BACK in the day Jade Etienne was so desperate to make a football team he was willing to subject himself to being a kicker. Worse yet, a backup kicker.
On Thursday night, Etienne will start a game as a real live football player holding down a slotback position with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
'I don't read the papers or the message boards or any of that stuff but I could feel the pressure, he said. The coaches would tell me, 'You're so close to playing. Keep working.' I could feel the pressure of being a first-round pick and not playing'
"I'm excited. It's been a couple of years in the making," said the 23-year-old Etienne. "Now I need to play like I've been practising. Getting named a starter is nice and all but it's what I'm able to do in a game that really matters."
Etienne arrived at the University of Saskatchewan as a late bloomer but a combination of rangy limbs, athleticism and speed. When there was no room at receiver in his freshman season his coaches at Saskatchewan suggested he take up kicking. He did and while he's never kicked in a CFL game, he showed the other day at practice he's still got a leg as he banged a field goal through from 35 yards out and the ball carried through the end zone.
But a kicker is not what Etienne wants to be. Thursday will be the beginning of his chance to prove he can be more.
"I want to contribute on offence," said Etienne. "It doesn't matter if I have one catch for 10 yards or 100 yards, I want us to win and I want to play a part."
Etienne's story is infamous in Winnipeg. Selected in the first round, fourth overall, by the Bombers in the 2011 CFL Draft, he was an off-the-board pick.
Draft day was a surprise but what followed was agonizing as he went almost two full seasons without recording a single statistic. Not a catch, not a rush, not a special teams tackle and not even a convert subbing in for his old kicker brethren. Finally, late last season, he caught a pass but even it was greeted with catcalls.
Etienne has been called a bust from here to Vancouver and all the way back to Toronto. He knows it.
"I don't read the papers or the message boards or any of that stuff but I could feel the pressure," he said. "The coaches would tell me, 'You're so close to playing. Keep working.' I could feel the pressure of being a first-round pick and not playing."
Etienne was told to use this off-season to get bigger and the gains are obvious.
"The physical aspect of his game has improved," said Bombers receivers coach Markus Howell. "His speed, height, eyes and hands are all good. But on the professional level you're going against men. The game is more physical. With the added weight and strength, he's not getting knocked around as much and he's able to fight off physical contact and use his gifts."
Howell says Etienne's gifts are rich.
"He's a height and speed guy. You line him up and he's going to run a 4.5 forty and he's 6-2. Great wingspan extension and he can play fast," said Howell. "There are a lot of guys with gifts and I don't like to project guys into all-star status but if he keeps working he can achieve that."
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @garylawless