By Crazy Roscoe
He was one of the greatest quarterbacks in Winnipeg Blue Bombers history and yet, today, few remember his exploits. In fact Donald Walter Jonas might have saved the franchise.
Don Jonas was not only a sensational player but was also a pillar of the community. When he was traded — and he never should have been traded — Bomber fans mourned. In fact, they mourned for a decade.
When Jonas came to Winnipeg after Toronto set him adrift in 1971, the club had just gone through four horrendous seasons following the retirement of the great Ken Ploen. In fact, when Jonas arrived, the Bombers had gone 3-13, 3-12-1 and 2-14 in the three previous seasons.
The club had no legitimate quarterback and none in sight. The team was in disarray and season ticket holders – heck, just ticket holders – were exiting in droves. This once proud franchise was literally on the brink of bankruptcy.
However, with the arrival of Jonas, it took only two short years to sell out the stadium again. Eventually, Jonas’ presence led to the construction of the East Grandstand. In the meantime, the team was on the verge of a new dynasty.
The Bombers went from last to first in two short years, with a new quarterback out of the University of Central Florida. A true gunslinger who played go-for-broke offense every chance he got, Jonas had Mighty Mack Herron running the ball and go-to receivers such as Jim Thorpe and Bob LaRose. This once dreadful football team started shredding defenses all over the CFL.
In 1971, he passed for more than 4,000 yards and 27 touchdowns. Also a kicker, he won the CFL scoring title with 121 points. He was both a Western Conference and CFL All-Star. In 1972, he led the Bombers to a first-place in the West with a 10-6 record (the last time the Bombers finished first in the West). He passed for more than 3,000 yards with 27 TDs and a 56 per cent completion mark. In fact, he came within one completion of Grey Cup glory.
Jonas like Ken Ploen before him called almost all his own plays. He also called some plays that weren’t in anyone’s playbook. In an interview earlier this year, he told of the time he called a set play in the huddle then told Thorpe or LaRose to ignore the play and run a stop and go to fool a d-back. He also said he loved to call “A.G.O.” when in the red zone. It meant, “Anyone get open.” Defenses around the league had no idea where the play was going. It was a fun, exciting time in Winnipeg. The Bombers were back.
Then as quickly as it started in began to fall apart. Two of the mainstays of the team (Herron and Thorpe had combined for almost 3,000 yards of offence) ran afoul of the law and were cut from the team. Soon there was a coaching change and the new regime deemed that Jonas was expendable. Amazingly, Jonas was quite willing to stay on as backup and mentor for the new young gun – Ralph (soon to be known as Dieter) Brock – but almost as soon as he was assured he could retire in his new adopted hometown of Winnipeg, he was traded. The people who ran the Bombers at the time were about to take the team down a new losing road and until Earl Lunsford was fired as GM and Paul Robson and Cal Murphy were hired, the team couldn’t find a way to win a Grey Cup again.
Sadly, Don Jonas and his incredibly exciting and historically pivotal era in Blue Bombers history has been mostly forgotten and, by some close to the team, completely ignored.
How is it that a team with so much talent and was so exciting (especially Winnipeggers like Walt McKee and Bobby Kraemer, an O-line with the likes of Bob Swift and Bill Frank), have virtually no representation anywhere near the current Blue Bombers home? Fact is there is not one photograph of “the first Blue Bomber to win the Schenley,” anywhere near Investors Group Field.
Don Jonas and his wife Rosemary were pillars of our community in the early 1970s and I’m happy to report he’s doing well to this day, living in Florida and soaking up the sun. He never said no to an interview, never missed an opportunity to attend an event (he once traveled to Northern Manitoba to judge a local beauty contest) and never missed a Charity function. He once shined the shoes of Pierre Elliott Trudeau for a Cystic Fibrosis fund raiser.
Don Jonas loved Winnipeg and Winnipeg loved him. He was the perfect replacement for Ken Ploen and to this day, his involvement in our community is unmatched.