Mike O’Shea’s introduction to football at Widdifield Secondary School in the 1980s did not go well, but he stuck with it – and many people who, in turn, stuck with him, were on hand Thursday to celebrate what is now a Hall of Fame career.
The 46-year-old North Bay native was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, with an army of family members, longtime friends, and former teammates gathering in Hamilton to celebrate an induction class that also included Anthony Calvillo, Geroy Simon, Kelvin Anderson, Brian Towriss and Stan Schwartz.
O’Shea, a linebacker who played 16 CFL seasons with the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Ticats, was the only defensive player among the class. In terms of longevity and career numbers, O’Shea tops all Canadian-born players in league history – the only Canadian to surpass 1,000 defensive tackles (1,151), good for second on the CFL’s all-time list. He won three Grey Cups with the Argonauts, was a league all-star, and played more games (271) than any linebacker in CFL history.
But that first taste of football at Widdifield, though – he took a hit on the first drill that left him in tears, gasping for air.
“I probably have to thank Mark Hewitt, my Grade 9 coach, for not cutting me the first day, first practice, first drill, first hit,” O’Shea said during his induction speech. “But he stuck with me.”
It was on the football field where O’Shea’s work ethic began setting him apart and he developed a passion for the game that still burns bright as head coach of the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
“We had a great time in high school football,” O’Shea told the Hall of Fame gathering at Tim Hortons Field. “We ended up winning a championship (in 1988) for the first time in the school’s history. The coaching staff there, Roger Ettles and Tom ‘Timber’ Graham, not only coached football, but that was a point where they started coaching leadership as a skill. And they really focused on how the team was going to come together and how it was going to be led. It was very impressive that they were teaching that skill in high school on the football field.”
A handful of those North Bay high school friends – Rob McCombie, Rich Ladouceur, Cory Keenan, Dan Howe and Jamie Hartnett – were in attendance on Thursday, just as they have often been there to support O’Shea over the years for Grey Cup games, regular season games, post-game socials or off-season road trips.
“These guys have been with me forever,” O’Shea said in an interview. “They faithfully show up to anything we are doing and it’s always great to see. The hope is that I can give them the amount of support that they have given me. It certainly hasn’t balanced out. Hopefully, I’ll have the opportunity to do some things for them to show them how much I love them.”
Citing pride in support from his family – he and wife Richere have a son and two daughters – O’Shea also told the crowd that taking up football had more to do with some urging from his mother than his father.
“My Mom quite often says, ‘Yes, I’m the one who gave birth to that’ and it’s a funny line but I want to make sure she knows she did a lot more than that,” O’Shea said. “The thing my Mom and Dad showed us was work ethic. I mean, get out of bed every day and grind, with a smile on your face, then come home and hit the pillow. You guys worked so hard and it was just so evident what you needed to do to be successful.”
While it was O’Shea’s playing career, which wrapped up in 2008, that was recognized on Thursday, his football life is now wrapped up in coaching. He spent three seasons as Argonauts’ special team's coach, winning another Grey Cup in 2012, before taking over as head coach in 2013 in Winnipeg. The Bombers went 7-11 and 5-13 in his first two seasons, but things have turned around with an 11-7 season in 2016 and an 8-3 start this year.
O’Shea’s football journey is not over – “there’s more to come, so buckle your seatbelts,” he said – but it is also coming full circle in the family. O’Shea’s 17-year-old son, Mike Jr., is in his final high school season as a receiver/slotback with the St. Paul’s Crusaders in Winnipeg and is pondering post-secondary playing options next year. The young O’Shea pushed back his flight to Hamilton so he could make a practice on Wednesday and planned to leave early Friday to get back to Winnipeg for a big game.
So Mike O’Shea, the Canadian Football Hall of Famer, gets a little spark from watching Mike O’Shea Jr. enjoy the game of football with his high school buddies.
“It gives him an opportunity to experience some of the same things I experienced, which I find very rewarding,” O’Shea said. “I owe a lot to the game. But he (Mike Jr.) also knows I want him to be his own man and carve his own path. He’s been around it enough and he knows how difficult it is to get to this level. I like the way he works and I like watching him play. It gives me a real kick to watch him out there playing.”