Before the Winnipeg Blue Bombers sent former Gryphon linebacker John Rush home following their training camp last year, they gave him some advice should he want to continue to strive to play in the CFL.
Since that was his goal for as long as he could remember, Rush took that advice to heart and earned another invitation to their training camp this year. Now that attitude and his hard work have landed him a spot on the Bombers’ roster.
“They told me to work on my special teams and to just get a little bit quicker so I could keep up with some of the faster guys that are out there, smaller running backs and the smaller linebackers,” Rush said in telephone interview.
Aside from hours spent working out in the weight room and on the Alumni Stadium field, Rush joined the Hamilton Hurricanes for his final season of junior football. The top defender in the Ontario Football Conference’s junior league, Rush turned down Hamilton’s offer to be strictly a defensive player.
“They told me I didn’t need to play special teams for them, but I was like ‘No, I need to. This is what I need to do,’” he said. “I made sure when I was playing for the Hamilton Hurricanes that I was on every single special teams. I was working out every single day and I was losing weight. I made sure I worked on all those things so that if I ever did get the opportunity again, it wouldn’t be wasted.
“I didn’t want to put myself in that position where I had to explain why I didn’t work on them so I made sure I got better and showed improvement in those categories.”
And the Bombers were pleased with that effort
“They were super pumped when I came back into camp,” he said. “They were like, ‘You look leaner. You look faster. We’re very happy with how you’ve progressed this off-season. A lot of guys wouldn’t do that so we’re happy that you did do that.’”
The Canadian university defensive player of the year in 2015, his fifth and final season with the Gryphs, Rush starts his CFL career as a special teams player and back-up fullback. He made five tackles in the preseason and one in the season-opener against the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
When 6-foot-1, 227-pound Rush was asked if he’d give a try at playing fullback, he wasn’t about to turn it down. If that was his way into the CFL, so be it. However, it has meant making some adjustments.
“It was like the small things, even the little things in practice like where to line up when you’re not in,” he said. “Usually the defence is on the sidelines and the offence is behind the offence. Sometimes I’d be running over to the sidelines and I’d be the only one standing there. ‘Oh, where is everybody?’ Then I realized that the offence is behind the offence and I should be over there.
“Things like that and the cadence and hearing the quarterback call the plays. It’s a lot more work than I’m used to hearing in a play call, but in a month-long camp, you kind of get all that stuff out. But at the start it was a little tough to get used to.”
In game play, of course, the offence controls what both teams do. The defence reacts to what the offence does, but the offence has its play to run.
“On defence, you’ve got a play call, but then if the offence comes out and does something completely different, then you just kind of play football,” Rush said. “On offence, we’re still doing our play. You have to know where to be at, what yardage – two yards inside a hash mark or two yards outside a hash mark. It’s just little nuances like that that are completely different.”
But there was plenty of time in the preseason to get used to it all as the Bombers had a longer time until their first regular-season game than any other team in the league as they had the first-week bye.
“It just seemed like we were in Winnipeg for a month and not doing much but practice,” Rush said. “With training camp and all that, it just seemed like you were practising forever. To finally have the (opening) game was a relief that we got to take some people to the ground and play some football. It’d been a long time coming.”
One of the things that is different at the pro level is that every game in the league is televised and the players watch them all.
“We watch them in meetings and we watch them on our own at home,” Rush said. “While we’re making dinner, we have the games on. And we’re all talking about guys we know and what teams they’re on now.
“It’s not like you have to scour the internet for some obscure link that may or may not work. It’s on TSN, all the games are there and they’re always talking about it. It’s pretty crazy. You grow up watching the games on TSN and now that I’m in the CFL, it’s like ‘Hey, I’m in that game. They’re advertising the game I’m playing in.’ Wow, that’s actually pretty crazy if you think about it.”
One thing that isn’t too much different than the university game is team bonding and that’s something Winnipeg coach Mike O’Shea takes seriously.
“He’s really honed in on what it takes to have a championship team and that’s what we’ve been working on and been building the last couple of years,” Rush said. “We have such a great bonded chemistry that that’s going to help win us championships. Some teams think they don’t need to be tight, they can be athletic and stuff like that, but we know that football’s a team sport and if you want to win, especially if you want to win a Grey Cup in an 18-game season, you need to have team chemistry because if you don’t, you’re just going to break down. You can’t have a team with in-fighting and bickering. That’s what’s going to cause teams to lose.
“Doing things like paint ball and camping, hanging out and playing Xbox and having a ping pong table in our change room, they’re just things that help us learn about each other outside of football which makes us tighter and closer and more willing to do what it takes for each other.”
When you think about John Rush, it’s likely that ping pong (or table tennis) isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.
“That’s fair,” he said. “I’m getting kind of used to it now. There are some weird rules that don’t make sense to me, but I’m getting used to it. But the ball is so light that it just goes flying sometimes. There are some guys on the team that have played on that ping pong table for years now and they could probably compete at almost a national level. I just kind of play against the rookies when I can.”
That, though, is part of being a Blue Bomber.
“I’m playing football again and that’s the most exciting part. I’ve worked so long and so hard to achieve this dream and to finally kind of realize it and for it to finally come to fruition, that’s probably the most exciting part for me,” Rush said. “It’s been a long journey, but I finally got here.”
“Wow, I’m a professional football player. That’s crazy.”