March 19, 2020

Community Tour good for players as well as fans

The Eskimos Community Tours, presented by Tim Hortons, are intended to help build a rapport for the CFL team within rural Northern Alberta. This year’s tour, the fourth, had the Eskimos travelling to Cold Lake and Bonnyville in Early March.

“Signing autographs, taking photos, showing our support, but also letting them know when it’s summertime, it’s time to come down to a game,” said offensive lineman Matt O’Donnell, who participated in an overnight trip this week to CFB Cold Lake and then to Bonnyville for stops at the RCMP detachment, a hospital, the firehall and, of course, a Tim Hortons store with defensive linemen Almondo Sewell and Kwaku Boateng plus placekicker Sean Whyte.

“It’s a little far away (distance-wise), but it’s worth it,” O’Donnell added about football fans from that area attending Eskimos home games at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium.

Whyte was popular at all of the stops because he brought his 2015 Eskimos Grey Cup ring.

“It’s the only way that people believe me that I’m an actual football player,” he explained and kidded. “I usually go in there and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m the water boy.’

“Well, we’ve got six-foot-11 Matt O’Donnell and Kwaku Boateng (six-two, 257 pounds) and Almondo Sewell (six-four, 288) and then there’s me,” said Whyte, who stands only five-foot-nine and 175 pounds and jokes that he looks like one of the workers in the Eskimos business office.

“If I bring the ring, at least they believe me,” he added. “It’s a good ice-breaker and I know a lot of people like to look at it and enjoy it. I just think it’s a good conversation piece.”

“Whytey’s been showing (his ring to) everybody, letting the kids take photos with it, wear it, stuff like that,” O’Donnell said. “He’s been really good about that.”

Sometimes, the visits to the rural communities can be just as important for the players involved as they are to the general public.

For example, on this trip, spending time with the Canadian Armed Forces Search and Rescue (CAFSAR) technicians was of particular interest for O’Donnell because his now-retired godfather had served in that role at CFB Trenton in Ontario while his brother, Stephen, is an ACS technician who performs maintenance and repairs on the giant Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft at CFB Trenton, where he’s been stationed for 10 years.

O’Donnell also ran into his brother’s former boss during lunch at the CFB Cold Lake mess hall and knew one of the RCMP officers, who had been in the same graduation troop as his brother.

“I met him when he was first stationed at CFB Trenton,” O’Donnell said about his brother’s former boss. “He remembered me and came over. We talked a little bit and he was asking about my brother. It was pretty cool.”

Sewell, 33, who is looking forward to his 10th season wearing the Green and Gold, has plans to join the Edmonton Police Service after he eventually retires from professional football, so the RCMP detachment visit was a special place for him while stopping at the firehall in Bonnyville was significant for Whyte because he grew up in a firefighter family in the Vancouver area.

The players arrived at the local fire hall with generously donated Tim Hortons coffee, muffins, Timbits, and donuts or ‘Vitamin O’ as the crew called and were welcomed by crews from all over the region.

“My dad is a Delta firefighter, my uncle is a Richmond firefighter and my brother-in-law in a Coquitlam firefighter,” said Whyte, 34, who has played the last five seasons with the Eskimos. “My dad, still to this day, bugs me to be a firefighter. I’m like, ‘Sorry Dad. I’m playing professional football.’ ”

When Whyte called his father to let him know he was about to visit the firehall, his dad replied: “What you should do is ask them if you can get on the fire department there and then you can transfer to the Delta fire department once you do that!”

“Since I’ve been a little baby, I’ve always put on my dad’s firefighting stuff and started spraying the house down with the hose,” Whyte said. “It’s something I’ve always been interested in, but obviously, football takes up a lot of my time. Maybe next off-season, I’ll do the schooling at least.”

All four Eskimos players had an opportunity to wear the complete firefighter outfit, including mask.

The stop Whyte likes the best this week, however, was CFB Cold Lake.

“My favourite movie of all-time was Top Gun, so I got to sit in an F-18 Hornet, which is pretty much my dream,” he said. “I didn’t get to go up in one, but sitting in one was pretty cool and talking to the pilots and all that kind of stuff. It was really cool to get up close to those jets. They’re definitely a lot bigger in person.”

O’Donnell, 30, who will be entering his ninth season with the Eskimos this year, called the visit to CFB Cold Lake “a little bit of a refresher course” for him because he’s seen most of it before, including the Search and Rescue technicians discussing the helicopters, safety equipment and protocols.

But all four players were blown away – literally – when the tour stopped at the jet engine-testing facility.

“They have to be taken apart and re-done every 600 hours, the whole plane,” O’Donnell said. “When they make the new engine, they have to log ‘X’ amount of test hours before they can install it. They had to test them all out for a couple of hours each.

“They showed us from behind all the safety glass and then they let you go in and feel the reverberations near the engines, but you’ve got to put in the tiny earbuds and then put on the (protective headphones) over top. That’s how loud it is.

“They took some pictures of us with the jet engine at full capacity. It was intense. It was really sweet.”

Whyte called it “nuts.”

“You could see the rings and the flames of the exhaust,” he said. “There’s three rings and every ring represented the sound barrier. That’s the exhaust breaking through the sound barrier. They really cranked it up. It was up to like 16,000 pounds of force or something like that.”

The Eskimos players posed beside the engine for a picture when the CFB technicians turned the engine up again.

“You feel it, man,” Whyte said. “The power is immense and it’s pretty cool. … They said it was like a roller coaster ride. I’ve never been on a roller coaster ride when you’re sitting there, but it’s pretty amazing the force that those things produce.”

Whyte said it was “pretty cool” to see the whole process where the technicians were not only taking a jet engine apart, but the entire plane, and then putting it all back together, but the players also liked seeing the machine shop and the heavy weapons, including the bombs, in the armoury for the CF-18s fighter planes.

Whyte, and teammates, brought with them numerous boxes of donuts, muffins and carafes of coffee all generously donated by the local Tim Hortons to the RCMP detachment and asked some questions he’s always wanted to ask a policeman. That included things like what it’s like to work by yourself and with a partner and how to react in different situations.

“They said their training has always been so good that they’ve never had an issue by themselves … and it prepares them for everything that could possibly happen in the field,” he said.

Whyte also enjoyed talking to the patients at the hospital.

“I lost my grandparents about a year or two ago,” he said. “I got to go to that part of the hospital and met the elderly people and had good talks. One guy reminded me of my grampa, just talking about World War II. He was 17 working on tanks.

“By the end of it, (their discussion) changed his day, just for him to talk to somebody.”