Winnipeg and Manitoba are football crazy. Two reasons for consecutive capacity crowds at Canad Inns Stadium are the Big Blue’s winning record and the fact the team sits atop the CFL’s East Division standings. But another reason — perhaps the most heartfelt — is the desire to witness receiver Milt Stegall’s magic on the playing field.
Stegall, whose nicknames include Quatre-vingt-cinq (his jersey No. 85 in French), the Touchdown Beagle and the Turtle Man, became the toast of the town and province after breaking the CFL’s all-time touchdown record. Playing at home on July 27, Stegall, 37, claimed the record against the Hamilton T-Cats, scoring the 138th touchdown of his 13-year career in the CFL, every year of which has been spent as a Winnipeg Blue Bomber.
When he surpassed 137 TDs, he broke the record shared by CFL greats George Reed and Mike Pringle. The new record is all the more remarkable because Stegall had suffered through many seasons of dismal Bomber quarterbacking. Who remembers Tee Martin or Mike Quinn?
Only in the last few years have quality quarterbacks Khari Jones and Kevin Glenn appeared, helping Stegall in his quest to become one of the best to have played in the CFL. With Glenn at the reins of the Big Blue, Stegall has added to his TD total, snagging his 139th and 140th touchdowns.
Ever since he accepted a short two-yard toss from Glenn and scampered into the end zone, Stegall can do no wrong in the eyes of Bomber fans. Actually, that’s not quite true. Stegall has always been a fan favourite, but the recording-breaking touchdown merely reinforced his hold over them. Blue and Gold fans haven’t suddenly jumped on the Stegall bandwagon — they’ve always been aboard and they’re enjoying the ride.
The popularity of Stegall hasn’t gone unnoticed in political circles. Premier Gary Doer, who is a Bomber fan, declared Friday, August 24, Milt Stegall Day in Winnipeg and inducted him into the Order of the Buffalo Hunt, the province’s highest honour for outstanding accomplishments.
“Stegall has been recognized over the years for his sportsmanship and outstanding contributions to the CFL and the local community,” enthused Doer.
When given the opportunity to address Stegall personally during the Friday game, Doer said what all fans were thinking at the time — “You’re a class guy.”
The premier also announced a special scholarship has been set up that will be awarded to a high school and a post-secondary school student.
Stegall joins a handful of some lofty persons from outside the province who have been singled out for the Order of the Buffalo Hunt, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Local sports celebrities inducted into the order include cyclist Tanya Dubnikoff and hockey player Jonathan Toews.
At the same time that Stegall was earning platitudes from fans, Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz, another fan, announced the city had renamed Arena Drive, just north of the stadium, in honour of Stegall. The capacity crowd at the stadium cheered as Stegall held aloft the new street sign proclaiming Milt Stegall Drive.
Even CFL commissioner Mark Cohon was impressed, telling Stegall during the special pre-game ceremony honouring the Bomber receiver, “That is pretty cool.”
Stegall graciously accepted the honours that came his way — he was also presented with a new van — during the ceremony. “I’ve been here for 13 years,” said Stegall as 29,533 fans at the stadium cheered, “over a third of my life, and it’s been great.”
Among those who congratulated Stegall was Pringle. “If someone had to break the TD record I held, I’m glad it’s you because you’ve been such an ambassador to the league,” he added.
Stegall also received a photo plaque showing his 138th TD from Cohon, who was quick to add that the CFL was lucky to have him as a player in the league.
It might not have been. Stegall started out in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals. Fortunately for the Bombers and the league, Stegall’s talents went unnoticed. After three years of mostly sitting on the bench — only four receptions for 43 yards and one TD — and spot duty as a kick returner, the Bengals gave up on Stegall. He was signed as a free agent by the Green Bay Packers, but cut in 1995 before he had played a regular season. With no takers in the NFL, the Blue and Gold were able to sign Stegall — their loss, our gain.
The rest is history. Stegall found a home where he was appreciated. The faith in his talent was not misplaced. In his 13 years as a star receiver in the CFL, he has not disappointed the Bombers, the league nor his legion of fans. On game day, he turns out to play which is shown by the spectacular catches on the gridiron and the encouragement he gives to his teammates. It is his commitment to Canadian football that was honoured on August 24.
During the pre-game ceremony Stegall singled out his wife, Darlene, and son, Chase, but among the crowd was another special person — his mother Betty, who was attending a Winnipeg home game for the first time. The 2001 Grey Cup in Montreal, when the Blue Bombers lost to the Calgary Stampeders, had been the last time she attended a CFL game.
To top off the tributes heaped upon Stegall, the Bombers won the Frriday-night game, emerging with a hard-fought 15-13 victory over the Toronto Argonauts. Slotback Stegall made a major contribution to the victory, finishing with nine catches and 151 yards.
“What a night,” he said in a Free Press Live blog.
But what remains to cap off Stegall’s season is a Bomber Grey Cup victory, since he has never sipped from the hallowed cup.
In the meantime, Bomber fans have more than just Stegall to cheer. Running-back Charles Roberts is on the verge of surpassing the legendary Leo Lewis as the team’s all-time rushing record holder. With only 49 yards needed to pass Lewis, Roberts is a shoe-in to break the record when the Bombers meet the Roughriders in the annual Labour Day Classic this Sunday in Regina.
There’s plenty to cheer in Bombertown and that’s why Manitoban football fans are madly in love with Stegall and the Blue and Gold.