At the beginning of the 2007 season, quarterback John Makie made a bold statement, informing Joe Pascucci of Global News that he believed his team was on the way to winning a Vanier Cup.
When he was confronted about the declaration, he was unapologetic. He knew in his heart that Manitoba’s 2007 team was building something special. The memory of last year’s loss in the Hardy Cup had lingered, and never in his life had he and his teammates been more motivated to win. The proof was in their work ethic, both before and during the season.
“We knew the talent that we had, and that’s the reason why I made those comments to Joe at Global,” recalled Makie. “I know it’s like oh, you shouldn’t say that, but it was felt from everybody that went to those workouts, that came together.”
It was a roster that had been battled-tested, a group of older (29 players on the roster were 25 years old or older) like-minded individuals who were hard-working, blue-collar football players. Specifically on the offensive line, the top eight guys were all junior football alum who were a bit older and had similar experiences.
“There’s so much stuff off the field that comes to mind first when I think of the 2007 year, and it always comes back to being with the o-line. It’d be the breaks within the practice, whether it was our warm up or our cool down between drills. We were a tight-knit group and we had way too much fun with one another,” noted veteran Ryan Karhut, who started at guard and was a captain.
“I think that helped drive that culture quite a bit. We could all relate to each other so well, even though we were from all from across Canada. A bit part of that was our similarities in age and in talent level.”
‘We had each other’
But more than that, this group was a family who had fought through adversity.
One example involved 6’4”, 220-pound receiver Randy Simmons, who made up one third of one of the nation’s most athletic receiving corps, alongside Terry Firr (first all-time in program history with 152 receptions) and Simon Blaszczak.
Simmons was a native of Michigan who’d come to Canada to play junior football because at the time, it didn’t use up any of his five years of university eligibility to participate. He first met Makie when the pair were both members of the Vancouver Trojans.
“He comes onto the Trojans, and I meet him at the house we were staying at in Vancouver, and sure enough here comes this guy from Michigan, and I know how Americans treat their football. He shakes my hand, and it’s almost twice the size of mine. Now all of a sudden I’m looking at him like competition,” commented Makie.
“Sure enough, Corey [Goff] put him at quarterback, and he took the majority of reps that day to get him sped up, because I was the only quarterback on the roster. Corey would drop us off and I was quiet on the ride home, and he’s like ‘what’s the matter with you?’ I’m like am I seeing the writing on the wall here? Am I getting my job replaced?”
Makie didn’t get replaced. Simmons ended up playing receiver, where he formed a potent combination with the Regina native due to each’s understanding of ball placement.
“It really helped both of our games, because we worked off of each other. He knew angles and where to put the ball and how to catch it, and we always spoke to each other in that sense. He knew what I was looking at, and I knew what he was doing.”
Following Vancouver’s loss in the 2004 playoffs, the dynamic duo stuck together.
“Randy was like ‘hey Makie, what are we doing next year?’ I’m like let’s go to Manitoba. He was like ‘alright, let’s do it,’ and that was it. All of a sudden he came to Manitoba and he’s like ‘hey where are you living?’ I’m like well, we’ve got a spot here. You can crash on the couch. We had an extra room then and he was always with me throughout.”
On the field, the pair had an unspoken connection. Simmons had 469 receiving yards during the 2007 regular season, averaging just under 14 yards per catch as a security blanket for Makie. Off the field, Makie was there for his receiver and friend following the death of his mother.
“I was with Randy Simmons when he heard that his mom died. I’ll tell you I never saw something so sad and heartbreaking and I was right there with him. I was patting him on the back saying it’s going to be okay, we’ve got each other. I’m sure it goes for every kid in university where they go through these lows in their life, but if you have a brother or a family member that you can count on or talk to or be around, it makes it a lot easier. We had each other.”
On a roster as talented, and experienced as Manitoba’s, there were bound to be sacrifices that needed to be made. Case and point: the Herd’s linebacking corps.
In 2007, the group included Jim Jeavons, Kenton Onofrychuk, Mike Kissinger, Riley Shogan and Jeff Alamolhoda. All five of these players could’ve easily started on any U SPORTS roster, however Alamolhoda and Shogan took a back seat for the best of the team. Not only did they not complain about their roles, each were commanding members of Manitoba’s special teams unit.
