The Canadian press has called him “the adventurer and thinker” who writes poetry, plays guitar and sings. It doesn’t sound like Canyon Country football star Drew Wolitarsky who went on to play college ball and now plays in the Canadian Football League. But it is.
Suffice it to say, what’s most interesting about Drew is what he does in the off-season … like traveling to Europe, learning Italian and working on a novel.
Having known Drew Wolitarsky since his elementary school days, I can tell you he was always different than he appeared. A gifted athlete, most people would assume he spent all of his free time watching sports, conditioning for sports and playing sports.
But that’s an incomplete, short-story version of Drew that reduces his essence to the skills you see. He is, rather, an unfolding, multiple volume series – the kind with too much depth to be binge-watched.
The summary is this: He was an award-winning athlete at Canyon High School, mostly known for his speed in track and record-breaking catches as a wide receiver on the Cowboys football team. He went to the University of Minnesota on a football scholarship and then was drafted by the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers, where he has been catching passes for three years.
His biggest moment in sports occurred last month when he aided the Bombers in winning the Grey Cup, which is Canada’s version of the Super Bowl. And even in a moment that gridiron greats would compare to winning an Oscar, his “speech” tells you he’s so much more than an athlete. It’s the internal game that intrigues Drew the most.
“Those guys you played with so long, you bonded with them and did this incredible thing,” he said. “It’s less about the trophy and more about the guys you’re with. The guys you win it with become legendary in your mind.”
He never doubted they could win the Grey Cup, but it was far from a sure thing. This year’s Blue Bombers were not always looking like frontrunners. They went into the championship with seven losses.
“It was cool how it unfolded,” Drew told me. “We were up and down, up and down, we had injuries – everybody had injuries in the CFL. It was this rugged battle between teams.”
Drew and his Bombers pulled together like a ballet, ending with a performance that led to a 33-12 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
“We just stuck together,” he explained. “It was more of a story about when it seems like things are falling down around you, you still have to face those guys that come into the room.”
The experience brings a lot of things to mind for Drew. “When you’re on the field and you know the situation ahead and the game is blowing up in the media and with the fans, it’s actually comforting to know this is just a job,” he said. “I’ve learned that it’s a long season and it’s a long grind. You’re going to feel things … but you take it a day at a time.”
Though the camaraderie is similar, it’s not like college ball.
“It’s such a different dynamic – in college you have teammates you know will return,” he explained. “Everything’s changing. Coaches will change and players will change.”
As for coaches, the CFL has been good to Drew, in part because Coach Mike O’Shea was a player himself.
“He knows how to coach because of that. It’s huge for someone in any profession,” Drew said. “He gives us such respect. A lot of players say it doesn’t get better than O’Shea.”
The mood is low-key for such a high-stakes game. “We’re not stressing,” Drew said. “So we didn’t get a first down … screaming and getting all worked up is not how you win games.”
A lot has changed for the 24-year-old since his days at Canyon.
“High school is fun, there’s no pressure, no stress, there’s no money involved,” he explained. “I went out there knowing I’d have a great game. When I went to college … it’s more of a business, there’s money involved, there are fans across the nation. The possibility of failure is what you’re dealing with – how can I not think about this while I play?”
Local football fans can see the arc in Drew’s athletic range, but he’s developed internally just as much.
“It’s like anything – you grow up in your small town and you go out in this world and nobody knows you,” he said. “All you have is your work ethic and your reputation. You can’t feel like ‘I’m entitled to this.’”
The creative side of Drew buffers the stresses of football and the need for precision. He plays music at various venues when the mood strikes him, plus He recently finished three songs on an electronic album and even formed a band with some former teammates in Minnesota.
“I need that,” he said. “It keeps you grounded.”
Early in the season, Drew actually combined two of his talents when he entertained fans after catching a touchdown pass, using the ball to play air guitar.
A fellow writer, Drew has an article on the Bombers website that’s personal and intimate about winning the Grey Cup. He compares the ritual of drinking from the Cup to satisfying the thirst of fans, like the city of Winnipeg which held a victory parade for the Bombers.
“I love to share what’s on my mind, I love to share art, I love being connected to people,” he said. “That’s why I want to travel. I care about humans in general.”
It comes full circle when he explains the aspects of his CFL experience that resonate with him most.
“There’s something very rewarding about having people depending on you for something, not in a way demanding of you, but everybody has their part and they’re doing it,” he described. “It can also be very hard, because when you don’t succeed you feel like you’re letting people down.”
There’s no letting down one team – his family. His parents, John and Audrey, along with other family members (they even let me come along once) travel to Canada as much as possible for games. One of Drew’s favorite moments occurred after the stunning win that clinched the Bombers’ spot in the Grey Cup championship. He looked to the stands and saw his father beaming back, supportive and proud
“All of a sudden I had a feeling somebody was looking … you know how you can just feel the energy?” Drew asked. “I’m not kidding, it was a child’s face looking at his favorite player, unsure of what to say. It was, ‘I’m your biggest fan.’”
Though he’s the son in that scenario, Drew shifts to a parent’s perspective when creating a metaphor about winning the big one.
“It’s like making a baby with 45 guys,” he said. “You remember that moment it’s being delivered. It’s beautiful.”