MONTREAL—During this latest renaissance of “Les Alouettes,” and their championship era atop the mountain here in La Belle Province, three of the key stars from those three title teams were:
• Anthony Calvillo, Utah State, undrafted;
• Ben Cahoon, BYU, loophole Canadian;
• Jamel Richardson, Victor Valley College, undrafted
Between 2002 and 2010, the bookends to the Grey Cup championships won by the franchise in the Jim Popp regime, the organization brought in a litany of former big names from major Div. I college football and the NFL. Remember one-time Dallas Cowboys starting quarterback Quincy Carter? He had a cup of coffee in Montreal, before flaming out. So, too, did Tommie Frazier and Lawrence Phillips and Jacquez Green and Joe Hamilton and Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith.
Last spring, to grand fanfare after he got lost en route to training camp at Bishop’s University, the Als unveiled the man formerly known as “Ochocinco.” Chad Johnson caught seven balls all season. He’s not expected back.
Stars in the Canadian Football League come from obscure places, the square peg to the round hole of the American pro game—and field. You don’t need a name and a resume to succeed here. If you can quickly adapt to the rules and the timing and the modified way of playing the game, you may.
PROGRAMMING ALERT: Watch the Montreal Alouettes officially introduce Michael Sam today at 11:00 a.m. ET on sportsnet.ca.
The wideout from that school called Victor Valley College (Richardson) didn’t have the same pedigree as his fellow receiver (Green), who happened to be a second-round NFL draft pick from the Florida Gators. Except Richardson immediately understood the extra motion and the running start and the waggle, and how to use those nuances to his benefit—and is still kicking it on a pro roster more than a decade after Green called it quits just days into his only CFL training camp.
Which brings us to the topic du jour in these parts: Michael Sam, who just signed a two-year contract with the Alouettes.
Let’s get the hyperbole—which I assure you will be aplenty today, tomorrow, and into his first CFL game—out of the way. Sam is here, not because he is openly gay and there are archaic-thinking, stubborn pro coaches south of the border that don’t want him around their locker room. Sam is here because the archaic-thinking, stubborn pro coaches south of the border had a long, thorough evaluation of him and realized he just couldn’t play their game at the NFL level right now.
Sam is not Cameron Wake, which so many have jumped to compare him to. He’s not the same player; he doesn’t have remotely the same story. Derek Cameron Wake somehow slipped through the microscope of the NFL scouting community. He showed up to training camp with the B.C. Lions in the CFL, and, as legend goes, in the first one-on-one blew past the left tackle like a turnstile leaving 80 dudes in awe.
Wake jumps out of the gym—his vertical jump measured 46 inches and coaches used words like “explodes” to describe his style. When he finished ripping the Canadian league apart and won the 2008 defensive player of the year award, he signed a massive deal with the Miami Dolphins, began exploding off the edge in the AFC East, and has quickly become a borderline franchise player.
Now, Sam. His vertical at the combine last year was 25.5 inches, almost half that of Miami’s dominant rush end. At the NFL’s veteran combine in March, USA Today clocked Sam running the 40-yard dash in 5.07, then 5.10 seconds—a regression of nearly two-tenths of a second from his 2014 time in Indianapolis. This, after he was drafted last April where, unlike Wake, he had a full training camp with St. Louis, which had a vested interest in its minor investment. He remained on the Rams practice roster, was evaluated in their system for a number of weeks, then released. Shortly after, the Cowboys picked him up, evaluated him there in their schemes, and after a while Dallas had seen enough and parted ways.
If a practice-roster player, at a speed position, got slower in the off-season, do you really believe his sexual orientation was primarily why no NFL team jumped to sign him? Popp, the long-time Alouettes GM, loves “tweeners,” as he calls them—too small for defensive end, too big to play linebacker—and enjoys the spotlight even more.
In his heart of hearts, he knows the comparison here with today’s unveiling isn’t Wake. Not in a country mile. Sam, while the 2013 defensive player of the year in the finest conference in America, is simply like so many others who come to Canada after failed chances in the NFL: a guy with ability who bounced around practice rosters, looking for another shot at the pros.
“If you come in with the mentality of you are what you did, that mindset will hurt you,” said Avon Cobourne, who was Montreal’s 2009 Grey Cup MVP. “The Alouettes, every year, are in the running for the Grey Cup. You’ve got two weeks of practice, then two (pre-season) games. It’s only one or two spots up for grabs in a vet-driven league.”
Barring injury, it will be a surprise if Sam is released by the Als at the end of training camp even if his performance is not up to par. To land him, a sales pitch was required—promises had to be made. How could an organization that began selling his jersey before he even passed a physical justify his dismissal a month from now?
“Forget the locker room, he’ll be fine there. It’s the pace of the game that will be his biggest adjustment,” former 12-year veteran CFL quarterback Kerry Joseph told me Monday while grilling from his barbeque outside his New Orleans home. “The play clock, the three downs. He has to get accustomed to that in a short period of time. That will be tough for him as a front guy.”
Cobourne believes Sam’s biggest transition will be getting used to lining up a yard off the ball.
“Guys get cut because they can’t grasp it,” he said. “They hear it in camp and meetings, but once you’re on the field, you forget it, because you want to make the play and do your job. Muscle memory kicks in.”
I told Joseph what Sam ran at the vet combine.
“Edge? At (5.07)?” Joseph wondered aloud. “First off, he’ll have to (identify) zone reads, and at that speed, can he do it? I know guys who have done it. We’ll wait and see how quick can he pick it up.”
And that’s fundamentally it: before anointing him Cameron Wake or Lawrence Taylor—or Odell Willis for that matter—let’s discover if he’s the next Quincy Carter or if he can actually play in this league. A CFL coach I trust told me Wake is the best defensive player he’s seen in the Canadian league in nearly two decades. That’s after Wake repeatedly showcased his work over two seasons of tape. Sam hasn’t played a regular-season football game since he was in college.
“Let’s see if this kid can make the team first,” the coach told me.
A former player and soon-to-be Hall of Famer put it this way: “If [he] can help them win games, they will find a way to keep him around. It doesn’t matter if he’s gay, straight, green, black, white or brown. But ask yourself, he was just on Dancing With the Stars: Is he even in football shape?”
At Tuesday’s press conference here in Montreal, the usual questions about Sam’s homosexuality will be asked. Joseph scoffed at the notion that it’ll be an issue—not just because he’s in Montreal, or Canada, but because of the dynamic inside professional locker rooms.
“Like anyone, it’s the vets who will say, ‘Hey, he’s one of us, let’s make him feel welcome,’” said Joseph. “Because if he can help us win that ring, that’s what we’re here for. Some young guys don’t understand that. But that’s why we’re here.
“Look, I played a long time. I bet with nine teams (in the CFL), there are nine other guys who are, but just haven’t come out. It doesn’t matter. If I see you in the street, or in the club doing your thing, you’re living your life. At work, I need you to be a football player.”
Later this week, when he steps on the field at Bishop’s, he’ll be that: Just a football player. Until then, let’s cool it with the hyperbole, let’s end the Cameron Wake comparisons. Michael Sam, like thousands before him, is just another NFL practice-roster player looking for a shot at the pros in the CFL. And, as history has taught us, if Sam is that square peg in the round hole, it may just be a good thing for the Montreal Alouettes, and the Canadian Football League.