They held a party in Mike O’Shea’s honor in his hometown on Saturday, dedicating the football field at a sports complex in North Bay, Ont. in his name. And those who know the Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach best will attest that while he would no doubt be humbled and grateful for this recognition, he would also squirm to have the spotlight shine directly on him.
In fact, he would be much more comfortable after the pomp and circumstance of shaking hands and patting each other on the back in a place so important and still so near and dear to him.
“Coming home to my hometown of North Bay is always special,” O’Shea said last week. “They don’t have to do that or honor me to make me feel good to come home.”
The soccer field at the Steve Omishchl Sports Complex in North Bay will now bear O’Shea’s name, but when he sat down with bluebombers.com before leaving Winnipeg on Friday, he was more interested in detailing O’Shea’s career. Omischl – a world champion freestyle skier from North Bay – than to be recognized himself.
The most important things for O’Shea and his family over the next few days will be visiting his mother, who still lives in the house he grew up in after 50 years, reconnecting with his pals, spending time at Trout Lake and do the usual memory lane tour around North Bay.
“My old school (Widdifield Secondary School) is now closed – they created a super school by merging schools,” O’Shea said. “And the pitch I played on, I think it’s not even maintained anymore, so that’s a bit disappointing.
“I’m sure the building is still being used for something, but when we get there, my buddies from North Bay will be like, ‘Why are we going here?’ and I tell them that I just want to drive by. Then I’ll get the “Oh, come on…”
“I did the same thing several times with my children. I’m sure they could probably organize the tour themselves by now.
Inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2017 for his work as one of the nation’s greatest linebackers – he was the CFL’s top rookie in 1993, top Canadian in 1999 and a three-time CFL champion. Gray Cup as a player and one as an assistant coach for the Toronto Argonauts before guiding the Blue Bombers to two more championships – O’Shea didn’t start playing until 9th grade.
He had played hockey up to then and after trying out for Widdifield’s senior team and being cut, he first adapted to the school’s Grade 9 team as a quarterback and security before moving to the defensive line. He grew six inches before his 12th grade, moved on to linebacker, and started opening his eyes with his fierceness and athleticism.
He had a handful of universities that offered him scholarships before he moved to the University of Guelph because of the courses they offered that matched the career he envisioned as a brewmaster.
Drafted by Edmonton and traded the same day to Hamilton, football dominated O’Shea’s adult life, first as a player and then – after a brief stint as a medical sales rep – turning to training.
He is now a two-time Gray Cup champion as head coach of the Blue Bombers and ranks behind only Bud Grant and Cal Murphy on the franchise’s all-time winning list.
All of these achievements, of course, make him more than worthy of having a football pitch dedicated to his name. His mother was expected to be at the ceremony, while he lost his father – an Englishman and RAF pilot in the Second World War before moving to Canada and operating the Dairy Queen in North Bay – in 2012.
“My mom is proud, that’s for sure,” O’Shea said. “She doesn’t answer every question when people see her, but she reminds me once a month if people see her and asks me, ‘Are you Mike O’Shea’s mother?’ She’s obviously proud of it, but she’s always had a pretty good sense of humor, so she usually turns those conversations into something quite interesting — maybe more than people anticipated.
“And my dad… He’s on my screen saver, so every time I turn on my TV, he’s there with my kids. Do I think of him in these moments? He was not a sportsman like that. He grew up in England during the Depression and swimming was their sport – all the schools he attended had swimming pools. He was an excellent swimmer.
“‘Football’ for him growing up would have been football. He wasn’t a big fan of sports at all. There are funny stories of when he came to watch me play when I was playing for Hamilton. One day Honest work was important to him, so getting paid to play a game was weird to him. It would have seemed really weird to him that we were getting paid to do what we did there.
The O’Sheas sold the Dairy Queen, FYI, and it has since been resold.
“But,” added O’Shea, who worked at the shop as a kid and insists he could still hit all the DQ specials, “I’ll definitely be at the Dairy Queen at some point when I will be there.
“I am proud to be from North Bay and look forward to spending time there. That’s how it is for a lot of people. If you have good memories, I don’t know if you really left your house since you were young. If you have bad memories, you may never want to go back. But I had a wonderful childhood. It’s hard not to say ‘home’ about where you were born and raised.