Photo by John Griffiths.
The CFL is a league of second chances. And, more than most teams, the Argonauts are willing to grant an opportunity to players who’ve discovered how unforgiving other leagues can be towards injuries and indiscretions of personal conduct. With the new season kicking off this evening, the Argonauts look to improve on last year, when the team finished first in the East, but fell apart in the playoffs. Despite an outstanding defence, the Argos clearly needed to bolster their offense over the winter. Quarterback Kerry Joseph, the CFL’s reigning MVP, is the most prominent addition to the lineup, but he’ll be joined by plenty of other newcomers in the Argos locker room. Some of the new faces are seeking to overcome the personal demons—drugs and criminal charges, confidence-shattering injuries, attitude problems, or lack of visibility to scouts—that have sidetracked their football careers. Eager to rebuild their careers north of the border, these players exemplify how the CFL is built on the optimism that, given a second chance, people can overcome troubled pasts.
David Boston’s early success in the NFL went off track with lingering injuries and a colourful off-field record, including numerous positive drug tests and a recent no-contest plea to a reckless driving charge. It’s hoped that the former Pro Bowl receiver will add a big-play explosiveness to the offense, but he missed half of this year’s training camp with a stress fracture in his foot. After visiting a specialist, he decided to put off surgery until the season’s end, and rejoined the Argos at practice and will likely dress for tonight’s game. If recent memory is a guide, Boston’s time in Toronto can head in one of two directions. He can emulate the success of receiver R. Jay Soward, whose issues with drugs and alcohol resulted in numerous violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy. With a second chance in the CFL, Soward not only helped the Argos win their last Grey Cup, but also put his life back together and spoke candidly of the lessons of his past. Or, Boston’s CFL experience can resemble Robert Baker’s career. Baker, a college star and NFL prospect who actually served jail time for a drug dealing charge, was initially successful after making his way north. He amassed over a thousand receiving yards in each of his first two seasons in the double blue. But personality issues remained, and eventually culminated in a sideline feud with former kicker Noel Prefontaine in the middle of a game. Shortly afterward, the beleaguered Argos released Baker.
Another addition to the roster is two-time Super Bowl champion Bethel Johnson, a speed specialist used mostly as a kick returner. While with the New England Patrios, he was criticized for having an attitude problem. A lingering knee injury then bumped him around the NFL from team to team, and finally forced him onto the sidelines for all of last year. So far with the Argos, he’s being hyped as a deep-threat receiver, and has impressed with his blazing speed. Most importantly, Johnson has displayed humility and expressed a genuine desire to make an impact in the CFL. That makes him completely unlike some imports, such as former Pro Bowl receiver Andre Rison, who’ve belittled the team and league as nothing more than a temporary stop on the journey back to the NFL.
In addition to the exiles of personal conduct indiscretions and injuries, there’s the pariah who wore out his welcome elsewhere. Mike Vanderjagt, who is the most accurate field-goal kicker in NFL history, replaces fan favourite (but injury-plagued) Prefontaine as kicker. Vanderjagt led the Argos to consecutive Grey Cups during his last stint with the team in 1996 and 1997. Despite his NFL success, which included a league-record streak of 42 consecutive field goals with the Indianapolis Colts in 2003-2004, it was attitude alone that booted Vanderjagt—or “Vanderjerk” as one opponent nicknamed him—from the NFL. Responding to criticisms Vanderjagt made about the Colts’ superstar quarterback after a lopsided playoff loss in 2002, Peyton Manning ripped Vanderjagt as “our idiot kicker who got liquored up and ran his mouth off.” Then, after missing a game-tying field goal at the end of a 2005 playoff game, Vanderjagt was ditched by the Colts. He lasted part of one season in Dallas, but sat out the entire 2007 season. Despite his perceived attitude problems with the Colts, since returning to the Argos, Vanderjagt has impressed with his hustle and willingness to tackle in preseason games. Like Johnson, he’s also shown the right attitude about being back in the CFL. He told reporters: “Certainly I feel like I can kick in the NFL, but I am in no means using Toronto as a stepping stone there.”
Finally, in the category of the unrecognized potential of youth, there’s Da’Shawn Thomas, a talented former high school star wallowing in fourth-rate semi-pro ball in Georgia. Unlike similar young running backs the Argos have offered a chance to in recent years, such as the unsalvageable Hakim Hill, the twenty-year-old Thomas suffers no personal conduct flaws. Although an intelligent individual by all accounts, Thomas was not classroom-focused in high school and was academically ineligible for US-college football. Then, too homesick to succeed at a community college far from home, Thomas fell completely off the radar of NFL scouts. Following up on a tip, the Argos invited the long shot hopeful to training camp. Although much younger than the other players, Thomas impressed the team enough that the Argos plan to develop him slowly through the practice roster. That’s one of the beauties of the Canadian game: it’s a place for second chances and for rebuilding dreams of playing top-flight football.
Photo by S.S.K.