If the Edmonton Eskimos have trouble remembering who they are as they head into the 2011 season, they won’t have to look far for a reminder.
After missing playoffs three out of the past five years, the Eskimos are putting the spotlight on some former players from the glory days that saw the franchise set a North American record of 34-straight post-season appearances.
“There will be a lot of alumni members that will be integrated into our training camp and throughout the year,” said Eskimos head coach Kavis Reed. “Even game-day things that we do with them.
“We’re going to embrace the history of the Edmonton Eskimos and we have a very strong alumni core here that we’re going to tap.”
The club began by naming Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Pless as its official community ambassador on Friday.
“Oh, man, that feels good,” Pless said after slipping on his No. 39 jersey. “I feel like hitting somebody.”
The 47-year-old, who lives in Edmonton where he works as a personal trainer, still holds a handful of Eskimos team records. Now he takes on the role of mentoring young players and carrying on the old tradition that has been lost, instead of a new tradition of losing.
“For the last few years, everything is magnified so it doesn’t seem like so far of a distance,” Pless said. “But yeah, to me it seemed like they were losing that way.
“We want to win games and we want to get back to being champions.”
A quiet leader and skilled observer, Pless was an easy choice for the job.
“He exemplifies what we want in terms of the players to see and be,” said Reed, who was a former teammate of Pless in Edmonton. “Truly an Eskimo: someone that was undersized, put in the work, did the right things in the community and he ended up in the Hall of Fame.”
Being five-foot-10, 210 pounds didn’t hold the five-time CFL defensive player of the year back from an induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2005.
“Always having the expectation of coming out on top, and that was Willie,” said Reed. “He’s still a fierce competitor. I play squash with him and haven’t won one yet.”
On the football field, Pless squashed opposing ball-carriers like no one else in the history of the league, amassing a CFL record 1,241 tackles over his 14-year career.
“It’s that kind of attitude and approach that we’re looking to convey to the players so that they have an understanding that Willie is just a small part of that Eskimo fabric and there are a lot of Willie Plesses in that fabric of success,” said Reed. “And when they came together, it was the franchise that benefitted.”
However, there is a delicate balance between bringing up the past and allowing the 2011 version of the team a chance to find its own identity, Reed said.
“We’re not going to inundate them ad nauseum with alumni and tradition and all that stuff because we have to move forward as an organization,” the coach explained. “We will be very strategic in the way that we approach it and use these guys, but it is vitally important for us to recapture that Eskimo tradition and we have to use the guys that are present and available to us.”