Breaking through

After failing to catch on in the NFL, Kory Sheets is chasing records with the Riders and has turned his team into a serious Grey Cup threat 

If Kory Sheets hadn’t gotten his wires crossed, he would have been sitting down for an interview, not staring down a tornado. Sheets, along with a handful of Saskatchewan Roughriders teammates, had ventured a couple of hours west of Regina to spend an off-day fishing. Though he’d been deep-sea fishing before, Sheets had never wet a line in a Canadian lake, so he knew he was in for a different experience. That sentiment went to a whole other level when, from their vehicle, they spotted a small twister no more than a couple of football fields in front of them. “I was ready to go home,” Sheets says with a laugh. “I was like, ‘I’m done with this trip.’”

But as the rattled Riders contemplated their next play, they noticed the tornado was moving away from them and decided they were cool to drive on. The next day, when Sheets finally made it to the deep-green bucket seat in the Roughriders’ alumni lounge, where he was supposed to be 24 hours earlier, he was extremely apologetic about the mix-up—when the team practice leading up to a week-12 game with the Toronto Argonauts got bumped a day, he assumed the interview had too. As for his close encounter with Mother Nature, Sheets had captured the whole thing on video, and he began digging through his black hoodie with Mission 2K on the front for his phone, eventually realizing he’d left it elsewhere.

Before his stint as an amateur storm chaser, Sheets saved the CFL’s rushing standards on his phone when he signed with the Roughriders prior to the 2012 season. “I looked up the rushing records before I looked up where Saskatchewan was,” says the 28-year-old. “I like to be the best. I want to be great. I want my name to be at the top of the record book, whatever league I’m in.” Though the five-foot-11, 208-lb. Sheets wasn’t the circuit’s premier back during his first CFL season, he acquitted himself well, finishing second to Calgary’s Jon Cornish in total yards gained on the ground. In the off-season, Sheets found himself watching Deion Sanders’s Hall of Fame acceptance speech over and over. The former NFL cornerback—for whom preening was as natural as breathing—talked about how he expected the dynamic of a room to change when he entered. So Sheets decided to give his goals a more definite form, openly stating he was on a mission to eclipse the 2,000-yard plateau in 2013. He came charging out of the gate, reaching 1,000 yards faster than anyone in league history. A knee injury hampered Sheets’s chances of posting an all-time season, but with a couple more monster outings, he can still challenge former Montreal Alouette Mike Pringle’s 1998 single-season CFL rushing mark of 2,065 yards.

Sheets’s very public individual goals work in tandem with what the Roughriders are trying to achieve during a campaign in which they’ll host the Grey Cup. And Regina’s adoration for the Roughies has helped turned Sheets into a star. Though he loves the spotlight, Sheets admits it’s still a bit surreal walking into stores and seeing his image plastered on the wall. His likeness can always be found on his website, where, among other things, fans can purchase the same Mission 2K apparel he’s often cloaked in. Though he’s pretty devoted to trumpeting his personal aspirations, nobody questions whether Sheets has lost the grander plot. “This guy is 100 percent devoted to the team,” says Riders defensive back and close friend Carlos Thomas.

Sheets and Thomas connected quickly when the pair were members of the San Francisco 49ers organization in 2009. “He always thought he was faster than me,” says Thomas, who signed with the Riders last February. Jesting with Thomas was one of the few fun aspects to an otherwise miserable start to Sheets’s pro career. He left Purdue after four seasons as the school’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns with 48, but was passed over in the 2009 NFL draft. The 49ers signed him as a free agent, but it wasn’t long before he ended up on the practice squad. Three time zones removed from family in his home state of Connecticut and feeling like he wasn’t being given a fair shake, Sheets began to sulk, enough so that the team pastor approached him and asked if he wanted to talk. Sheets accepted the offer, and as their bond strengthened, he told Pastor Earl he wanted to take the steps to be saved. The day after that process was complete, Sheets got a call from his agent saying the Miami Dolphins wanted to put him on the active roster. He ran it by 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, who’d become a friend. Davis gave him the “Why are you still here?” look.

Sheets’s NFL prospects were never better than the summer day in 2010 when Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland called him into his office at the beginning of training camp. Sheets was in line to be the team’s starting kick returner and, as Ireland explained, the two running backs ahead of him—Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown—figured to be moving on after season’s end. “He was basically like, ‘If you show me a glimmer of hope, you’re going to be my guy next year,’” Sheets says. “The very next day, fourth day of practice, torn Achilles. I was crushed.”

Making matters worse, the Dolphins preferred injured players not to be on the sideline during games. Sheets decided if he couldn’t be with his teammates, he would stay away from the stadium entirely. However, his apartment was only about a halfback pitch away from Miami’s home field and the pageantry that accompanies each contest. “I would be sitting in my room, looking at the stadium, fireworks going off. I could see the Jumbotron,” he says. “I couldn’t do anything, just sit there on the couch, foot hanging up. It was a bad time.”

