

The Bombers are notorious for intense film study. They relentlessly grind and search for any winning edge. After all, it’s those four or five key plays in a game that defines winning and losing. I’m inspired by my heroes’ constant attempts to get better, even when they keep winning.

Grinding film study for me is paying attention to my thoughts, feelings, and behaviours in order to get ahead of any relapses. When I catch things early, I can make corrections. I remind myself to make time for myself, even if I don’t think I deserve it. I do my best to do the things that will help me win every day: I exercise; I engage in mindfulness meditation; I take my medications; I journal so that I can challenge my negative thinking; and I reach out to my supports, personal and professional.

As Mike O’Shea says (can you tell I’m one of his biggest fans?): “You win, or you learn.” Just like the Bombers, I encourage myself to learn from mistakes, from bad days, and from missteps. Even if every day can’t be a huge win, I can learn every day, and come back stronger.

5. Diversity is Strength

I have a mental health issue and so I consider myself a member of a unique and diverse community. In terms of diversity, the Bombers put their money where their mouth is. They speak with actions, not just words.

The team has a Director of Indigenous Relations, the incredible Niigaan Sinclair. They bring Indigenous youth to games. They do ‘Sacks for Charity’ to support Siloam Mission. Their website has some great mental health videos with Brady Oliveira. They ‘Intercept Cancer’ and tackle bullying — the list goes on.

One thing that I’m most proud of is that the Chair of the Board of Directors is a woman,
Dayna Spiring. She’s the first woman to have her name on the Grey Cup, not once, but twice. She once told me that sports brings people together like nothing else. She’s so right. The women in my life have saved my life: my mom, my mother-in-law, my wife, my psychologist. I love how the Bombers support women in football.

Think of the Mother’s Day Brunch and Women’s Football Clinic. I live with chronic mental health issues. Just like many of you reading this, I don’t fit the typical mould. I know that I’m safe at IG Field. Belonging and safety are the antidotes to shame, isolation, and hopelessness. 315 Chancellor Matheson Road is a place where people from diverse cultural, ethnic, sexual, and gender backgrounds belong.

Photo: Zach Schnitzer

Speaking of impactful women, I can’t help but mention the incomparable Carol Barrott. She will downplay this, as she always does, but Carol is the heartbeat of the team and staff.

She seemingly knows all season-ticket members by name, notes major events in their lives, answers every question and completes every task with professionalism, warmth, and commitment. I’ll never forget the day Carol called me to tell me that I would get to flip the coin for a July home game four years ago.

The phone call actually happened to come on my late father’s birthday, the first after his passing. It had been a really hard day, as my dad, who introduced me to the Bombers, is my inspiration and best friend. Our favourite activity was watching and talking about the Bombers, along with his buddies Henry Bissoon, Fred Penner, and Fred’s son, my “brother from another mother,” Damien Penner. Go Section 128!

That phone call made his birthday one of the best days of my life. I knew dad was listening in on the phone as Carol told me the good news. As I’ve told her many times, she’ll never know how important and impactful that experience was to me and my family.

6. Loudest fans in the CFL.

As you know, we have the loudest and best fans in the CFL. What you might not know is that many of our fans take it to the next level, both in terms of game-day costumes, and support for each other.

Through my Let’s Go Bombers Podcast and experience on YouTube, I’ve met so many fantastic people. Some are Winnipeggers, many are from outside of Winnipeg and even Canada!

Sign Guy, Blue Bomber Woman, Evan Charbonneau, Geoff Ritchie, Jersey Girl, Bomber Hero Girl, Kevin Dodge, Neil Bouclaire, Jeff Cabiles, Arlin Axelrod, Vickie Short, Marni Cramer, Bomber Vixen, Blue Skorpion, Dirty Bird, El Tony, Tones and The Legion of Blue, Tasha Scho, Corrie Proulx, Tamara van Leeuwen, Retired Guy, Greg Liverpoool, Choppa, Goldmember, Golden Boy, Erin Meyers, Pumper, Lefty Carol, the UK Bomber, Joe Pritchard, Chuck Curti, Hustler’s mom and dad, Scott and Gregory Mortland. The list goes on.