“In 2006, I think we needed to have a better grasp of us, of we, we, we, and I think we developed that through some hard lessons such as losing that playoff came to Saskatchewan. It was a real gut check and a reality check,” mentioned Bisons head coach Brian Dobie.
“In 2007 we went over the edge as a true team. It was literally one for all and all for one. There were so many guys, guys like Riley Shogan who was a really good linebacker, but wasn’t necessarily going to be a starter because we were so loaded. He didn’t blink an eye and killed special teams. They were happy for our team and didn’t let the me overtake the we.”
Another major sacrifice took place in the backfield. Prior to 2007, the duties had been handled by former Victoria Rebels standout Karim Lowen. He entered his third season with the squad as the oldest member of the roster at 29-years-old, but took a back seat at times to Matt Henry, a second-year player who’d come to UM straight out of high school.
“You look at the running backs we had, Karim Lowen is a great example. He was the oldest guy on the team and he was playing behind this Matt Henry kid, and Karim was very good unto his own right, but he’s playing behind some kid. Not once did he ever come to my office to challenge it,” says Dobie.
“He supported Matt, and when he got his chances he ripped up people too.”
Speaking of Henry, the impact he had for UM cannot be understated.
Standing at 5’11”, 215-pounds, the Mississauga man was highly recruited out of high school, thanks to a dominant career where he racked up over 1000 yards each year for Applewood Heights. He also had 18 total touchdowns in his grade 12 season, and epitomized second effort.
Raised by a single mother named Janet, Henry understood the value of hard work from a young age.
“She’s the one who instilled all the values that I have now, just to be kind to people, and be patient and honest,” says Henry. “As a single mom doing it on her own raising myself and my sister, it kind of forced me to grow up faster than I wanted to, but it’s shaped me into the man I am today, and for that I owe her everything.”
Janet was present during Matt’s entire recruiting process, and like many others, she was impressed by the approach and attitude taken by Dobie.
“When it got time to get serious, coach Dobie came to my house. He sat with myself and my mother and did his pitch like he always does. That week, my mom probably sat with five or six different coaches, but she loved him the most. That was the determining factor, because at that point, what she said was pretty important to me.”
Henry was a model of consistency at UM, rushing for over 600 yards in each of his university seasons. He had a combined 16 rushing touchdowns between 2006-07 and was named a Canada West All-Star in the latter year, while his 3,171 rushing yards also ranks second all-time in program history.
His running style, along with Lowen’s helped Manitoba’s offensive line develop a never say die attitude up front.
“The best part about Karim and Matt Henry was just their ability to break tackles. They were never down, and you could never assume that they were down,” commented Karhut.
“We had backs before that who were fast guys, but they weren’t guys who would stay on their feet, whereas both of those guys – even though Matt was more well known for it – Karim was every bit as good in that sense. It was super hard to bring them down. As an o-lineman, we learned that we could never give up on a play, because these guys were never giving up on anything. They were a lot of fun to block for.”
Manitoba’s defence was loaded with senior talent, but there were also some rising stars in their midst. One such player was lineman Eddie Steele, a constant for the Kelvin Clippers from grades 9-12 who played every snap except for three in his senior year.
He found a role with Manitoba team fairly quickly, churning out 5.5 tackles and a sack during Manitoba’s playoff run.
“I came into college as an 18-year-old and I was playing against guys that were 26 and 27, guys with full-on families and kids, and here I am, this young puppy. It forced me to grow up really quickly, and to really take the game seriously because those guys weren’t joking around,” says Steele.
“It was a job honestly, it was kill or be killed and only the strong survived. I really credit the guys for passing on their knowledge and experience. They really took me under their wing, because the reality was that they realized I could play ball at this level and I wasn’t your typical high school kid coming out who’s going to be redshirting for a few years and then maybe get on the roster. I think I had an impact instantly. It’s a credit to guys like Simon Patrick, Justin Shaw and Justin Cooper. They were great mentors to have.”
Shaw and Cooper both got drafted in the third round of the 2008 CFL Draft, while Patrick was widely regarded as one of the hardest working men on the roster. Along with those three was Don Oramasionwu, a former teammate of Steele’s at Kelvin who was a starter in 2007 and got drafted the following year as well.
“Shaw, he was that cool guy. He looked a certain part and was a jacked-up body. He was definitely one of the guys on the team where when he spoke, you listened,” noted Steele.
