2015 Grey Cup Breakfast serves up a healthy helping of inspiration
The Ottawa REDBLACKS stormed out to a quick lead in the 103rd Grey Cup in Winnipeg, scoring a touchdown on each of their first two possessions, but the Edmonton Eskimos completed the comeback late in the fourth quarter when Jordan Lynch punched in a touchdown from the one-yard line to take home the Grey Cup.
It was a thrilling finish to the CFL season, but for some football fans, it wasn’t even the climax of the week. That came the day before, at the 37th annual Athletes in Action Grey Cup Breakfast.
“For me, it’s the highlight of the weekend,” said one fan decked out in a Winnipeg Blue Bombers jersey and a REDBLACKS scarf. “It’s so powerful. Every year, I enjoy it more than the game.”
This sentiment was echoed by several fans as the event came to a close. Every fanbase was represented at the breakfast, with Rider Nation showing up in force despite Saskatchewan falling short of the playoffs. Thankfully, no one wore watermelons on their heads.
It was a morning full of great food and laughter, but there was time for some tears and a healthy helping of inspiration.
After a couple opening songs from Sound Foundation, a local gospel quartet, Mark Washington, defensive coordinator for the BC Lions and three-time Grey Cup champion, stepped up to the stage to MC the event, but he wasn’t alone. He quickly introduced his co-MC, Michael “Pinball” Clemons.
This was no surprise to the 530+ people seated at the tables: the Hall of Famer and four-time Grey Cup champion spent most of the time before the event bouncing from table to table, high-fiving almost every attendee.
Pinball’s energy was irrepressible and he got the room pumped up with some call-and-response—“Game!” “Time!” “Game!” “Time!”—and breaking down the matchup between the Eskimos and REDBLACKS in detail and rhyme.
The two then introduced a special guest, new CFL Commissioner Jeffrey Orridge. It was the first time the commissioner of the league has ever been up on stage during the Grey Cup Breakfast and he spoke briefly to the assembled football fans.
“I do have some prepared remarks,” he said, then quipped, “What I was not prepared for was coming behind Pinball Clemons,” before expressing a commitment to keeping traditional events like the Grey Cup Breakfast running well into the future.
Eskimos and REDBLACKS Represent
Despite the tightly-controlled schedule of players in the Grey Cup, three members of the REDBLACKS—Keith Shologan, Ettore Lattanzio, and SirVincent Rogers, the CFL’s most outstanding lineman—were able to come out and speak before heading off to their other commitments.
Shologan and Rogers were open and honest about the struggles and difficulties in their lives and how faith and family have carried them through. In many ways, their struggles deepened their faith because they learned to depend on Jesus Christ rather than their own strength.
The Edmonton Eskimos were unable to release any of their active players to participate in the event, but they were still represented by the injured David Beard, as well as Jennifer Rottier, wife of offensive lineman Simeon Rottier.
Beard, who showed remarkable maturity that belied his young age, talked about how his faith has shaped him since he was a teenager. “Jesus has been speaking to me since I was 15,” he said, before Mark Washington cut him off: “Hold up, hold up, hold up: Jesus speaks to you?”
Beard laughed and nodded. Through his conscience, the Bible and the people around him, Jesus has indeed been speaking to him for years.
Hearing from Jennifer Rottier was one of the highlights of the morning. She provided a unique perspective on what life is like for a CFL player. She joked that Simeon is “a teddy bear,” then added, “He gets pretty mean out there, but I like that side of him too.”
Being a wife of a professional athlete is not always easy, and she spoke about how they navigate through negative comments from fans and media and the difficulty of working through injuries.
Jennifer’s concern for her husband was clear, talking about how difficult it is to see him struggle when injured and how those injuries can make an athlete question their identity and lead to depression, asking questions like “Will they want me back?”
It became clear why this was so heavy on her heart as she said, voice cracking with emotion, “We just found out he won’t be playing tomorrow.”
Simeon suffered a leg injury in the final game of the regular season, but had been hopeful to return in time for the Grey Cup . Instead, he was left on the outside looking in. Jennifer explained how they had learned to trust God in tough circumstances, believing he has a purpose and will bring about something good.
Breakfast is served and an award given
Croissants and pastries were brought in baskets to each table to go with the omelettes, bacon and fruit served to each guest. The delicious food and entertaining interplay between Clemons and Washington kept the atmosphere lively and fun.
Prizes and souvenirs were placed at each table for guests to take home, with plenty of opportunities to get those souvenirs signed by CFL players. Later that morning, signed footballs were given away to a few grateful fans. There was a silent auction with signed Milt Stegall and Henry Burris jerseys and a football signed by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at a back table.
Midway through the event, Dave Klassen, chaplain of the BC Lions and the national pro ministry director for Athletes in Action, presented the annual Athletes in Action Legacy Award. The award is presented to someone who has made a lasting impact on the CFL, their team, and in their community.
This year’s Legacy Award was presented to Norm Brown, who was the first ever chaplain for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, as well as the Winnipeg Jets. He served as chaplain for 18 years from 1977 to 1995.
Brown was given a standing ovation as he came to the stage and expressed his surprise and joy at being presented the award.
Young Guns take centre stage
Clemons and Washington had a few final guests, bringing up four young players they called the “Young Guns”: rookie Lions quarterback Jonathon Jennings, rookie Lions kicker/punter and CFL West all-star Richie Leone, Alouettes linebacker Henoc Muamba, and Blue Bombers centre Matthias Goossen.
Goossen and Muamba, who played three seasons with the Blue Bombers, received a particularly warm welcome from the Winnipeg crowd.
The “Young Guns” spent the week leading up to the Grey Cup in the community, speaking at correctional institutions, rehab programs, youth events, and other groups, sharing their stories.
One of the groups they visited was Teen Challenge, an addiction recovery program, and the players all agreed that it was one of the most special times they had experienced with Athletes in Action.
One resident said, “It was nice to meet some real athletes that care about others and understand us and not judge us.”
Another connected with something Dave Klassen said: “[He] explained the curve of addiction and that in one way or another, most people deal with addiction to something. It does not excuse my mistakes, but it also helps me not feel alone.”
Other residents appreciated that the floor was open for honest discussion and sharing, with one young man adding, “I was able to talk to Henoc [Muamba] about letting go of my own will and letting God do his will in my life.”
In an interview with the Winnipeg Free Press, Muamba explained why he serves with Athletes in Action: “It’s not just an athlete thing, it’s a human being thing. Even if I wasn’t a professional athlete, I would still give my time to try to help people who are less fortunate. I always try to find a way to be used by God. It’s part of being a Christian and part of who I am.”
After the four young players shared at the Grey Cup Breakfast, Washington said to Clemons, “You’ve been retired 15 years, I’ve been retired for 8 years, but I think the league is in good hands.”
God made you specifically
As the morning wound down, Washington and Clemons shared their own faith and why they’re so passionate for God.
“God made you specifically,” said Washington, “This is not mass production. Your deepest most ultimate needs are met in Jesus Christ.”
Washington, Clemons, and the players all stayed after the event, signing autographs, taking photos, and speaking to fans who were grateful for the opportunity to get up close and personal with CFL stars.
Clemons in particular gave personal attention to each fan that approached him, smiling, hugging, and shaking hands.
“We grew up in this,” he said about why he keeps coming back to the Grey Cup Breakfast. “It was such a big part of my spiritual maturity.”