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April 9, 2018

The Roughriders are thinking about Humboldt

The tears flowed freely for Eddie Steele on Monday, just as they have since late Friday afternoon.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive tackle has been deeply affected by the bus crash involving the SJHL’s Humboldt Broncos that claimed 15 lives and injured 14 other people.

On Feb. 16, Steele met with the Broncos’ coaches and a few players after Humboldt’s 4-3 loss to the host Nipawin Hawks — the same team the Broncos were to visit Friday for a playoff game. That contest was cancelled after the Broncos’ bus collided with a semi-trailer at a rural intersection north of Tisdale.

On Monday, Steele’s emotions were evident as he recalled his visit with the Broncos in February as well as a speaking engagement he did two weeks later at Humboldt’s high school.

In the wake of Friday’s accident, the 29-year-old product of Winnipeg is adamant that he wants to connect with those affected by the tragedy as quickly as he can.

“I really want to get involved with the community and be with the people — and be hurting with the people,” Steele said. “I want to be healing with the community. There are going to be a lot of emotions, there’s no denying it, but it won’t be difficult for me because I desperately, desperately want to be with those people right now.

“I feel like it’s my place to be there right now, to be honest. I don’t know why; I just feel like I have to be there and I have to be putting my arm around people or doing whatever I can to show people that they have my prayers, they have my support and they have my love.”

In February, Steele was on a tour with the Roughriders’ team chaplain, Jared LaCoste, when they stopped in Nipawin and took in that night’s SJHL game. A chat with Broncos head coach Darcy Haugan, his assistants and a couple of players followed the game.

Steele still has a picture on his cellphone of Haugan and his family; the Broncos’ head coach was one of those killed in Friday’s accident.

On Feb. 26, Steele travelled to Humboldt to deliver an anti-bullying message on behalf of the Red Cross at the town’s high school.

A little over a month later, his thoughts are back in Humboldt.

“There are so many emotions, so many questions that just race through your mind,” Steele said. “When I first found out the news, I was texting with some people and I found out that lives were lost before it was (officially) released. I haven’t stopped crying all weekend, to be totally honest with you.

“Just the fact that I had those encounters and they were going to play Nipawin (on Friday) and that was the game I was at (on Feb. 16), it’s something bigger than me. It’s definitely the Lord, I feel, and I’m struggling to find out the purpose.”

The accident has prompted an outpouring of support from across Canada, but also from other countries. Athletes, entertainers, world leaders and others have reached out to the Broncos and to those affected by the incident to offer their best wishes.

Regina-born Roughriders defensive tackle Zack Evans said he was “heartbroken” as he watched the telecast of Sunday’s vigil from Humboldt with his wife and son.

He noted that CFL players from the United States have called their Canadian-based colleagues to find out what happened and what can be done to help. Evans, for one, is willing to do whatever he can for Humboldt on behalf of the Roughriders.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s football or hockey or whatever it is, we’re all from Saskatchewan,” Evans said. “At this point, we need to support not only the families of the kids who were lost but everyone. The whole community is in mourning.

“We’re seen as leaders in every community that we go to, obviously, because we’re Saskatchewan Roughriders. For us to lend our support or just talk with the kids or talk with anybody about this, I think it will help and reaffirm to everyone that we’re behind them.”

Roughriders guard Brendon LaBatte said he was in disbelief when he first heard the news of Friday’s crash. As he noted, news updates throughout the weekend kept the incident “at the forefront of my mind.”

His upbringing may have played a role in that as well.

LaBatte grew up in Weyburn, so he knows all about the tight connection between Saskatchewan’s towns and their junior hockey teams. His family also billeted players from the SJHL’s Red Wings for years, so he’s well aware of the bonds that form between players and community residents.

“When the players move in, they’re just like big brothers; they’re part of the family,” LaBatte said. “You cheer them on every game. When they hit the road, the thought of having lunch with them, watching them leave and board the bus and that being the last time you ever see them, that’s heartbreaking.

“There’s a lot of families and a lot of people hurting from it right now.”

LaBatte, Steele and Evans all spent countless hours on buses during their post-secondary football careers with the University of Regina Rams, University of Manitoba Bisons and PFC’s Regina Thunder, respectively.

None ever experienced a close call on the road, but Friday’s incident left them all reflecting on those long rides.

“When you go on a bus trip for 8 ½ hours, you put your headphones on, you close your eyes, you listen to music or you watch a movie; you’re not thinking about anything else,” Evans said. “For this to happen and see the results of it, it’s mind-numbing. It just hits really close to home.”

“I’ve been fortunate to always have travelled safe,” LaBatte added. “That’s something you can’t ever take for granted — and it’s easy to (do so). This tragedy really highlights how precious life is and how quickly catastrophes can happen and lives can be forever changed.”