Milt's having a ball

PAUL FRIESEN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:26 AM ET

I'd been wondering, these last few days, what the Labour Day Classic would be like without Troy Westwood.

I know, the rivalry between the Blue Bombers and Riders is far bigger than one man. Especially a kicker.

But deep down I suspected it wouldn't be the same without the 17-year fixture teeing off on Riders fans, tongue firmly in his cheek, in the days preceding the game, then teeing it up on Sunday.

So yesterday I trundled off to practice, along with the usual gaggle of media types, carrying the glum realization that without Old Lefty there'd be no one to lob grenades in Saskatchewan's direction, nobody to provide the colour we so desperately need to spice up our otherwise mundane prose.

Then Milt Stegall came along.

"It's going to be a hostile environment," Stegall began. "But if we go in there early and put some big points on the board, the fans get quiet. They're still mad at us, and still throwing their false teeth at us, but we keep 'em quiet."

Eyebrows raised and sensing a rare opening, the suddenly hopeful journalist went for it: So, Milt, what does a crazed Saskatchewan fan say to a guy like you?

"They try to say I'm ugly," No. 85 said. "But that's an oxymoron, Milt Stegall and ugly. They try to say I'm old. Shucks, I've known that for years. I'm the oldest guy in the league. But I look good, so that's no big deal."

OK, does everything have to be about your looks?

"They try to say, 'You're not as good as Allen Pitts,' " Stegall continued. "I always say Allen Pitts is the best receiver, so that doesn't hurt me. 'Your hair is falling out.' I keep that bald, so they can't see that. They try to say my legs are skinny. I say I just have a well-proportioned body. I have a big upper body -- I'm like a capital Y."

Clearly enjoying himself, Stegall had one more barrel to unload.

"They try to say their province is better than ours. But I didn't even know Saskatchewan was considered North America."

And so it went. The man who put off retirement only to limp through the first half of the season, barely able to practise, let alone play, on a team that's 2-6, was happier than a kid in a toy store.

Regrets that he didn't call it a career and stay in Atlanta, instead of crawling after Pitts's all-time record for receiving yards (Stegall still needs 112).

Apparently not.

"Man, this is fun, regardless," Stegall said. "You guys try to put pressure on me. Pressure is not having enough money to feed my family. Not being able to keep the lights on and pay the mortgage. You've got folks who are losing their homes, people in a world war losing their kids.

"I'm going to continue having fun regardless of what the record is, what's being said about me, no matter what."

You know, there are times you wonder if Stegall and the Bombers would be better off if he'd retired. That he's tarnishing his image, kind of like Bobby Orr going out on one leg.

On days like this, though, days when No. 85 can tilt the mood like he used to tilt games, you don't wonder so much.

And you get a glimpse of why players like Stegall, or Brett Favre, or Joe Sakic keep coming back.

"You can't emulate this," Stegall said. "I don't care if you're making Bill Gates money. There's nothing else like this in the world. I don't regret one bit about coming back. If I could play another 10 years, I would. This is the greatest job.

"I tell guys, 'Don't take this for granted, 'cause when you get out in the real world, you're going to wish you were in training camp. You're going to wish you were dealing with Paul Friesen.' It gets no better. This is fantasy land. So enjoy it while you can. Cause when it's over, it's over."

With that, it was over.

And just like that, Milt Stegall had got me in the mood for the Labour Day game.


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