Teaching life lessons

PAUL FRIESEN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:01 AM ET

It was all chuckles and back slaps -- even one head rub -- as coach Mike Kelly introduced his staff at Blue Bomber headquarters yesterday.

And get this: Kelly didn't take the opportunity to tear a strip off former head coach Doug Berry.

The man's learning, apparently.

Has he learned enough to hire a winning combination of assistants? We'll find out soon enough.

As always, there are question marks.

Take Rick Campbell, the son of Hugh, who became an instant favourite here when his Edmonton defence allowed Milt Stegall to race 100 yards on the last play of the game for that miracle win in 2006.

Campbell will coach the Bombers' defensive backs. Discuss amongst yourselves.

Kelly's new defensive co-ordinator, as we predicted in this space two months ago, is Mark Nelson, an old CFL linebacker and assistant coach who hasn't worked in Canada for 12 years.

Nelson's recent experience is in the U.S. college game, a whole different ball of wax from the three-down game.

The character of the bunch has to be Andy Cox -- he's never coached running backs before but will try his hand at it here -- who was rubbing the bald head of O-line coach Ronnie Vinklarek like it was a crystal ball during yesterday's media photo shoot.

Vinklarek, who, like Campbell, accompanies Kelly from Edmonton, has the most impressive resume, with three years in the NFL under his belt.

He also has the most interesting background -- so interesting, his family's story was featured by Oprah Winfrey.

The oldest of five boys growing up in Flatonia, Texas, Vinklarek's life was turned upside down when his dad, a truck driver, died in a crash when he was eight. Five years later, his mother was partially paralyzed by an aneurysm. When Vinklarek was 17, she died of a stroke -- on Christmas Eve.

Suddenly, under the threat of the brothers being split up and sent to foster homes, this high school senior was in charge of a household of five boys.

That would be enough to permanently erase anybody's sense of humour, but not Vinklarek's.

"We were so poor, we couldn't pay attention," the 50-year-old cracked.

Seriously: "You walked down that railroad track and you picked up bottles, 'cause there were nickel refunds on them," he said. "You went at five in the morning and swept out the post office."

Whatever it took, with plenty of help from the community.

"It could have went a lot of ways," Vinklarek said.

Most of them, not so good.

The way Vinklarek sees it, life's curve balls aren't problems, they're challenges.

Somehow, he scraped together enough to go to college. The bar had been set, and one by one his brothers followed, each getting their degrees.

"What you hope it does is show young people out there that no matter how dim or bleak you think it is, you've got to do things for yourself," Vinklarek said.

Raised a Catholic and taught a strict, "yes-sir, no-sir" respect for authority, Vinklarek sees himself as a teacher. You'll often hear him quoting from the Bible, even in meetings with the O-linemen.

He won't tell his players his own life story, at least not at first. But he's learned plenty from it.

And the parallel of getting five people to work together for a common cause isn't lost on him.

"That's the biggest part of coaching, is learning how to take guys through adversity," Vinklarek said. "That's what I learned early in life. It was saying, 'Hey guys, we've got to learn to work together. We've got to help each other. And if we don't, they're going to take us apart.' "

You could say the same about the group of assistants he works with now.

Eight brothers facing a new challenge. Who knows where it'll lead.

Anybody got a crystal ball?

Contact Paul at paul.friesen@sunmedia.ca or 632-2788.


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