June 19, 2017

Sunderland grew up watching Eskimos games

Brock Sunderland was already familiar with the Edmonton Eskimos long before he became the CFL team’s general manager in late April.

Sunderland’s high school football team in Great Falls, Mt., wore the same Green-and-Gold colour of uniforms as the Eskimos and he was aware of the team while growing up because his family followed the CFL on both TV and radio.

“I’m from Montana originally, so I grew up watching Eskimos games and know the history and the success and tradition of the Eskimos, so it was a really good combination of a position I’ve always wanted with an organization I grew up following and have a lot of respect for,” Sunderland said about his new job.

“I was a big Gizmo fan,” he added about the CFL Hall of Fame kick-returner from 1986-2000 (with the exception of the ‘89 season, when Henry Williams went to the NFL). “So there were a lot of things that always made me pay more attention to the Eskimos than other (teams).”

His transition from the assistant GM with the Grey Cup champion Ottawa Redblacks to general manager and vice president of football operations with the Eskimos was “pretty fast and furious” this spring.

“I was in Europe when I found out that they wanted to interview me so I cut the vacation short and went from Austria to Amsterdam to Ottawa to Edmonton in four consecutive days, interviewed, went home for about three days, came back, was here for about three days, went down to (Las) Vegas for the mini-camp, came back for two days, we had the draft, then the AGM (annual general meeting), I went home and moved and got back (in late May),” he said.

Sunderland, 37, was in Europe for his annual visit to see his sister and her family, who live in Amsterdam. During those trips, he often does some exploring on his own.

He interviewed with the Eskimos on April 20 and the formal job offer arrived the next day “so it was a pretty quick process all told.”

Despite the whirlwind start to his career with the Eskimos, Sunderland is in a good situation.

“The train has left the station on this season, so by the time I got hired, mini-camp was already all in place and the roster already had its max capacity and the draft reports were already in,” he said. “The biggest thing that’s unique about this scenario is it’s not a broken organization. The roster is good, the team was a good team last year and was a game away from going to back-to-back Grey Cups. The coaching staff was in place.

“The beauty of it is Jason (Maas) is the coach I would hire anyway,” he continued. “I’m not just saying that. When he left after the ‘15 season in Ottawa and I knew I was interviewing (for the GM position) in Saskatchewan, I said, ‘Hey, just a heads up. I’m going to call you if I get that job.’

“My biggest thing is I want to keep it afloat and just move it forward and do everything I can to help the organization win a championship,” Sunderland said about his main tasks initially with the Eskimos. “My belief is it’s easier for me to change than try to change all of the people who are already here and in place and doing things the way they know how.

“There’ll be little tweaks and little adjustments and that’s just kind of the way it goes when there’s somebody new. I’m not coming in to try to overhaul or make everybody else adjust or put my mark on it or anything like that.”

Sunderland spent the past four years with the Redblacks, helping to usher in the expansion franchise in 2014.

“This was a unique opportunity,” he said. “I don’t know if there’ll ever be an expansion team again. My thought was to go do something that may never exist again, so there was the allure of building something literally from the ground up, from the infrastructure to the locker room to designing the uniforms.

“When I got there, there were three total employees and there was one office and that was it. We weren’t at the stadium at that time, didn’t even have a team name. The challenge of it was what really intrigued me and energized me.”

The Redblacks won only two games in their inaugural season, lost the Grey Cup final to the Eskimos in their second year and won the CFL championship in 2016.

Sunderland, whose role in Ottawa included contract negotiations, assisting with the management of the salary cap and overseeing the scouting department, said it was initially difficult to convince free-agent veterans to join the Redblacks.

“The word ‘expansion’ scared a lot of vets away,” he said.

Sunderland, who was also invited to apply for the GM position in Montreal during the off-season, said he did the same thing in all three of his interviews for a CFL general manager’s job. Each time, the team reached out first to Sunderland.

“They all were a little bit different, so my biggest thing going into those interviews was to present the plan that I actually planned on using, don’t try to sell something that isn’t what I’ll do, and just be who I am,” he said.

OK, so who is he?

Well, Sunderland is single. “It’s just me,” he said. “I don’t even own a goldfish.”

Does he have a life outside of football?

“It is my passion and my hobby, so that takes up the majority of my time by choice. But I love outdoor activities, which is great being back out west. I love to ski, I love to kayak, I love to mountain bike, things of that nature. I’m a Montana boy at heart.”