Yes, these people are absolute diehards, and many courageously put themselves out there with their wonderfully creative costumes. More than that, they are friends. They are people who have been there for me and who are there for each other whenever one of us is struggling, be it with cancer, loneliness, mental illness, or life difficulties.

Go on Twitter and find out for yourself. We are not only the best fans in the CFL, we love and care for each other like a family, just like the Bombers’ locker room is family. And I love how the club ensures that staff, volunteers, and players are accessible to fans. We all matter; we’re all part of the best franchise in the CFL.

One person I’ll highlight specifically is the man known as Bomber Reaper, the Mayor of Section 141. Reaper is a special person, who is as open about his difficulties as he is quick to send you a message when you’re down. He was the first superfan to whom I introduced my six-year-old daughter at last year’s Banjo Bowl (to be fair, she preferred Bomber Vixen, but Reaper prefers it that way).

What’s more, Reaper and his wife Vixen have even created a Twitter page devoted to mental health and supporting each other. It’s called CFL Strong (@CFL_STRONG). I urge you to check it out. Reaper and Vixen represent all that is good in the CFL, with the Bombers, and in the world. I love them dearly. Blue Bombers fans are a family, just like the players themselves. My list is missing many, many fans; you know who you are. Thank-you for being there for me and for being there for each other, and also, of course, for causing 122 time count and procedure penalties!

7. Coming Back Stronger

Not long ago, I was recovering from mental illness in hospital. In a moment I’ll never forget, my buddy Alex, a season-ticket member and one of the most generous people I know, sent me a text asking if I was okay to look at a video he wanted to send. I thought it would be an encouraging note from him and his wife Brittany and their beautiful new son (not to forget Missy the pug, who is also a huge fan). I said yes.

What appeared on my phone in that moment is something that took my breath away. Adam Bighill appeared on my phone with a personalized message. I was speechless, and then in tears. Biggie said he and the team were thinking about me. He thanked me for being a great fan, and said, “Zach, you will come back stronger.”

Here he was, possibly the team’s biggest star, an integral part of our championship teams, a sure-fire Hall of Famer, a winner of three Grey Cups, a three-time CFL Most Outstanding Defensive Player, a supporter of important charitable causes, and a man with a busy family life (not to mention seemingly dozens of jobs outside of football).

This guy took the time to send me a video. Incredible. I can’t think of a better way to sum up the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and what they’re about. End of story. It’s a video I’ll cherish forever and one I look at many times when I’m having a bad day.

Let’s go back to that 2021 West Final. On that frigid December day, with our fans in a dancing-to-stay-warm frenzy, a game Winnipeg’s own Andrew “Hustler” Paterson called one of the greatest games in Winnipeg sports history, Nick Taylor hung his head as the Bombers gave up the lead late in the game, to their most bitter rival.

They’d dominated the regular season and were expected to win. Anything less would be an unmitigated disaster. But as Taylor hung his head, his teammates gathered around him. They hugged him and told him, “Nick, we’re gonna need you to finish this game.” And wouldn’t you know it, it was Taylor who sealed the win minutes later, on a third-down pass breakup. He was down. Then he came back stronger.

The team gave up an unprecedented six turnovers; they put that behind them and did what they had to do to win. If they can do that, I can hold onto hope, even when there doesn’t seem to be a gap for me to run through the obstacles in my way that day.

As the clock winds down on this piece, let me say that it takes great courage to be vulnerable and admit you don’t know all the answers, that you’re struggling. I’ve had to learn that the hard way.

There are, of course, many more reasons the Bombers have helped me; these are just a few. I hope that my reflections on mental health help you or a loved one feel less alone, less ashamed. I know I am more privileged than most, but I hope that if like me, you struggle with mental health issues, you are already, or are inspired to reach out to family, friends, and professionals.

The Bombers are back-to-back champs for a reason. They play for and are constantly learning from each other and their coaches. If they give up a big play or dare I say, lose a game, they come back stronger.

Together. They would never let down their brother. Reach out to your supports. Know that you are not alone. If you have a bad day, it’s OK not to be OK, allow others to support you. No one does it alone. Our gridiron heroes don’t. Nick Taylor didn’t; and I don’t.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please utilize crisis resources available in your area.