Fourth-year Winnipeg Rifles receiver Gabe Grenier has come face-to-face with adversity – both mentally and physically – plenty of times. But every time life, or sport, has beaten him down, he’s picked himself back up and continued to fight on.
For most of his high school years, Grenier made the hour-and-a-half trek from Morden to Winnipeg to suit up for the Southwest Wolves. It was a necessity, as Grenier’s former team, the Pembina Valley Cornhuskers, folded.
“I don’t really have words for it. I’d do that three hours of driving every day right after school. Me and [former teammate] Cameron [Klassen], we’d take our turns on the playlist, and he’d always be rocking old classical music. We listened to this Broadway show called Hamilton probably 300 times on our way there and back, and when I was driving it was a podcast or something else,” he recalled.
“Me and Cameron were both a part of the choir at our school, so we’d be up sometimes at 6:30 in the morning to go to choir from 7-9. Then we’d have school until four, get in our car at 4:30 and drive to Winnipeg for practice. Then we were back in Morden at ten, 10:30 sometimes.”
Southwest played in the Midget Football League of Manitoba (MFLM), which was open to players aged 16-18 who didn’t have a high school football team to play for, or who simply wanted to continue their progression with their local club. Alumni include former Hardy Cup champion Jayden McKoy, as well as current Manitoba Bisons running back Breydon Stubbs, the 2017 MFLM Offensive Player of the Year.
The Wolves were an amalgamation of the St. James Rods and Fort Garry Lions, and were led by Wes Mueller. Grenier had the pleasure of playing with the club ever since their inception, scoring the first touchdown in team history in a scrimmage against Greendell.
The Morden native had good size at 6’2”, and his game speed was a factor, but he struggled to put on weight. For most of his minor football years, he was sitting around 130 pounds.
“My entire life it’s been a challenge to put on weight. I was always the skinniest guy in the room. I’d eat and eat and eat and I’d never gain anything. I worked out all through high school and never gained anything. It was every day stepping on the scale seeing 140 pounds or 135 pounds.”
In grade 11, Grenier bulked up to 145 pounds, and the following year he was 150. He also progressed at an impressive rate athletically over those two years. He was under centre (the starting quarterback got hurt) when the Wolves won their first-ever MFLM game, and was also a back-to-back league all-star.
It was during the all-star game that Grenier first met Rifles head coach Geordie Wilson, who encouraged those in attendance to attend the team’s tryouts.
Grenier was significantly undersized, as he lined up against athletes who were 6’3” or 6’4” and 215 pounds. Nonetheless, he pushed through, earning a roster spot with the grey gunners in 2017.
“We had such an amazing roster of guys in my rookie season. We had guys like Brendan Naujoks, Xander Tachinski, Dallas Opiola, Kai Madsen, Cole Chowen and Griffin Shillingford.
There were so many names, and these guys were as good as it gets in the CJFL. All of them took me under their wing and really coached me, especially Brendan and Griffin,” reflected Grenier.
“They were more along the position and playing style that I was trying to learn, and were a tremendous help. I still reach out to Griffin, and me and Brendan still talk all the time about what to do in certain situations and how he’s doing with the Bisons.”
For the sake of convenience, Grenier billeted with his old head coach Wes – whose son Barrett was also playing for the Rifles – in Winnipeg during his first year with the club.
In his second year, he moved into his first apartment with his two best friends from Morden. They had a simple set-up, but they didn’t care. What was most important was being around each other and supporting each other through trying times.
“We had as basic of an apartment as you can get,” said Grenier. “No couches, no furniture, it was just a table with a TV and all of us in our rooms with a desk and gaming set-up for when we wanted to hang out and stuff.”
Football-wise, the 2018 season was one that Grenier will never forget, as he was quickly thrust into the spotlight against the nation’s best team.
Entering week seven against Regina, Winnipeg’s starting quarterback Riley Naujoks was dealing with a lower body injury. He tried to test things out, throwing five passes before bowing out. Backup Drenin Busch was already out with a concussion, and so third-string pivot Kyle Logan stepped into the spotlight. He threw 17 passes before injuring his shoulder. The team got through the game with him handing the ball off, but were in an unusual situation heading into week eight against Saskatoon.
Thankfully, the Rifles had already clinched a playoff spot at that point, but they still needed to have a game plan for the undefeated Hilltops. That week, there was a debate as to whether Logan, Grenier or Chowen – who was deadling with a hamstring injury – would start under centre. By Tuesday, both Logan and Chowen were ruled out, meaning it was Grenier’s time to shine.
Keep in mind at this point, Grenier still hadn’t taken any starting reps at the junior football level. Thus, it’s understandable that his nerves were high as he prepped to take on a ferocious Saskatoon defence.
“For the following five days, I probably throw about 1000 footballs and took 500 mental reps of everything. I was watching so much film and getting three hours of sleep each night because I’m stressed out about this.”
Just prior to game time, the coaches made their expectations to Grenier clear.
“We go into the game, and all of the coaches gave me a hug before warm up – and with such subtilty – said ‘we don’t expect anything, just go and play.’ I wanted to beat Saskatoon and show them that I’m not just an emergency quarterback who’s not going to do anything. I’m a player in this league. I did everything I could to get our team to score.”
