16 years and Counting

PAUL FRIESEN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:42 AM ET

The stories are passed down from father to son, mother to daughter.

Stories of famine throughout the land, not lasting one decade, but two, and then some, without so much as a drink from the Cup.

For 22 years the people of Winnipeg wandered aimlessly through the CFL desert, seeing relief only in a mirage. Heroes like Bud Grant, Ken Ploen and Leo Lewis seemed like the names of prophets from a distant land, a lifetime ago.

The longest drought in the modern-day history of the people would finally come to an end in the Year 1984, and once the clouds burst it was as if abundance bred abundance. The heavens opened, again and again, with bountiful harvests in 1988, then again two years later, capping the most plentiful decade since what the elders called The Glory Years.

With the barns full to overflowing, the cows fattened and the pastures lush and green, the people looked to the last decade of the millennium with eagerness. Surely, this time the good times would last.

Little did people in the land of the Blue Bombers know another drought was just around the corner.

Today, Home Turf examines the current 16-year dry spell, the second-longest of the modern era, revisiting some of the men who've tried, in vain, to bring relief.

Is it about to end, or could it last as long as 22 years, once again?

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Troy Westwood didn't have to hear stories of The Great Drought of the 1960s, 70s and early 80s -- he endured much of it.

And when the rains finally came, he was one of the thousands who gathered at Portage and Main to soak up a celebration that wasn't wrung out for a full year.

Seven years later, Westwood joined the great Blue Bombers at the peak of their prosperity, or so he thought.

It was 1991, and the then-24-year-old was living a dream, suiting up for the franchise he grew up watching.

Hand-picked above hundreds of others from the developmental ranks, Westwood would earn his colours that first year, taking over from a legend, Trevor Kennerd, whose powerful leg helped the Bombers rule the CFL.

This was going to be grand, Westwood thought. Victory, glory, championship rings -- and plenty of playoff bonus money.

"If you were a Blue Bomber, it was a given that you were a champion and the Grey Cup was rightfully yours," Westwood recalls of that time.

Success was so entrenched that the Blue Bomber leader, a man named Cal Murphy, would convince his charges to make sacrifices in the spring and summer, knowing that in the fall they'd be sharing the spoils of a conquered nation.

"Cal actually negotiated that as part of your contract," Westwood explains. "He said, 'Well, you know you're going to be in the Eastern Final. That's an extra 10 grand.' It was just a given."

How, then, does Westwood or anyone explain that 16 years after first joining Bomber Nation, the man is still waiting for his first drink of the good water?

It's hard to comprehend, this dry spell, coming as it does in a land with eight or nine opponents, not counting those years of expansion south, across the border.

Only the people of Saskatchewan, already at 17 years, are experiencing anything like it.

Many would-be saviours have come, amid much fanfare, over the years, promising an end to the famine, and the road through this wasteland is littered with their bones.

There was Darryl Rogers, Urban Bowman (a Murphy protege), and even Murphy himself returned to lead the people, but to no avail.

The fickle hand of fate has exerted a cruel grip over the years, sometimes crushing the very body of the man who brought hope.

Like when Matt Dunigan was felled in 1993, just when it seemed the Blue and Gold would rule again.

Once the hand of destiny seemed to reach out of the sky to swat the rain away before it could replenish the soil.

"Dunigan hit the crossbar with a wide-open Gerald Wilcox," Westwood recalls of that fateful day in 1994. "That play will never be forgotten."

Moving along through this desert path, you don't have to look far to see the skull of Jeff Reinebold, complete with the earrings, a man who brought with him an oasis of promise only to lead his followers, and they were many, straight into Death Valley.

Clad in bare feet and sunglasses and quoting noted soothsayers such as Jimi Hendrix and the Dalai Lama, Reinebold was a charmer with the gift of the golden tongue. He would speak and it was as if a prophet had just uttered the wisest words of all time.

"I was part of the whole gang," Westwood admits. "Every single guy that played for Jeff Reinebold would have jumped on a grenade for him in a second. He did everything. Except win. It wasn't fun at all."

While Westwood is the eldest Bomber on this journey through the desert, Milt Stegall isn't far behind, having arrived in 1995. Between the two, they have toiled 28 years -- watching, waiting, hoping. All for naught.

"I was drinking the Kool-Aid, too," Stegall says of the Reinebold years. "He had me fooled, with his flip-flops and his tank top and blue jean shorts on for the first game. He had me fooled. I bought it."

Alas, the man turned out to be no profit at all. Worse, he wasn't even a football coach, as the Bomber faithful were subjected to two of the most futile seasons in history.

The parched years of 1997-98 took a horrific toll on the people of this land, their numbers dwindling to such an extent they actually faced extinction at the turn of the millennium.

Into this barren wasteland strode a man named Dave Ritchie, a man who'd seen calamity before, and conquered it. But the eight years of famine Ritchie defeated in the mountains of the west were no comparison to what he was dealing with here on the dusty prairie.

Ritchie arrived after Year 8 of the current drought, and it quickly reached a decade under his watch. Then came The Great Deception of 2001, a year in which all signs pointed to a cloud break.

As storms gathered in the distance, lightning flashed from the right arm of Khari Jones, straight into the bare hands of Stegall, and the people turned out by the thousands, their thirst about to be slaked -- or so they believed.

"That was the chance," Stegall says. "That was the only chance I ever had."

False hope, it turned out. Dry lightning. A few drops, but that was all.

Looking back, Stegall says there was no other choice but to follow Ritchie. The path, onward and upward as it was, seemed to lead to water.

"We got to the top of the mountain, and we just started slowly going back down," he says.

The trek has been particularly hard on Westwood, who's now been a step away from what he thought was relief, three times. Each time, another mirage.

"Getting that close to what you hunger for so dearly, and having someone snatch it out of your hands when it's so close to your grasp, is terribly painful," says Westwood, who may never get another chance after a poor performance last week forced management to bring in kickers to compete with him.

One season ago, there was no such near-miss. Year 16, and the sun beat down relentlessly, yet again.

Jim Daley, who'd succeeded Ritchie, was no match for it, lasting barely 15 months.

The landscape was as parched as ever, producing not even the tiniest of fruit.

That's when a stranger named Berry, oddly enough, rode in from the East, the Land of Plenty, at least when compared to the dust bowl this place has become.

Berry embraced the challenge of the drought, even erecting a marker to serve as a constant reminder of its toll.

"I still have the 1990 Grey Cup Champions banner on my wall," Doug Berry says. "It's my motivation every day when I come in. All I want to do is replace it.

"I know it's been a while... I promise this team will do everything, and I will do everything I can... that's what my mission is."

The man's first year at the helm was encouraging, enough that Westwood swears he sees a lake of beautiful blue shimmering in the distance.

"Every single year there's that renewed hope and energy," Westwood says.

Stegall looks upward to find hope. To the sky, where there may or may not be something brewing.

"I see something special," he says. "I see a storm coming. A little thunder and lightning is warning me a storm is coming."

And this time Stegall won't just wait for it to come to him. He can't. His time is nearing an end.

So he's going to go and meet the rain, and embrace it.

"You've got to cherish it," Stegall said. "And take advantage of it when you get there."


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