It starts with one tell-all picture.
Mike O’Shea, the head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, is walking down a corridor at Tim Horton’s Field in Hamilton. Four, maybe five very full-looking duffel bags are draped over his shoulders, the team’s trademark W stamped on each one.
This is a couple of hours removed from a convincing 39-12 win over the Tiger-Cats, when team-wide post-game exhaustion is at its peak. But the Bombers had a building to vacate, a flight to catch and another week of football ahead of them to prepare for. That and O’Shea is the type of person that couldn’t walk past his equipment staff hurriedly packing up shop and not stop to lend a hand.
O’Shea will be back in Hamilton a month later to head into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. It’s the reward for a 16-year career in the CFL that saw him win three Grey Cups, an Outstanding Canadian Player award (1999) and finish second all-time in tackles. The North Bay, Ont. native was the first Canadian in CFL history to crack the 1,000-tackle mark.
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That hastily taken picture of the head coach showing he’s not above any job when it comes to his team is indicative of an attitude that was ingrained in him and shared through his playing career.
Mike Morreale, O’Shea’s teammate in Toronto (1996, 2002, 2003) and Hamilton (2000) saw the picture in the days after that game. Over those four years, O’Shea has mental images to match the digital one.
“I’ve seen that countless times,” he said. “That was O’Sh. When he was a player, as a coach, as a friend…we traveled the world together. I’d like to consider him one of my closest friends and I’m overly thrilled that he’s being inducted. It’s not shocking in the least that he’d be up there so quickly.”
If you read enough about him, you find out quickly that O’Shea doesn’t like to talk about himself any more than absolutely necessary. He declined an interview request for this story, opting instead to focus on his team and their season. What does come up about O’Shea though, over and over again, are two words: ultimate teammate.
“I think if they were going to build a mould of the ultimate teammate it would be Mike O’Shea. There’s just no other way to put it,” Morreale said.
“When you look at what you consider an ultimate teammate, you have to have a guy that you like and that you respect and is respected and is a me-last guy and a team-first guy.
“He had all those attributes in spades. You combine the fact that he was brilliant when it came to understanding the game and wanting to learn the game. He led by example. The guy was still playing special teams up until the end of his career and starting at middle linebacker. He played through pain, played through injuries, arguably the toughest guy that I’ve ever played with and played against.
“You don’t find a better all-around teammate and he happened to be an excellent football player. That didn’t come by chance. That came because he worked his butt off to get there.”
O’Shea didn’t start to play football until he was in the ninth grade. He didn’t take on a significant role with the Widdifield High School Wildcats until he was in the 11th grade. As a defensive lineman and linebacker — and thanks to a solid six-inch growth spurt — O’Shea found his place on the field and his career began to take off.
He eventually chose to sign with the University of Guelph Gryphons, became an All-Canadian and the Ontario University Athletic Association defensive player of the year in 1992. He went fourth overall to the Edmonton Eskimos in the 1993 CFL Canadian Draft.
As the all-star selections, the awards and Grey Cup wins piled up, O’Shea built his reputation across the league.
“I’ll tell you what, I’ve never seen a more complete athlete in his preparation, his skillset, his intensity for the game,” Chad Folk, O’Shea’s Argonauts teammate told Bluebombers.com.
“I’ve never had a better teammate as it fits my definition of a teammate. It was his selflessness, his taking hours upon hours to sit down with guys to teach them on film.”
Speaking with Bluebombers.com in March after his pending induction to the Hall of Fame was announced, O’Shea looked back on his career and saw those around him.
“The best thing is watching a buddy drink out of the cup,” O’Shea said. “All the guys… Chad Folk, Jude St. John, (Paul) Masotti, Mike Morreale… I can think of hundreds of guys.”
“He loves the CFL. He loves it. This is his passion,” Morreale said. “He has a lot of respect for it and that to me comes through with everything he does.
“He is the toughest guy on and off the field. He’s got your back 100 per cent and he’ll take whatever heat you can throw at him and he’ll shelter other guys from it too, because that’s the way he was brought up and he does it with a lot of grace.”
As a player and a coach, O’Shea’s selflessness could be second-to-none. While that differs from many other players, his desire to win — both in the past and in the present, where the Bombers are chasing their first Grey Cup since 1990 — is in sync with many of the game’s greatest competitors. He’s just always viewed the accomplishment as a team feat, rather than a singular one.
“To me, having my name on that trophy, that’s way more important than any ring,” he told Bluebombers.com. “It’s such an important part of Canada’s history. It’s beautiful.”