“Cooper, we called him the manimal because he was just a beast. He was a flat-out beast with his work ethic and his motor on the field. He wasn’t overly vocal, but he definitely led by example. Simon Patrick, I cant’ say enough good things about him. He’s probably one of the best football players I’ve ever seen. It was amazing what he could do.”
Unstopppable run to the Vanier
All of these elements combined made Manitoba unstoppable in 2007. Once again they went undefeated in the regular season, but this time, they weren’t going to be denied in the playoffs.
“It was just a steamrolling,” recalled Makie. “We were all kind of reminded of the sting that was felt in 2006 and we stomped on teams.”
The score line in Manitoba’s Hardy Cup and Mitchell Bowl victories was absolutely ridiculous, as they out-scored their opponents 100-25. Amazingly, prior to a Western touchdown in the third quarter, the Bisons’ defence had gone a total of 245:28 without allowing a touchdown, and they also finished at over plus 30 in the turnover department.
Manitoba’s 48-5 blowout over Regina in the Hardy Cup hit differently for Makie, who’d been passed on by his hometown team prior to the 2005 season. He had a stellar day, throwing for 253 yards and three scores, with 98 of those yards as well as two majors going to Firr.
“Regina, I’ll never forget that Hardy Cup. It was awesome. Everything worked out. They tried different stuff on the defence but it just didn’t work. Terry Firr had a game. All of our receivers just showed up, and I don’t think there were any drops in the playoff run that we had. It was just amazing,” he says.
“Winning the Hardy Cup was like taking the monkey off our back, and we slammed Regina, which felt good to everybody. Any time the Bisons went on the field with the U of R, it was personal. As much as I didn’t want to admit it then, I’ll admit it now. It was straight personal and I wanted to put up as many points as I could. At the end of the day, we did not lose to them when I was behind centre.”
A business trip
When Manitoba departed for the Vanier Cup in Toronto, they had one thing on their mind, and that was snapping their 30-plus year championship drought. The experience for Dobie was much different than in 2001. His program had developed a culture of success and knew they had what it took to win.
“After the national semi, of course we rejoiced and of course we were excited to go to the Vanier Cup, but it was not the same feeling, not even close. It was very much just another game, because we were going this time to win the Vanier Cup, not to be in it. It was a different culture, and it takes time for a culture to develop and it takes successes and failures. It’s an evolution. A culture is an evolving, living being and our culture had to grow to make us champions.”
Prior to the game, Dobie delivered a passionate speech where he highlighted the experiences of each of the team’s graduating seniors. It was a powerful moment that helped the team lock in.
“I think you know me quite well, and that I talk a lot, but I don’t plan speeches very often. I feel that if I do and my emotions aren’t tied into the speech, then it doesn’t fit. I don’t think you can be an actor. When I talk to the team, whether it’s a pre-game speech or anything, I know that I want to say something, but I try to word it in a way that suits how I feel. The message remains the same, but the deliverance of the message is different,” Dobie says.
“I did plan that speech. Not that I memorized it or wrote it down, but that speech was very much from the heart. What it was about was honouring our graduating players. I called each of them up one by one and hugged them. What the speech was about was that everyone had something different in their past, and in their present that they brought to the table and was unique to them.
Every single person on our team did that. They all had something to bring, and everybody respected and embraced each other’s differences, which was us the team that we were: invincible. It was very emotional. I’ll always remember the feeling in that locker room. I can’t explain it to you, it was a feeling that this was our moment and that it was undeniable.”
“When we brought it in, you could hear guys sniffling and crying,” added Makie.
“There were tears there prior to the game where you’re about to go win a Vanier Cup championship. On an emotional level we were ready to run through a brick wall. We had each other, and that’s what coach Dobie was saying, at least that’s what I gathered from his speech before the game. We were so close with each other that we were family.”
Playing for Matt
The Vanier Cup moment that’s entrenched in the minds of many occurred late in the first quarter with Manitoba down 7-3. Henry had just busted off a 30-plus yard gain deep into Saint Mary’s Huskies territory, but was taken down from behind, resulting in a broken femur. Henry’s leg flew above his head in a gruesome injury that gave his side one more reason to bring home the hardware.
“When we saw it happen, it only stoked the fire that was already ready to go. I’ve watched that game quite a bit, and you watch the momentum and there was never a moment where you were like oh no, we might lose,” recalled Makie. “There was never any type of momentum shift or anything. It was just let’s get out of this game, we’re winning. When that happened to Matt it was like okay, well now we’re doing it for him.”
