08/07/2013 03:17 EDT | Updated 10/07/2013 05:12 EDT

Esks GM Ed Hervey says it's payback time for team that didn't quit on him

EDMONTON - It's been almost 10 years since that fateful 2003 Labour Day melee when Ed Hervey lost his mind with rage and clocked a linesman in the head with his helmet.

It made headline news across the continent and loomed as the last straw for the lightning bolt Edmonton Eskimos receiver who had used fleet feet to escape the drugs and gangs of south-central Los Angeles only to discover the violent culture had followed him north to the fields of the CFL.

"This is personal. This is payback," Hervey, now the Eskimos general manager, said in a boardroom interview overlooking the field at Commonwealth Stadium.

"Everything that's done from when I wake up in the morning is simply to win and deliver for the organization that has helped me escape that damn hellhole that I grew up in.

"And I know this is going to work."

The hellhole was in Watts and in Compton, blighted neighbourhoods of burned-out homes and cracked asphalt, freeways encircling communities where no one ever got out.

In the 1980s, it was a crack-addled urban war zone punctuated by gangland slayings and drive-by murders.

Bloods and Crips battled each other for territory, for drugs, or just because. Hervey, his sister, and mom were in the middle of it, in the notorious Nickerson Gardens housing project.

One day in front of their window 14-year-old Ed and his sister watched one teen murder another by shooting him in the head following a street craps game gone awry. Neighbours came to stare at the corpse. Blood congealed by the Herveys' front door.

Hervey lived in Watts but went to school in Compton, meaning every day he took his life in his hands taking the bus from the Bloodlands to Crips territory and back again.

A Blood resident in a Crip zone or vice versa was an invitation to get pulped — or worse

He kept his head down on the bus but invariably some tough would sidle up to him and deliver those dreaded three words: "Where you from?"

"Hey, man, I don't bang," Hervey would reply.

"I didn't ask you that. Where you live?"

Hervey learned to talk his way out, fight if need be, or if necessary run.

And man could he fly.

Young Ed realized by Grade 4 his feet could take him a long way. In the 60-yard dash he beat the best in Grade 5 and was nipped at the wire by the top Grade 6er.

In high school, he'd race for money. In a furtive corner of phys-ed class they would put their dollars down to see who was fastest. "Ed," his friend Orlando would brag, "can beat all y'all."

He eventually ran track, but his first love was still football. He was too poor to play organized ball as a kid but was the quarterback in endless sandlot games, drawing up plays in the dirt.

He played high school ball as a quarterback and got a football scholarship to the University of Southern California while establishing himself as one of the elite track stars in California.

At USC he was switched to wide receiver and was drafted in the fifth round by the Dallas Cowboys in 1995.

He was never more than training camp and practice fodder, and by 1999 he joined the Eskimos. It was the last stop, the last chance to trade football for a decent paycheque and buy a better life for his family.

He turned heads with his speed, became the deep threat that helped lead the team to Grey cup wins in 2003 and 2005. He was a league all-star in 2001 and 2003.

In his mind's eye Hervey can still picture his favourite route: the deep post.

The safety is cleared out. It's man coverage.

Hervey explodes off the line.

The defensive back backpedals furiously.

Hervey catches him.

The d-back turns to give chase but it's too late. Hervey's gone, running to daylight.

From behind the tangle of bodies at scrimmage the ball is launched, as if from a catapult — high, deep, long.

"You look up and see the ball coming," said Hervey.

"You take a few more strides and you can hear the separation between you and the defender. And then you reach out, grab the ball.

"The next thing you know you're in the end zone and you make eye contact (with the defender) where you both know — he knows — it's going to be a long day."

But Hervey had some serious anger issues.

In 2001 he was ejected from a game for throwing a ball at a referee when a touchdown was called back.

In 2002, as the Grey Cup game turned sour against Montreal, offensive co-ordinator Danny Maciocia got in his face on the sidelines, dressing him down in front of everyone. Hervey snapped, bashing his way into Maciocia until teammates separated them.

Then came the infamous 2003 Labour Day game against the Calgary Stampeders. Eskimos quarterback Ricky Ray got hit out of bounds, slammed into the Gatorade jug, and the brawl was on.

Viewpoints vary, but Hervey said he saw Stamps cornerback Davis Sanchez sucker punching teammates, then came after him. Hervey was holding his helmet.

"It's hit or be hit," Hervey recalled.

His instincts took over. He swung his helmet.

"I just heard someone yell out 'No!' It turned out to be the official, but it was too late."

Head linesman Brent Buchko crumpled into a heap and needed medical attention, but was OK and went back to his day job the next day.

Hervey was done for the day, kicked out of the game. As he sat in a daze in the dressing room, the crowd outside going crazy, he turned to Eskimo public relations man Dave Jamieson and said, "Man, what did I just do?"

The Eskimos didn't even wait for the league to act, suspending Hervey for one game.

"He is a person who you push and push and push, and then he explodes. That is scary for me," then-Eskimo president Hugh Campbell said of Hervey at the time.

"It is not the Eskimo way," echoed team COO Rick LeLacheur.

Friends and family saw the story on U.S. headline news,

The deepest cut came from his mom, Velma, who told him: "Don't embarrass us like that."

Looking back, Hervey, now 40, said he learned that while he had avoided the gangs, the street instincts were hardwired in from a childhood where your courage was tested daily, where perceived cowardice could prove fatal.

"I put my entire career, reputation, livelihood on the table and spun the wheel, so to speak," he said.

"Fortunately for me there were people here that wanted to give me a chance to redeem myself versus discarding me as some street thug.

"It never happened again."

In 2007 Hervey retired as a player ready to begin his new life setting up a trucking firm.

But Maciocia, by then running Eskimo football operations, had another idea in mind: being a scout. He had been bowled over by a back-of-the-napkin player evaluation Hervey had done.

Like the child learning football in the sandlot, Hervey was a self-taught scout.

As a player he was a film room rat, studying not only his opponent across the line, but the other positions, too. He would sit in with the offensive and defensive lineman and pester them with questions: Why did you take that move? Explain that technique.

"I just wanted to know. I always like to know what everybody's doing," he said.

Last December, after six years evaluating talent and a promotion to head scout, he was given the chance to lead the team as general manager.

It's been a struggle.

The team is off to a 1-5 start, and the Eskimos lead the league in getting booed off their home field.

Hervey said patience is key.

He could overhaul the roster right now, he said, with flashy one-and-done NFL scrubeenies seeking to exploit the Eskimos to pad their stats for one more shot down south.

"I'm not going to build like that. I refuse to build like that.

"We're talking about sustainability. We're talking about (getting) a core of veteran players.

"Stats are nothing. If that's what you dream for, you're a loser. The only two stats you want are wins and championships."

Hervey takes over at a time the roles are reversed.

The Eskimos — once the league's flagship franchise — have become perennially mediocre, a dismaying Tilt-A-Whirl ride of coaches, players, and broken promises.

That dysfunctionality, said Hervey, is why he is sticking around.

"I can't repay this organization for what they've done for me and my family with anything other than hard work and determination to turn this around," he said.

"And anybody who doesn't buy in to what I'm trying to do won't be here."