Winnipeg in late November isn’t likely to be on many people’s list of preferred destinations, but there isn’t anywhere else Sean Whyte would rather be.
The 30-year-old Edmonton Eskimos kicker – a White Rock native and former Surrey Ram – is in the Hub City alongside his teammates, and on Sunday will square off against the Ottawa Redblacks in the Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup championship.
“It’s surreal, but I’m just trying to open my eyes and take it all in,” Whyte told Peace Arch News Wednesday. “It’s just really cool to be here, but it’s hard to believe. Even just going out to the stadium today for practice, I looked around and was like, ‘Wow, we’re really doing this.’”
While getting the chance to play for a championship is a big moment for any athlete, this year’s Grey Cup has even more significance for Whyte, considering where he started the season – and where he very nearly ended up.
Whyte, a Semiahmoo Secondary grad, began the year with the Montreal Alouettes, the team on which he’d played since 2011, when he was traded by his hometown BC Lions.
Despite being the team’s starting kicker since his arrival, Whyte soon found himself in a backup role with the Alouettes, and eventually was cut from the team altogether.
“It was mentally draining and it kind of took the love of the game away from me a little bit,” said Whyte, who is in his ninth season in the league.
“I went home and I was actually about to start a new job. But luckily, the same say I was going to hand in my resume and get ready to take some classes, Edmonton called me.
“Coming to this team has completely rejuvenated me. Football is fun again.”
It was never more fun than it was last Sunday, when Whyte’s Eskimos defeated the defending Grey Cup champion Calgary Stampeders 45-31 in the Western Final to advance to Sunday’s big game. Whyte kicked three field goals in the victory.
While staying focused on this weekend’s game amid all the Grey Cup hubbub is priority one, Whyte – who will be competing in his first-ever CFL title game – said he has used the occasion to think about his career as a whole, and the path he’s taken.
A rugby star in high school, Whyte was encouraged by a friend – who also played football – to give the gridiron a shot. Whyte agreed, and soon found himself on a White Rock-South Surrey minor football team that, as luck would have it, also featured the son of BC Lions coach/general manager Wally Buono.
“I didn’t even know Wally would be there, and then he told me to stick with it because he thought I had a future,” Whyte explained.
After a stint playing junior football with the South Surrey Rams – now the Langley Rams – Whyte was signed by the Lions as a territorial junior player. He played second fiddle to Lions’ longtime starting placekicker Paul McCallum, and was eventually dealt to Montreal, where he had a better chance to play.
“It’s a pretty crazy journey I’ve had. From playing rugby, to ending up on the same football team as Wally’s son,” Whyte said. “It’s funny, the way things work out.”
Over the years, there have been plenty of Grey Cup games that have come down to a single game-winning field-goal attempt, but Whyte insisted he won’t dwell on that possibility, nor is he nervous should such an opportunity present itself.
What he does admit, too, however, is keeping his eye on the weather – specifically any wind which could wreck havoc on his kicks.
“I’ve been looking at the weather for the last two weeks in anticipation of this,” he laughed. “But I think it’s going to be OK – good football weather.”
Whyte’s family is joining him this week in Winnipeg, and will be at the game Sunday.
“To be able to share this with them is really special – I know they’re all very excited. It’s going to be really fun week, and I want to go out there and win.”