It was in the waning moments of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers' latest lopsided victory on Saturday when one of my all-time favourite tunes started playing inside a sold-out IG Field. Forget the action going on between the hashmarks — the great Neil Diamond temporarily had everyone's undivided attention.
"Where it began. I can't begin to know'. But then I know it's growin' strong," the familiar refrain began. It didn't take long for a stadium singalong to ensue, with joyous fans belting out the famous chorus in well-lubricated unison. And, truth be told, I may have been humming along and tapping my toes in my press box perch.
"Hands, touchin' hands. Reachin' out, touchin' me, touchin' you. Sweet Caroline. Good times never seemed so good."
On what was a spectacular, late-summer afternoon here in River City, Diamond's famous lyrics seemed especially fitting for a franchise that truly is living its best life these days.
The reigning Grey Cup champions appear in no hurry to relinquish the trophy they finally got to raise in November 2019 following a 28-year drought. Winnipeg is off to a scintillating 5-1 start, including a surprisingly easy Banjo Bowl beatdown of Saskatchewan. As Roughriders coach Craig Dickenson told scribes in his post-game chat — and you know it pained him to admit this publicly — the Blue & Gold are the class of the CFL right now and everyone else is playing catch-up.
They have an all-world defence, one that has held opponents to single-digit points in four of their six games, led by huge talents and massive personalities of Willie Jefferson and Adam Bighill. They have, for my money, the best quarterback in the league in Zach Collaros, the best running back in hometown product Andrew Harris and an impressive stable of athletic, big-play receivers.
OK, so the kicking game remains a mess, but even the Sistine Chapel has a few nicks and scrapes.
It's not just the on-field product, either. The Bombers are the CFL's model franchise beyond the win-loss column. Both the present, and the future, are in very good hands with the likes of Kyle Walters, Wade Miller and Mike O'Shea, a.k.a the "Canadian Mafia," calling the shots. They have assembled a deep talent pool, one that can usually cover up for any flaws, along with a winning culture and confidence that resonates every time they hit the field.
It wasn't a smooth or quick process to get here, especially when you look at the revolving door of dysfunction and instability that preceded their arrival in 2013. As longtime fans can attest, there was some very dark days where it appeared no end was in sight.
"I've been inclined. To believe they never would," Diamond sings of those elusive good times, and that certainly was the case around here for a long time.
All that patience proved to be a virtue with this current crew, as they were finally rewarded with a championship two years ago — only to have all the well-deserved momentum come to a screeching halt months later due to COVID-19.
Now, after a lost 2020 season with millions of dollars in lost revenue, business is once again booming.
The first-place Bombers have already welcomed more than 100,000 spectators for their first four home games, including 33,000 plus on Saturday. Most impressive is the fact every one of them has been fully vaccinated, thanks to the organization showing true leadership by becoming the first in the country to mandate it. Others eventually followed suit, both in the CFL and the NHL.
Eighteen months into a deadly global pandemic and local fans can actually do as Diamond sings and safely reach out and touch hands if they wish. That enough is reason to celebrate.
Saskatchewan media I spoke with Saturday had nothing but praise for the Bombers' protocols and the smooth process of gaining entry to the facility, wishing the same could be said for how things are working back home. I suspect there are plenty of coaches and co-ordinators around the league who wish they could follow Winnipeg's successful template in other ways, as well.
The old saying "you have to be good to be lucky" certainly appears to be the case for O'Shea's troops. From an on-field brawl that somehow only resulted in two Saskatchewan players getting ejected — Andrew Harris probably should have been punted as well — to what appeared to be a missed pass interference penalty late in the second quarter that wasn't challenged by the Roughriders to an unfortunate injury to quarterback Cody Fajardo that pretty much wiped out any chance of a second-half comeback, everything is coming up Bombers these days.
Which, given all the losing and misery and heartache the organization endured for so long, should have nobody rushing to offer up an apology.
The joint was absolutely jumping on Saturday, and you wish you could bottle up that happiness and sprinkle it around to other aspects of our everyday lives. But it's a vivid reminder of the importance of sports for many, and how they can offer up a much-needed respite from the real world.
"Was in the spring. And spring became the summer. Who'd have believed you'd come along."
How sweet it is, indeed. For the Bombers and their fans, good times never seemed so good.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.