Milt still having fun

KIRK PENTON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:39 AM ET

It was a simple event during an average practice that perfectly summed up where Milt Stegall is right now in his illustrious CFL career.

Almost everyone stopped what they were doing yesterday to watch Stegall take on middle linebacker Barrin Simpson in an impromptu 40-yard dash.

The race itself was another indicator that Stegall is a 38-year-old man playing a kid's game and will always treat it that way.

The fact that it was a photo finish against a 240-pound linebacker showed just how close to the end of the line Stegall is.

COMPETITOR

He's not the main focus of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers offence anymore, and he's not the go-to receiver. Heck, he's on the field for only about 60% of the offensive plays thanks to a wonky left knee.

For a competitor like Stegall, you'd think the lack of playing time and decrease in production would take some of the shine off his 14th CFL campaign.

It's actually the opposite. He's not hauling in the catches or piling up the yardage like he has over the past 13 seasons, but he claims he's never been happier playing pro ball.

"I've always been having fun, but right now it is at an all-time (high) level," he said. "People may be saying, 'That's because your career's coming to an end. This is it for you.' If this is not it, it's right there. I'm on the edge about to fall off, and somebody may push me off.

"Now, of course our season hasn't been as successful as we want it to be, but this is supposed to be fun. We're not changing the world."

Stegall's mood is in stark contrast to the one he sported last year, when he proclaimed he was 99.9% certain he would retire at season's end. The statement hung around his neck like an albatross as the Bombers faltered down the stretch.

Inquiring minds wanted to know how much pressure he was feeling to win the Grey Cup in his final season, and his frustration grew each time it was asked. He was about as much fun as a hang nail.

While he occasionally still uses the local media for some us-against-the-world motivation, Stegall seems more mellow in '08. His standard line about retirement these days is, "I'm just trying to make it to next week," and he actually means it.

His pre-season knee surgery, which prevents him from practising, is the reason he shares playing time with fullback Graeme Bell.

The six games he missed at the beginning of the season means his streak of nine consecutive 1,000-yard seasons is coming to an end, although he made up for that by becoming the CFL's career receiving yards leader in September.

VICTORY

Here, however, is the big theory: Stegall's reduced role is the reason why he's having so much fun. It's not all on his shoulders to produce a victory. He's learned he can make three catches a game for 45 yards and the offence can still produce points. The Bombers are 5-4 when he's in the lineup.

"I don't think he needs to be on the field pounding for 60 plays," head coach Doug Berry said. "If he's on for 30 or 40, that's good."

Turtle Man also admitted it's easier to smile when when you've won four of your last five games, like the Bombers have, but you almost believe him when he says he's simply playing a kid's game and it doesn't matter at the end of the day if he wins or loses.

Almost.

He can say that all he wants, but the Grey Cup is the only thing that will bring him true football happiness.

And the passionate way he argued with Simpson about the outcome of their race yesterday shows there is plenty of fight left in him.

"I've never lost a race in my life," Stegall bellowed in the locker-room afterwards. "Barrin's claiming he beat me, but he jumped early and I still beat him.

"I'm like Jerry Rice. I'm game time. Game time, I'm a beast."


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