Lowen stepped into Henry’s starting spot and didn’t miss a beat. He finished with 88 yards on 19 carries, while Making threw for 261 yards and a score en route to being named the game’s Offensive MVP.
The story of this one came on D however, where fifth-year veteran corner Mike Howard – who was also the Mitchell Bowl MVP – went off. He tied a Vanier Cup record with three interceptions, two of which came on-back-to-back drives. Makie helped turn Howard’s second pick into a score, which gave the Bisons a 13-7 lead. They never trailed the rest of the way, winning 28-14.
Howard’s performance was a testament to his work ethic. Standing at 5’9” he wasn’t the tallest or biggest guy on the field, and the Huskies had intended to isolate him all game with a bigger receiver. That plan didn’t work out as intended.
“Mike Howard was so unbelievably competitive,” says Dobie. “Nothing about Mike physically said that he was going to be a capital G great player, except who he is, and who he is is the most important thing. Mike’s character is what made him a great player. He epitomized the absolute over achiever. He was relentless.”
Relentless is a great word to describe Manitoba’s 2007 season. They put their egos aside and came together day in and day out with the common goal of bringing a Vanier Cup back to the 204.
“It was a great group of guys,” stated Dobie.
“I’ll love them until death. It was such a ride to be immersed with people like that, who had the same feelings towards each other as they worked together towards a common goal, not knowing if they would succeed or fail in that goal, but living for the moments. They weren’t playing for the results, they were playing for each other. The results took care of themselves as they went along their path.”
Manitoba’s victory in 2007 had a lasting impact. Makie and Karhut have continued to give back to the game to this day, both settling down in Winnipeg while continuing to coach.
Karhut has been the bench boss for the Winnipeg Rifles as well as Team Manitoba’s U18 squad and is currently the offensive line coach for UM. Makie also served on Manitoba’s staff for a while, was the technical director for Football Manitoba and currently coaches for St. Paul’s High School.
“That was a lot of fun. It gets me back on the gridiron every fall, just looking back and thinking of the path that I took,” says Makie.
“If you can influence kids in any way to keep on treading forward in the sport, those things can help you out in life if you just create those habits at an early age. That’s the beauty of the sport. I’m pretty proud of everything that’s happened since the time that I’ve come here in Winnipeg. It’s awesome to see.”
Steele was drafted 22nd overall in the 2010 CFL Draft by Hamilton, the same team that’d selected his father decades earlier. He played pro for nine years, and brought home a Grey Cup in 2015 with Edmonton, where he currently lives.
“When we won that Vanier Cup it was such a surreal moment. I didn’t really know how to win, and it taught me a lesson that way and how to handle yourself,” he says. “Fortunately in my pro career, I was able to win a lot of games, and that’s because of the little things that you do. You don’t win a game on a Saturday or Sunday, you win it during the work week. It worked out pretty well for me in my pro career, because I did do a lot of winning. I was only on one losing team, so that was pretty special.”
Henry’s legacy is about far more than football. Instead it’s a message of perseverance. He tirelessly rehabbed his broken femur and was back on the field as Manitoba’s starting running back a year later.
“On the surgery table I won’t lie, I asked the doctor will I ever play again? The doctor said ‘you’re lucky you didn’t sever your femoral artery, there’s no internal bleeding, you’re going to be fine as long as you do the work.’ I said okay.
During the rehab I had doubts, because I was scared. It was so painful. Two-a-days and just the massaging and the stretching, everything put together I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it. At a certain point it was like well, I’ve come this far, I’ve gone through this much pain already. I might as well keep going and see what happens at the end of it. After the year I was able to come back, and start at running back again. It was pretty crazy. It took two or three games for me to get back into the right head space, and then after that I was good.”
Along with Karhut and Makie, Henry has made Winnipeg his home. He helps coach running backs for the Manitoba Fearless of the Western Women’s Canadian Football League (WWCFL), and runs the sales department at Eastern Chrysler where he shares is story of resilience with his colleagues.
“Football is obviously a contact sport, but for my job now, it’s how you prepare yourself, how you get ready and what you do after you face adversity. I know coach Dobie would always say to the team ‘it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you respond.’ I compare that to my guys who work for me now at the car dealership. Do you want to prepare like an amateur, or do you want to prepare like a professional? Sports and business, they intertwine. If you put the work in, you’re going to get the results.”