It was quite the debut for the Morden native, who took a beating, but kept on churning, recording 263 all-purpose yards, including 118 yards rushing on eight carries. Most of those yards came late in the fourth quarter, as Grenier sped away for a 92-yard rushing touchdown, the first of his junior career.
“Tom Sargeant, he was sending pressure every time. I kind of just hung in there,” he said.
“With two minutes left, we had over drive called, so an over-under concept. Coach told me ‘one read. If it’s not there, don’t give up a turnover.’ I made my one read, and Griffin wasn’t open over the top, so I’m like alright, time to go. I get on my high-horse and 92 yards later I’m in the end zone and record the worst celebration in football history.”
Playing mind games
After Grenier’s second year, expectations were high. He’d progressed well during the offseason, and the team had thoughts of playing him as a read option quarterback (similar to Chris Streveler’s role with the Blue Bombers). He also entered 2019 at roughly 180 pounds, leaning on the advice of his dad, a former bodybuilder, for advice on how to bulk up in a healthy manner.
Unfortunately, that spring life took an unexpected turn.
“It was spring camp last year. We were going into our first week of practice to play against Augusburg from the states,” reflected Grenier.
“After practice that night, I get a call from my best friend. He tells me that our other best friend unfortunately committed suicide.”
The news hit Grenier like a tonne of bricks. He’d always dealt with mental health concerns, but for the most part had been able to manage them up to that point.
“I’ve struggled with mental illness many times before that. Really, when that happened to my best friend is kind of when I took it into another gear. You never want to be the one to get the call. It really sucks when you do have to be the one to get the call.”
Grenier sought help from therapists in Morden in order to talk through his feelings. He also returned to his roots for the year in order to be closer to his late friend’s family. Yet again, he found himself taking the three-hour round trip for practice, but this time it was on his own, and a form of self-care.
“There’s something really nice about that three total hours of driving. Just an hour-and-a-half of music or podcasts really helped me clear my mind. I missed those drives, and I was by myself, so it was calming to me.”
Grenier also found solace in physical activity. The gym was his sanctuary, while the football field offered the chance to let out his anger. He leaned heavily on his teammates and coaches, who were there for him every step of the way.
“It’s been an ongoing battle with anxiety and depression, and digging myself out of that hole that sometimes gets created,” he says.
“It’s amazing being with the football team. Our old offensive coordinator, coach [Aaron] Gies[brecht], we’d be at practice and he’d see me off to the side with tears welling or struggling. He’d come over and he’d help me out and talk to me. All of the coaches and the guys really just helped me out. They were there for me if I needed them and when I needed them. I had so many long talks with people who were trying to help me.”
With a stable support system in place, Grenier pushed on. He earned a starting role at receiver, helping Riley Naujoks to a CJFL career-best 2118 yards passing. Grenier wasn’t necessarily Naujoks’ favourite target, however he did the little things well, most notably as a blocker.
“I pride myself on being able to block down field and not just be able to catch the ball, and that’s where I tried to separate myself from other receivers,” he noted.
“Every receiver wants to go out there and make the big catch, or get the ball and run 90 yards for a touchdown. Not every receiver is able to go block someone downfield. Young guys that are going to try out for the Rifles or Bisons, they need to know that coaches love a blocking receiver. It’s awesome if you can catch the ball, jump really high and all that, but if you can block downfield, you’re going to get your looks.”
‘Keep fighting and be ready for when it’s your time’
This year, life handed Grenier and the rest of the football community a rough hand due to COVID-19. It was especially frustrating for the veteran Rifles pass-catcher, who, at 6’2”, 190 was poised for a breakout year as one of the team’s top targets.
There was a light at the end of the tunnel thanks to the Pro Prep Flag Football League, which offered Grenier and the rest of his teammates the chance to run their systems and build chemistry with the returning Kyle Logan, as well as a few other promising pivots.
Grenier played well, scoring on numerous occasions while offering a tease of what’s to come in 2021.
“I wasn’t expecting Pro Prep. It just kind of happened and I was like yes, I want to be a part of it. For this football season I was expecting to be a top two or top three target for my team. I was ready to be the guy. When it all got halted, it was very difficult, but we got our starting lineup ready for Pro Prep, and showed what our team is going to be like for next season. It felt really good to get on the field and show what we’re going to be able to do.”
The Southwest alum is now living in the city with the girlfriend, eagerly awaiting the return or organized sports. In the meantime, he continues to prioritize his mental health. His message to those in a similar situation is simple but effective: keep fighting.
“I’ve dealt with plenty of adversity. I came into my first Rifles season at 6’2”, 145 pounds. I’m under-sized and getting tossed around like it’s nothing. I go into my second season. I’m bigger, but still getting tossed around. I go into a week where all three quarterbacks are hurt, and I’ve never even touched the field as a receiver, let alone a quarterback, and I’m going against the number one team in the nation. There’s just been so many times that I’ve had to fight and battle through these things.
When my friend passed away, I understood that it’s going to hurt and it’s going to really suck sometimes, but you’re going to get through it. That’s really what drove me, the past experiences of always fighting and getting through. Even with this pandemic, I know there’s going to be an end to it at some point, and you just have to keep fighting and be ready for when it’s your time.”