After an unfruitful stop with the Carolina Panthers in 2011, Sheets was at a loss. It wasn’t until a conversation with Thomas that a new path began to emerge. The two had become very tight, with Sheets standing up in Thomas’s wedding. They were having one of those big life talks when Thomas told Sheets that if he was still serious about playing football, Thomas could make a call to Corey Chamblin, who was moving from defensive coordinator in Hamilton—where Thomas was playing at the time—to head coach with the Riders in 2012. “I was like, ‘Okay, go ahead and call,’” Sheets says. “But you’re still thinking in the back of your head, ‘Canada? I don’t want to go to Canada. I’m born and raised here, I want to play in the NFL.’ Just not even thinking that, if this works out, this could be another way back. Or that I could just belong in Canada.”

Initially, Brendan Taman wasn’t sure Sheets belonged in Regina, either. The Riders GM first saw Sheets in a T-shirt and shorts, working out with a bunch of other aspiring pros at a camp Saskatchewan holds annually in Florida. Taman said Sheets showed well enough, but didn’t really stand out. Still, Taman knew it was tough to judge a player who wasn’t wearing pads, and since the team needed another back, there was no harm inviting him to camp. That’s where Taman started to realize he had something. “I heard two DBs running by me and they’re [saying], ‘Goddamn, that guy can run,’” Taman says. “When you hear players talk about other players like that, you know there’s something going on there. It’s sort of a stamp of approval.”

With CFL camps running just two weeks and teams playing only a pair of exhibition games, Sheets didn’t have much time to prove himself. The Roughriders’ first pre-season game was a blowout loss to B.C., but Sheets’s 32 yards on three carries was more than any of the other five backs who touched the ball. In the second tune-up, versus Calgary, Sheets punched through for two TDs and 97 yards to secure the starting job. But his 1,277 yards as a first-year CFLer largely got lost in the mix of Saskatchewan being an 8-10 team and a couple of homegrown backs—Cornish and the Lions’ Andrew Harris—also having big years.

Sheets did find himself in the spotlight before the 2013 season, but not for his ability to break tackles. When his mug shot began circulating on the Internet before training camp in June, it came to light that, in January, he’d been charged with battery domestic violence in his off-season home of Tampa Bay. The charge was dropped after he completed a domestic-violence program and Sheets—who had informed Roughriders management about the occurrence a couple of months prior to training camp—maintains the incident involving his girlfriend, Bre Cotten, was entirely verbal. The two remain a couple, and Cotten travelled north to watch Sheets take on the Argos in mid-September. “It was one of those things where, you put yourself in a bad situation, you can’t be mad at what happened,” Sheets says.

With that in mind—and with Taman stating at training camp in Saskatoon that there would be zero tolerance for any further misconduct—the running back has done nothing more to jeopardize his standing with the Riders, noting that with the exception of the odd off-day excursion, he sticks pretty close to home. “If I see trouble, I’m like okay, spot it, I got to go that way,” says Sheets, using his pointer finger for emphasis. Taman doesn’t doubt that the whole experience was impactful. “I think it was a come-to-Jesus kind of moment,” he says, “where it’s like, ‘I’ve got something good here; don’t blow it.’”

Sheets’s stirring performance this year—along with the Riders’ standing as championship contenders—has certainly helped the intense football focus in Regina stay fixated on his game. He hit the 1,000-yard mark after just eight games, great news for his offensive linemen, whom Sheets treats to a meal for every 100-yard game he posts. Through 11 contests, Sheets—who has rumbled for more than 100 yards seven times this season—has 1,222 rushing yards, leaving him 843 shy of Pringle. The sprained knee he sustained on his fourth carry of the week-12 game against Toronto doesn’t help his cause, but Pringle’s mark isn’t completely out of range. And if Sheets does fall short, it definitely won’t be for lack of trying.“He’s relentless with the ball,” Thomas says. “He’s one of the wildest, most explosive runners I’ve seen. And those are the worst runners to tackle.”

With his contract expiring after the season, it’s unclear what the future holds. When Sheets says he’s trying not to think about next season, he doesn’t come off like an athlete being evasive, but a man blindsided by the affection he feels for a place he assumed was merely a stopover. “I want to go back home, but then I don’t want to go back home,” he says. “I’m not trying to go home and be another guy fighting for two spots with 10 people.” When it’s suggested Saskatchewan might be starting to feel like his football home, Sheets quickly interjects: “It’s not starting to—it is my football home.”

That’s about more than Sheets reinvigorating his career on the Prairies. It’s about the passion people here have for their team, from the beat-up Riders hats you can spot in any Tim Hortons line, to the “Riders No. 1” message duct-taped to the side of an old pickup truck a couple of blocks from Mosaic Stadium, to the Saskatchewan logo tattooed on a waitress’s calf at a local lunch spot. When Sheets first landed in Regina, he was floored that total strangers would stop on the street and ask if he needed a ride somewhere. Now, when they’re apologetic about hassling him for pictures, he tells them to relax, and even uses his Twitter account to encourage people who spot him to come and say hello. “I love the attention,” he says. “It makes me play harder, it makes me play better.”

Sheets’s eyes widen when talking about the possibility of starring in the Grey Cup in front of a home crowd this November, but he knows that goal—like his pursuit of Pringle—is a week-by-week process. For now, he’ll settle for the small victories, like the one earned on the fishing trip when the storm clouds disappeared. Sheets wasn’t completely sure of the species he pulled out of the water, but, in his mind, that wasn’t the defining characteristic, anyway. “It was the biggest one, so I was happy.”

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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