The first time I fully noticed what Obby Khan brought to the football field was when he wasn't playing at all.
Last year, for the final three games of the regular season, the coaching staff felt it prudent to try Brendon LaBatte at centre. It was a move that was sound in theory -- Brendon was by far the best offensive lineman on the team -- but it failed in practice. Though he was the most technically proficient and skilled, Brendon was never comfortable at centre, didn't communicate with the line as well as was hoped and the team soon reversed its decision.
The most telling sign of this error in judgment came when Obby was brought back cold to start the Eastern Final against Hamilton, having not played at all the previous three weeks, while Labatte returned to his regular position at left guard. For a team to juggle their starting lineup that close to the biggest game of the year and re-insert a player who hadn't taken a live snap in almost a month, tells you exactly how much that group missed having a veteran presence at the spot that quarterbacks the offensive line.
There is just as much a mental component to playing centre as there are physical requirements, and Labatte was not a natural fit. He did not relish calling the protections, reading the defences and taking charge of the four other members on the line. Nor was he exactly happy about being there. If there was ever a position on the football field where what you know is just as important as what you can do, it is at centre, and these are the attributes the Calgary Stampeders now hope Obby can bring to their young offensive group.
Yet as Obby begins to practise with the Stampeders this week -- a sentence that doesn't even look right on my laptop as I type it out -- I figured I should put to rest, once and for all, the speculation around his departure from the Bombers.
Obby retired from this football team less than four months ago because he was going to be released. Khan, 32, after training in the off-season to try and build off the successes of the 2011 team, was told by the head coach that the Blue and Gold wanted to go in a different direction and get younger at the spot he manned for six years. He was not the first professional athlete to be blindsided by management's decision to replace him, and he won't be the last, but the thing that is different is how Obby remained loyal to a football team that had no further use for him.
Even though he was preparing to play at least one more season, and thought himself physically fit and primed to do so, he decided to instead announce he was retiring and focus on his restaurant development rather than shop himself around and leave a city he had come to love. After a candid discussion with Milt Stegall though, Obby decided to not sign his official retirement papers and asked for his release instead, simply to keep his options open if things changed in the future -- and change they did indeed.
The initial site for his restaurant was rejected, and now that he has settled on another, by the time this process is completed, the earliest he will be ready to open Shwarma Khan is December. With the majority of this development now out of his hands, he began to think about the possibility of reigniting his football career with two thirds of the season still to be played in 2012.
Though he signed with the Stampeders, and is anxious to help that franchise and team in any way he can, Obby did something that is quite telling about how he still feels about the team that released him, and the community that invested in him, which is really the impetus for this column.
Once he decided that he had both the time and appetite to re-engage himself in professional football, the first team he had his agent call, in spite of everything that had recently happened to him, was the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Sometimes you just have to go with what your heart tells you, no matter how your brain may disagree.
Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays and game days in the Free Press.