Corpses come to life

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:24 AM ET

What is a month in football years? It may as well be a lifetime. As an example, we give you the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, a team on the brink of implosion four weeks ago when, at 3-7 and in fourth place in the CFL West, most observers had deep-sixed their playoff chances.

Back then, Bomberland was about as fun a place to visit as the local morgue. Glum was the word, after the dozen corpses masquerading as the Winnipeg offence had gone a second straight game without scoring a touchdown in a 29-13 loss to the Montreal Alouettes.

In the first half of that game, you were convinced the local mortician had shot everyone up with formaldehyde and layered on the makeup -- it still looked kind of like a team, but up close it was stiff and cold.

Fast forward to the present, and you can't help but recall the Robert De Niro movie Awakenings, where, thanks to a wonder drug, a whole ward of sleeping sickness patients suddenly comes alive.

In this case, the wonder drug has been three straight victories and an awakening offence that's rediscovered its zest for life.

You'd swear this wasn't the same football team.

The pre-practice stretching routine yesterday looked more like a Star Search competition, with Elfrid Payton and Keith Stokes trading dance floor moves to a hip-hop number blaring from the Stadium sound system.

The frivolity continued with a 40-yard match race between Payton and rookie receiver Hugh Smith -- with $100 on the line. Having just watched Payton waltz through practice, Smith offered to give the 37-year-old D-lineman a five-yard head start, to boot.

And when the vet showed he still had some wheels, after all, the rook didn't hear the end of it in a raucous Bomber locker-room.

"I should have went 50 instead of 40," Smith said, as he fended off the catcalls. "Did I underestimate him? I knew he can run. But 35 yards? Who can't run 35 yards?"

By the time things had settled down, Smith was scheming to get his hundred back in a challenge with defensive back Eric Carter, this time with no five-yard spot.

"This is what football is all about," receiver Milt Stegall said above the din, calling the whole scene "significant."

It reminded you of the Bomber locker-room, circa 2001.

"Having a team come together," is what Stegall called it. "We go out and eat together, we go out and bowl together -- those are the things you want to do. So once you're on that field, you feel comfortable with the guys. And we're getting to that point now."

It's an elusive thing called chemistry. And with 10 years under his belt, Stegall has the tools to measure it.

Not surprisingly, his meter showed near-empty earlier this season.

"It has been missing," he said. "That comes with losing, though. Guys are timid. Guys don't know, if you joke, will the team or coaches be mad at you? But we're winning now. So guys aren't scared to do these things. They just want to go out there and have some fun, on and off the field."

Which brings us to tomorrow night's game against those same Alouettes.

Maybe it's simply their new-found zeal, but these guys actually seem convinced they stand a chance against Don Matthews' 11-1 powerhouse.

"It doesn't matter who lines up out there ... we're just going to beat 'em up and just play football," Carter said. "We're playing smash-mouth football for four quarters. And if they're ready to play four quarters, we're going to give it to them (tomorrow)."

But Eric, this is Montreal, where the Als lose once every leap year or so.

Of course, one month in football can be an eternity.

So who's to say?


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