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Eskimos general manager Ed Hervey in no stranger to CFL success in Edmonton. (JASON FRANSON/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Eskimos general manager Ed Hervey in no stranger to CFL success in Edmonton. (JASON FRANSON/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Hervey finds his place in the sun with Eskimos Add to ...

On those mornings at the Nickerson Gardens housing project when all was grim, when going to school was a relentless update in hearing who got shot and who was killed, Ed Hervey would play the Maxell audio cassette he had recorded. The one with the same song taped over and over. Thirty minutes, both sides.

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“Here comes the sun/Here comes the sun, and I say/It’s all right” – the Beatles at their hopeful best, a signal to a preteen Hervey he could face the day, whatever it would bring.

“Do you still listen to it?” he is asked as he sits in the Edmonton Eskimos conference room at Commonwealth Stadium, as far north of Compton, Calif., as his profession affords.

He smiles and answers: “Yeah, it’s on my iPod in my office right now. That’s my song.”

It is a sunny August afternoon, and the Eskimos first-year general manager is in a reflective mood. He is a CFL rarity – a former all-star receiver and two-time Grey Cup champion turned front-office administrator who has spent 16 years with the same organization. He is also a man whose beliefs and practices are what the Eskimos sorely need.

Heading into Sunday’s game against the Toronto Argonauts, Edmonton sits at 1-5. Coming off a pair of last-play losses, the Eskimos are either on the cusp of something better or simply not good enough. Hervey is convinced his team has the quarterbacking and is working in the right ways to improve.

It’s about doing the little things, he explains. It’s about discipline and direction and treating people with respect. “Putting the pro back in professional football,” he says, eluding to the organization’s slide from perennial Grey Cup contender to one that missed the playoffs three times in a recent five-year span, and hasn’t finished with the best record in the West Division in 10 years.

All of that led to Hervey’s hiring last December, when former GM Eric Tillman was fired before the playoffs. The Eskimos board of directors saw Hervey as young enough to relate to today’s style of play and players yet old enough to remember what the Eskimos stood for, the excellence and tradition. His supporters speak glowingly of his character and values.

“Ed’s got a big job in front of him,” says former Edmonton kicker Sean Fleming, one of Hervey’s closest friends. “But he’s passionate about winning and about the Eskimos. He’s a very loyal person. Family and team mean everything to him, and he’s been through a lot with both.”

He was 6 and fatherless when his mother, Velma, a practising Jehovah’s Witness, would take him and his younger sister, Sadre, door-to-door to spread religion in Compton, one of the most crime-ridden and dangerous neighbourhoods of Los Angeles.

On a good day, someone would invite them in and everyone would talk and be nice. Most of the time, the Herveys were ignored or told off or had doors slammed in their faces.

It was a life lesson from mother to children: when one door shuts, move on to the next. The sun will come up.

At 11, Hervey witnessed the cruelty of his world. He and his older brother, Victure, were walking home to 1502 East 112 Street when they were stopped by two thugs. Hervey’s brother had a gun shoved in his mouth. Ed was asked questions. “Where do you live? Are you a Blood [gang member]?”

The next sound was a click. The gun had been fired but there were no bullets in it. The thugs laughed. Victure was traumatized.

“My brother was changed from then on,” Hervey says. “To this day, he’s on meds.”

Two years later, when Victure left home to live in Houston, Hervey’s grandmother took Ed aside, saying: “You’re the man of the house now. You have to protect your mother and sister and keep people off them.”

Hervey came to understand his grandmother’s message as he grew older, turning to track and football, thinking he might one day become a pro athlete and provide for his family. Somehow, even the rival gangs respected that, and would police themselves saying: “Leave this guy alone. He’s a ball player.”

With a need to succeed, Hervey ran fast enough to earn a scholarship at the University of Southern California, where he ran track and played football and was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 1995. With his NFL signing bonus, he bought a place for his mom and got her out of Compton.

The day before the Herveys moved, thieves broke into their apartment and stole almost everything – the refrigerator, sofa, all the trophies and plaques Hervey had won in football and track.

“I wouldn’t want to go back and do it all over again,” Hervey says of his youth. “I listened to [Here Comes the Sun] every day in high school. School was hard, not because I hated it. It was the chaos and hearing about people being killed. It could change you, but I stayed true to who I was.”

Who Hervey was, and what he could do as a receiver, shone through in Edmonton. Disappointed with his one-day experience with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers – he left citing “a lack of professionalism” on their part – he was offered a tryout with the Esks. Thinking all CFL teams were run on the cheap, he researched Edmonton and learned how the franchise had opened its doors to the likes of Normie Kwong, Johnny Bright, Rollie Miles and Warren Moon. Hervey felt this could be a place for him.

“You knew he was different when you met him,” says Dave Jamieson, the Eskimos former media relations director. “He asked questions. He wanted to know about the players who were listed on the Wall of Honour. He grasped the importance of the team and its link to the community. He was young but he was an old soul.”

As a player, Hervey was fast and hot-wired. Desire radiated off him like heat waves and it burned him badly in the Labour Day game of 2003. Seeing Edmonton quarterback Ricky Ray driven out of bounds and hit late, Hervey engaged in a full-scale brawl with the Calgary Stampeders.

The next thing he knew, he was swinging his helmet at a Stampeders player, only to club an unsuspecting on-field official. For that, Hervey was tossed from the game then suspended by the Eskimos, who warned him to keep his temper in check or he’d be gone.

“He’s a protective guy. That’s his nature,” Fleming says. “That day was the catalyst for him to step back and learn how to handle those emotions.”

“I came close to losing the game I love as well as my chance to take care of my family,” Hervey says. “My family saw [the helmet-swinging replays on television]. It was shown on Headline News. That was tough.”

Solace came from getting back on the field and into the action. Before each game, and even during halftime after the coach had spoken, Hervey would slip on his headphones and listen to George Harrison singing that familiar song. It got Hervey to 2007, when he announced his retirement only to be offered a chance to stay with the Eskimos as a U.S. scout.

True to form, Hervey asked a lot of questions, then came up with a timetable to be a GM within five years, either with the Eskimos or elsewhere in the CFL. So he dealt with player contracts, the league’s salary cap, the CFL draft, gameday preparations. Not bad for a guy who figured he’d be a truck driver when his playing days ended.

“I enjoy the road, the independence of running my own business and I wanted to disappear from the game,” he says. “Then, I was offered a scouting job and I said why not? I figured I could always start my company later. I’ve put in a lot of hard work here. That’s the biggest thing I’m most proud of. Some people dream about accomplishments …”

And some, like Hervey, can’t wait for the sun to come up because they want their aspirations to become reality and they’re hopeful it will be all right.

Follow on Twitter: @AllanMaki

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