Down memory lane

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 11:28 AM ET

For a while, down on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers sideline yesterday, it looked like the year 2000 all over again.

There was quarterback Khari Jones, six feet of smiles, yukking it up with receiver Albert Johnson III and lineman Ron Warner, like they'd just put up 40 points on the hometown B.C. Lions or something.

It was six years ago the three burst onto the scene, helping put Bombers football back on the map after a five-year stint as the CFL's punching bag.

Today, Johnson and Warner are back in Blue after a stint down south.

Jones? He's in town as CBC-TV's sideline reporter, just five years after winning the CFL's Most Outstanding Player Award.

Heck, it was a scant four years ago Jones tossed 46 touchdown passes, the third-best total in league history. Tonight, he'll be "throwing it back upstairs" instead of into the end zone.

"It'll be different," Jones was saying yesterday. "For the first time I won't be a player either on this side or the other side. I don't really have a vested interest in the game that way. But the fans ... I'm sure they'll remember me."

How could they not?

Vilified at the end of his time here, the facts are these: before Jones arrived, the Bombers had gone five years without a winning record. With him over the next four years, they went 44-27-1, including a trip to the Grey Cup.

With touchdown totals of 31, 30 and 46 from 2000-02, Jones put together a three-year highlight reel unmatched by virtually any quarterback, in any league.

All this from a man who, until then, had been a nomadic backup, bouncing from the Arena League to the World League to the CFL, where, after three years of holding a clipboard, he finally discovered Winnipeg.

And it discovered him.

"I still remember my first starting game, vividly," Jones said. "The first drive. I remember everything. That was kind of a microcosm of my entire career, as far as getting it to different guys, and running it when I had to, and scoring and throwing interceptions, and then coming back at the end."

Yeah, that pretty much covers it.

Except maybe for the coming-back-at-the-end part.

By the time Jones was traded to Calgary in '04, the shine was off everything, even his smile.

As quick as his rise had been, his fall was stunning in its suddenness.

One week he's signing that infamous "million-dollar contract" (he never did see most of the money), the next, it seemed, he couldn't get a job.

His favourite target those years, receiver Milt Stegall, still shakes his head at it all.

"One day he was here, the next thing you know he got traded to Calgary, he got released from Calgary to Edmonton, he got released by Edmonton to Hamilton," Stegall rattled off the sequence like an auctioneer. "You look back on it now, like, what happened?"

Actually Stegall has a pretty good idea.

"He took a lot of hits, and I was mad at a lot of stuff that went on," Stegall said. "I don't cuss, but I would have been in there cussing. But the way he was... he didn't want to step on any toes. He should have been stepping on some toes, a lot of folks' toes."

A million-dollar quarterback with some "nickel folks" protecting him, as Stegall put it.

Jones never had the benefit of working in the same offence from year to year, either, as the Bombers changed co-ordinators like an escapee changes addresses.

But you never heard him gripe.

"The good thing about it, Khari is even keel," Stegall said. "He's balanced. He was able to handle it. He knows this is just football. I think 95% of professional football players don't go out on their own terms."

After a few failed attempts at trying to recapture the magic, including one last tryout with Edmonton this year, Jones, 35, has come to the realization it's likely over.

"It's not like an itch than I can't scratch," he said.

He hasn't filed his retirement papers, yet, but between his acting career and the TV work, he's well on his way.

"Coming into this season, I worked real hard and wanted to play," he said. "But it didn't work out. Once people start perceiving you're going down the hill, then it's hard to stop that. But I definitely don't have any ill will.

"I played 11 years of professional football. Coming from not getting any scholarship offers, not getting any bites when I first came out of college, to be MVP and go to the Grey Cup and do all those things, what do I have to complain about?"

Not a lot.

Bomber fans, in retrospect, didn't either.


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