June 1, 2017

A Visit From A Legend

It was a sight to behold on Wednesday morning at Hillside Stadium. The veterans, who have supposedly seen it all, were wide-eyed. Rookies could hardly contain themselves. A guy of Fred Biletnikoff’s stature surely has that impact on people.

The Oakland Raiders legend and MVP of Super Bowl XI addressed the players after morning practice.

“I enjoyed a couple of these practices and I like every part of the CFL after being able to play one year and coach for a few more,” said Biletnikoff over lunch at The Den cafeteria in Kamloops.

“I always watch the game up here and I love all of these talented kids. Everyone has something so special about him. The enthusiasm and excitement are excellent. It’s a good atmosphere to be around and the CFL is just more fun.”

 

Although exactly zero players on the current squad were born when Biletnikoff played his last game for the silver and black, they all understood the stature of the man who stood in front of them.

“It was awesome. When I saw him on the sideline I kind of recognized him and then coach Bellefeuille introduced us said ‘hey that’s Fred Biletnikoff,’” added fellow receiver Bryan Burnham.

“Having played in the States and in Division I football, I know the award for the top receiver in the nation is the Fred Biletnkoff Trophy. It was pretty inspiring to see a legend out here talking to us. “

The football world is indeed small. Biletnikoff was a member of the 1980 Montreal Alouettes with Wally Buono and current Lions kicking coach Don Sweet. Biletnikoff later coached on Buono’s staff in Calgary in the later part of that decade.

The former receiver is also no stranger to Kamloops. He has vacationed in nearby Lac Le Jeune for the last 30 or so years.

With the Lions at Hillside Stadium for an eight consecutive training camp, Biletnikoff saw it as the perfect opportunity to re-connect with Buono and defensive line coach Robin Ross who was on the Raiders’ coaching staff in the early 2000’s.

When asked to describe what it was like to be associated with the CFL’s all-time leader in coaching wins, Biletnikoff seemingly could have gone on for hours.

“Wally is just a terrific guy that has great demeanour. He’s a no nonsense guy, but he goes about it very tactfully,” explained Biletnikoff.

“You’re looking at a guy who is not only in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, but has all those wins and Grey Cups. It has to be really impressive for these kids to be around a coach like Wally who has devoted his entire life to the profession and worked his way through the coaching ranks to get to where he is.”

“Freddy was a very intense guy and very passionate about football and his skills,” said Buono.

“His respect of the game was high. As I was saying to our players, if Fred dropped a ball in practice it was a long post-practice working with the jugs machine or working with the quarterback to catch everything thrown at him.”

Those Raiders teams of the 70’s and 80’s were known to have some of the all-time best characters. There was the likes of Ken “The Snake” Stabler, Jack Tatum and George Atkinson. Biletnikoff later joked on the radio that it was probably a good thing that version of the team never moved to Las Vegas.

Despite the off field craziness, the core group managed to finally get over their championship hurdle and defeat the Minnesota Vikings in one of the more famous Super Bowls in early history. Tatum knocking the helmet off Minnesota receiver Sammy White is still one of the most famous all-time hits in football history.

“We were a team that missed out on the Super Bowl for so many years and then finally got over the hump and won one,” recalled Biletnikoff.”

“To have the opportunity to win it after being one game away I think four times, that was very special. Hopefully it’s similar to these Lions now, they are hungry to get there after being one win away.”

Biletnikoff still does PR work for the Raiders, representing the club at various events throughout the NFL season. Despite the pending move to Vegas, he couldn’t be happier to see the current edition of the silver and black knocking on the door to a fourth Lombardi Trophy for the franchise.

“It’s great seeing them improve. Last year was a great year and unfortunately the quarterback (Derek Carr) went down with his injury. It kind of killed everybody’s attitude, but they are now an exciting team. This year should be really great.”

Those are similar vibes in the Lions Den right now. They know they are potentially on the cusp of being a great team. Having a championship visit from Biletnikoff is certainly the type of motivation they will welcome as we continue the long days in camp.

“You have to be inspired when a hall of fame legend is around,” added Buono.

“For him to want to address you as a football player and as a man, these things don’t happen every day.”

Matt Baker: mbaker@bclions.com