He really needs no introduction in these parts. He is sporting royalty in Winnipeg and among the greatest to ever pull on a Blue Bomber uniform.
He is such an icon, such a legend, that he is often referenced only by his first name: Milt.
But it wasn’t always this way for Milt Stegall, the latest addition to the Blue Bombers Ring of Honour. He came north, like so many before and after him, seeking simply an opportunity to revive his career.
And when he first arrived in Winnipeg in 1995 no one, let alone the man himself, had any inkling the greatness that was ahead.
“I remember when Paul Jones (then the Bombers director of player personnel) first called me after I got cut from Green Bay about coming to the CFL,” began Stegall in a chat with bluebombers.com. “I didn’t know what to think. He said Winnipeg has my rights. I didn’t even know what that meant.
“I had heard of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver but when he said Winnipeg I said, ‘Who?’ The internet wasn’t available back then so I’m looking in the encyclopedia and there’s Winnipeg above North Dakota. I was 25 at the time and with no responsibilities so I thought I’d give it a shot.
“My plan was to get back to the NFL after a couple of years. But things happen for a reason and I’m happy they happened the way they did.”
What happened during his 14 years in Winnipeg is truly remarkable. When Stegall retired following the 2007 season, he had smashed both Blue Bomber and CFL records, exiting as the league’s all-time touchdown leader with 147 and having set new standards for touchdowns in a season (23, set in 2002) and receiving yards (since broken by Geroy Simon).
His name is all over the Blue Bombers record book, with many of his marks – the 147 touchdowns and 15,153 receiving yards – seemingly untouchable.
Born in Cincinnati in 1970, Stegall names his parents Betty and Garland as his role models. They established his work ethic and his values and helped put Stegall and his siblings through university. His father, who passed away when Stegall was a senior in high school, worked as a foreman at a chemical plant and then helped manage the grocery story his family ran. And his mother worked over 30 years as a nurse at the Shriners hospital.
“I saw how much they sacrificed and how hard they worked,” said Stegall. “That instilled in me that thinking that you can achieve anything you want as long as you are willing to work hard and sacrifice.”
Stegall played his college ball at the University of Miami-Ohio and parlayed that into a stint with his hometown Bengals (1992-94) and then with the Packers. He took another shot down south after establishing himself with the Bombers, trying out for the New Orleans Saints in 1998, but tearing up his ACL in a scrimmage with the Chicago Bears.
“I was 28 at the time and that was maybe a sign that that’s the direction my football career was going to go in; that it would be in Winnipeg and in the CFL,” said Stegall. “And the way things turned out, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
He returned to the Bombers in ’98 and after he recovered from the knee injury scored six touchdowns in seven games and then really began in earnest his assault on the record book.
Over a stretch from 2000-2005, Stegall would score 90 touchdowns. That’s 9-0.
He had speed and he had skill, no question. But what made Stegall spectacular was his work ethic. He tortured his body in the winter with training, his rationale being that come the regular season the grind would seem easy.
He played on some horrible teams, but also on a few Bomber teams that would be in the discussion of the best never to win a Grey Cup, especially the 14-4 squad of 2001.
“All of it was fun. Don’t get me wrong, losing was not fun. But the entire process… I really had a great time,” said Stegall. “I played football from the time I was four. And from the time I was four until high school, I loved football. College football? I didn’t enjoy it. And the NFL? That was a job. But once I started playing in the CFL I felt like I was a little kid again or back in high school.
“I enjoyed coming to practice. I enjoyed being in the locker room. I enjoyed being on the road with the guys. All of them.”
“I loved everything about my 14 years in Winnipeg. The fans, the Labour Day Classic… all of it. And it went by like that because it was such a great time.”
“Those 14 years seem like a day because I enjoyed every single minute of it. I wouldn’t change one thing about the 14 years I spent in the CFL and in Winnipeg.”
Stegall, his wife Darlene and two sons Chase (11) and Colin (8) will be in Winnipeg for next Wednesday’s Ring of Honour ceremony. His only regret, he says now, is that his father and his two sons never got to see him play professionally.
Now an analyst on TSN, Stegall – who was a perennial mention in the annual Grey Cup poll among the league’s top media quotes – remains as loquacious as ever these days.
His six guarantees in life – death, taxes, trouble, Milt being on time, Milt being pretty and Milt being in great shape – remain true to this day.
As the man himself says, he will always be thin in the waist and cute in the face. Guaranteed.
“They are still holding true. Until the day I die they will be in effect,” said Stegall with a laugh. “Some may say there’s some vanity involved, but I still like being in shape.
“I’ve got another for you. I’m going to guarantee one more thing… I’m going to guarantee a victory the night I’m in town next week.”
THE MILT MARKS
- Most TDs in a career – 147
- Most TD receptions in a career – 144
- Most TDs in one season – 23 (2002)
- Most TD receptions in one season – 23 (2002)
- Most yards per catch in a season – 26.5 (1997)
Blue Bomber records
- Most receiving yards – 15,153
- Most yards in one season – 1,896 (2002)
- Most career receptions – 854
- Most 1,000-yard receiving seasons – 10
- Most seasons leading team in receiving – 7