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Ex-NFL linebacker hits Bombers mini-camp

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BRADENTON, FLA. — There are, generally speaking, two types of former NFLers who make their way north to play in the CFL.

The first type — and by far the most common — is the player whose NFL foray was short and sweet: the late-round draft pick from whom not much was expected or delivered; the free agent signee who didn’t even make it to training camp; the rookie cut in the pre-season.

And then there is the much less common type of former NFLer in the CFL — the ones who actually played and started in the NFL and have a bona fide professional body of work in the world’s most elite professional football league.

Linebacker Gerald McRath — who will make his CFL debut here Sunday at the Winnipeg Blue Bombers mini-camp — is that second kind. Big time second kind.

Consider: A 4th-rounder out of Southern Mississippi, McRath played 40 games —and started 12 — in three seasons with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans from 2009-2011. He recorded a total of 88 solo tackles, assisted on 33 others, and had a career game on Oct. 31, 2010 when he recorded 10 tackles against the San Diego Chargers. Oh, and he’s still just 27-years-old.

So what’s the catch? Well, yeah, there’s always a catch when someone with that kind of NFL resume finds himself in the CFL and with McRath there’s a couple of them.

First, there was the four-game suspension he was handed by the NFL in 2010 for violating the league’s ban on performance-enhancing drugs. McRath blamed a tainted supplement he was taking at the time, and it’s all a bit beside the point anyway.

Because far more pressing and immediate as far as McRath is concerned is the second catch — the torn patellar tendon in 2012 that wiped out his NFL career.

McRath had surgery in August 2012 and never did return to play in the NFL, but he insists he never stopped working out and the Bombers — who lost their own blue-chip linebacker, Henoc Muamba, to the NFL in the off-season — think McRath has such huge upside that he’s worth a shot.

"Gerald McRath had a hell of a reputation in the NFL and we’re really eager to see what he might be able to do for us," said Bombers GM Kyle Walters.

Walters isn’t the only eager one. "Sitting out this last season as a free agent, it was frustrating," McRath said in an interview. "I definitely know that I’m not done. And I’ve always been a competitor. I like to win and I want to compete at whatever it is.

"And I’m just thankful, to be honest with you, that Winnipeg reached out and showed interest in me. That was the biggest thing for me — just getting an opportunity to prove myself again and be part of a team and be able to compete for a championship. I’m excited because sitting at home here (in Nashville) and waiting to play, you miss the game. You miss it a lot. I’m just not ready to be done yet...

"I’ve been working out for two years now. You watch everyone else playing and see what everyone else is doing, and so now it’s my opportunity. I’m not looking at this as a stepping stone back to the NFL. I’m more so looking at this as another opportunity in my career and my life."

McRath can play inside or outside and in that respect is exactly the kind of versatile plug-and-play type of player that new Bombers defensive coordinator Gary Etcheverry is known to favour.

But McRath is also smart enough to know what he doesn’t know — and what he doesn’t know much about is the CFL. "The rules are going to be new and some things are going to be different — especially the receivers in motion, but at the end of the day, the object of the game is still for me to go get the person with the ball and get them to the ground," he said.

McRath said he hopes the three days of mini-camp here in Bradenton will give him the kind of crash course in the CFL he needs so he can come to the main camp in Winnipeg later this spring on an equal footing with the rest of the Bombers veterans.

"I want to push myself and get to where I need to be for the month of May, so that I know what I need to work on and where I need to get to coming into training camp in June."

email: paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

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