October 30, 2019

Eastern Washington Bragging Rights On The Line

The program has become a major pipeline for some of the CFL’s finest American talent in the last decade. Ryan Phillips, JC Sherritt, Matt Nichols and Vernon Adams Jr. are just a few of the proud Eastern Washington Eagles to earn their pro stripes north of the border in recent years. Two former teammates at the program will do battle against each other when the 2019 BC Lions close out their season on Saturday night. For defensive back TJ Lee, the Lions’ nominee for CFL Most Outstanding Defensive Player, he always relishes the opportunity to face his old pal Bo Levi Mitchell. Lee can’t help but think back to some of the more memorable days on the Cheney, Washington campus.

“I remember him throwing me a perfect pick, in stride, in practice,” chuckled Lee after Wednesday’s practice.

“It was in the winter in Cheney. Outside of that, he’s just a cool dude to hang out with but ultimately, we want to crush them this week and crush their dreams.”

Indeed, the chance to drop Mitchell and company to third place in the West and make their quest for a home game in the Grey Cup go through Winnipeg and Saskatchewan is a big dangling carrot for Lee and his Lions. Still, he and his former EWU teammates will always share that common bond: talented guys who may have been overlooked by bigger schools and NFL clubs that went on to make names for them in the CFL.

“There’s just something about that red turf. It’s crazy,” said Lee when asked about what makes the program so special.

“It’s just the atmosphere, the people, the coaches that I’ve had the chance to be around and the work ethic that we’ve grown and shown across the league.”


Lee arrived in Cheney as a redshirt for the 2009 season when Nichols was the team’s starting quarterback. Mitchell then transferred there from SMU for Lee’s final two seasons. Practising with the two quarterbacks and learning about their tendencies no doubt paved the way for him to succeed at the pro level. Now the Lions’ longest-serving defensive player (six seasons), Lee deserves full marks for his continued production and being voted on by the Football Reporters of Canada as the team nominee on defence.

“It’s a great accomplishment for a team award. Ultimately, we want a championship so I mean, I celebrate those (team awards) in the offseason,” explained Lee who was announced along with the other finalists on Wednesday.

“I’ll add it to the repertoire when I work out. It’s like ‘ok, I was an All-Star but I want to do it again.’ What I did last season worked and (I) just want to build on that offseason work. Productivity is great. That’s the most important thing in this sport. If you don’t produce, then you’re probably not going to be here. I’m proud of myself for that but ultimately it’s about finishing this game against Calgary and then going on to next year and playing for chapter seven.”


Both Lee and fellow veteran nominee Bryan Burnham (Most Outstanding Player) will aim to make 2020 a November to remember. At this stage of their respective careers, a Grey Cup championship remains the only goal. That starts with treating this Calgary test as a measuring stick game that can make them feel good going into a long offseason.

“I know we’re not going to be playing anywhere (next week). I’m going to be sitting on the couch watching, so that hurts,” said Burnham.

“I’m going to play this game like it’s the Grey Cup and the goal is to lead the league (in receiving) but Speedy B (Brandon Banks) didn’t make it easy for me so (I’m) just go out there and try to play the best game I can.”

Burnham’s 1,401 receiving yards trail Banks by 149 going into the final week. Depending on how many snaps Banks is on the field- Hamilton has locked up first in the East- could come into play in that race. The main thing on their mind is going out with a win. Lee knows it will be the perfect challenge against Mitchell and his group of playmakers.

“We play against one of the better teams in the league, we know Calgary likes to air the ball out and they have great receivers and tall receivers, they’re going to try the 50/50 balls and this is a great opportunity for my teammates and I to make plays.”

And of course, any chance to beat his old Eastern pal is one he’ll jump on, no matter what the implications are in the standings.

“He likes the deep ball more than your average quarterback,” added Lee.

“If you make him throw it short a few times he’s going to get frustrated and force a few deep ones. He’s a great competitor and that’s it.”

By now, it should be clear that being one of those competitors is a simple pre-requisite for those that played on the famous red turf.

Matt Baker: