Column by The Post's Lonnie Wheeler
Milt Stegall's first mistake was showing up in shorts and a T-shirt. It took about one step to gain a proper appreciation for September in Winnipeg.
He soon warmed to the place, however, and his mistake rate has dropped dramatically in eight seasons as a wide receiver for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. In fact, if he made one this year, the records don't show it.
They do show, however, that the former Bengal and Cincinnati-raised superstar put up some of the best numbers in the history of the Canadian Football League. He led the wide-open league in virtually anything a pass-catcher can lead it in, along the way setting a new standard for touchdowns with 23. It was inevitable that he would become the CFL's Outstanding Player.
Still, this honor was not easily bestowed by the Canadian writers, who, as a rule, are not affectionately disposed toward the Blue Bombers. "We've got the stigma of being the bad-boy team," said Stegall, who, for the offseason, has repaired to the friendlier climate of Atlanta, where his wife -- the former Darlene Lumpkins of Purcell Marian -- works as a consultant for Home Depot.
"We tend to get a lot of penalties. I think our coach brought that to us. He wouldn't want us to play dirty or get personal fouls, but he kind of sets the tone by the way he carries himself, his attitude."
That ornery, very successful fellow would be Dave Ritchie, and Stegall knows exactly where the coach is coming from. He knows the landmarks, the streets, the way they shred cheese over their chili.
A product of Withrow High School, Ritchie played football at the University of Cincinnati in 1958-1960 and was assistant-coaching there when he tried to recruit Stegall out of Roger Bacon. But the all-stater opted for Miami University.
Neither has forgotten, and they've carried on a standing UC-Miami bet since Ritchie arrived in Winnipeg. "The winner gets to pick what the loser has to do," said Stegall. "This year, he had to wear a dress all day."
At Miami, Stegall was an all-conference receiver and also distinguished himself in track, which he ran even after joining the Bengals as an undrafted free agent. The Bengals love local kids, but they particularly loved this one. He could run, and he could play.
He led the team in kickoff returns in 1992, his rookie season, and would have been more prominent as a receiver but for injuries and better-paid players -- the likes of the illustrious Reggie Rembert -- standing in the way. Under Dave Shula, running routes for Boomer Esiason, David Klingler, Jay Schroeder and Jeff Blake, Stegall wore his stripes for three years.
A free agent in 1995, he signed with Green Bay and was released before he could embark on a fourth NFL season, which is why he was late arriving in Winnipeg that September, showing up ill-advisedly in late-summer apparel.
Equipped, however, with his GCL/Miami education, Stegall is a quick study. By 1997 he was all-CFL already, establishing a still-standing record with 26.5 yards per catch.
Not even the outrageous Manitoba cold could deter Garland and Betty Stegall's son from his appointed record-making. Before he died when Milt was a high school senior, Garland Stegall operated a South Avondale convenience store called Stegall's Freezer Fresh; perhaps the swiftest son was Canada-toughened by the Freezer part.
Nonetheless, it's a howling chill up there. "Winnipeg has to be one of the coldest places in the world," said Stegall. "It's more than a frozen tundra.
"They use Celsius, but it's nothing to play games when it's below zero. And the wind . . . they call it Windy-peg. You end up going for it a lot on third down (there are only three downs in the Canadian game), because the wind will sometimes take a punt straight up in the air.
"There are a few domes in the league, but they're only in the warmest places. I don't think our fans would enjoy a dome. They like being out in that weather. The colder it gets, the more they seem to like it."
Their viewing pleasure may also be related to the production put up by Stegall and his prolific quarterback, Khari Jones. In the season recently concluded, Stegall caught 106 of Jones' passes, and his 1,896 yards were an amazing 600 more than the next receiver.
"Anybody would die for that kind of season," he said.
Needless to say, the Bengals could have used it. Every Sunday, Stegall points his satellite to the Cincinnati game, and his sentiments are more sympathetic than anything else. He would have treasured a long hometown career, but he understands: "I guess God wants me to be in Canada."
It's a thought that covers his shoulders and keeps him cozy up there in Windy-peg, out there in the tundra's end zone.
Contact Lonnie Wheeler at email@example.com