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Argos running back Chad Kackert retires following serious leg injury

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Toronto Argonauts running back Chad Kackert runs the ball during third quarter CFL Grey Cup action against the Calgary Stampeders in Toronto on Sunday, November 25, 2012. Kackert has retired and will become the Argos' new strength and conditioning coach.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

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Toronto Argonauts running back Chad Kackert runs the ball during third quarter CFL Grey Cup action against the Calgary Stampeders in Toronto on Sunday, November 25, 2012. Kackert has retired and will become the Argos' new strength and conditioning coach.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO - Head coach Scott Milanovich will have to look for another big-play threat coming out of the Toronto Argonauts backfield this season.

Veteran halfback Chad Kackert retired Sunday, the opening day of the CFL team's training camp. The five-foot-eight, 206-pound Kackert led Toronto to victory in the historic 100th Grey Cup in '12 but has been slow recovering from a broken left leg suffered prior to last year's East final.

Kackert, 27, will remain with the Argos as their strength-and-conditioning coach. He'll also continue working to rehab his leg and hasn't completely closed the door on resuming his pro career.

"Never say never," he said. "I just don't feel like I'm anywhere close to being ready to play football, it's an issue of range of motion, to be specific.

"I want my leg to get better just because who wants to walk around on a gimpy leg the rest of his life? If it's sooner rather than later then I will re-evaluate but as of right I'm going to get my leg better and coach this team as far as strength and conditioning goes."

Despite playing just three seasons in Toronto, Kackert quickly emerged as an offensive threat. He rushed for 1,467 yards on 228 carries — an impressive 6.4-yard average — with 12 touchdowns while adding 50 receptions for 454 yards, two TDs.

"Chad was a home-run hitter," Milanovich said. "He'd get a crease and could go to the house and that's nice.

"He also brought an intangible. The players loved seeing him succeed. When he got the ball and did well, it just kind of ignited our football team. We'll see who's around to replace that but we'll certainly miss those things."

Kackert rushed for 638 yards on 100 carries during the 2012 season — both career highs — but was at his best in the playoffs.

He ran for 139 yards and a TD in Toronto's 27-20 road win over Montreal in the East Division final. The next week before over 50,000 fans at Rogers Centre, Kackert was named the MVP of the 100th Grey Cup game, rushing for 133 yards on 20 carries and recording eight catches for 62 yards in the Argos' 35-22 win over the Calgary Stampeders.

Kackert appeared in just nine games last year, rushing for 480 yards rushing on 71 carries (6.8-yard average) as Toronto (11-7) finished atop the East Division to secure home-field for the conference final. But Kackert didn't play in the Argos' 36-24 loss to Hamilton, breaking his left leg during practice.

"It was a no-contact practice, freak injury," Kackert said. "I was just running a route, didn't see the defensive end running his twist.

"We knocked shoulders and my foot caught the turf and that was it."

Injuries plagued the hard-running Kackert throughout his brief Argos tenure but he knew immediately this one was serious.

"It hurt," the former University of Hampshire star said.

Still, Kackert spent the off-season working to strengthen his leg, accepting he might even have to spend the early part of the season on the injured list before returning. But Kackert realized Friday he simply wasn't ready to go.

"I don't want a handout," he said. "I don't want to come on to a team and take a paycheque while I'm sitting around not helping anybody.

"I'm in a position now where I can help people. It's a different contract but it's a priceless opportunity."

Milanovich wasn't surprised about Kackert's retirement.

"I wasn't expecting him to be here as a player," Milanovich said. "It was a very serious injury, particularly with his style of playing using his quickness and speed, and we were planning all along, unfortunately, to have to replace him."

But not let him go altogether. Milanovich said he and GM Jim Barker began discussing about two weeks ago the possibility of offering the immensely popular Kackert the strength-and-conditioning position.

"Kack is such an integral part of our team," Milanovich said. "Kack is too good a person to not find a way to let him and make him be a part of this.

"That's where it started and we were lucky it was something he was interested in."

Very interested, as it turns out.

"It's very important to me because I've fallen in love with this city and I've kind of established a home base out here," he said. "Jim is never going to make a decision that's going to hinder the team or not get it to the Grey Cup.

"I'm really honoured to be able to stay here and help get the guys back to where we need to go."

However, Kackert admitted it felt a little odd Sunday in his new job.

"It's a little tiring standing for three, four hours straight," he said with a chuckle. "But it felt good, the guys are buying in and I appreciate that from them.

"They're calling me, 'Coach,' already and asking me for workout tips. It will be fun. I'm going to learn a lot, they're going to learn a lot."

Teammate Chad Owens was shocked to learn of Kackert's decision

"He told me about it (Saturday) and I was kind of lost for words," Owens said. "It's sad because injuries happen in this game, we all understand that . . . but there are certain guys you pray and hope nothing but great things for just because they're good people.

"Kack is probably the most genuine person I've ever encountered. He is the epitome of a team player. I'm going to miss going into battle with him out there on the field because he brought everything he had. He was a playmaker."

Kackert's departure creates an open race for the starter's job among the seven running backs in camp.

Sophomore Curtis Steele does have the benefit of experience in Toronto's offence but Milanovich said rookie Anthony Coombs, Toronto's 2014 first-round pick, remains very much in the picture.

"It's wide open," Milanovich said. "Curtis has an advantage because he's been here and been in the offence but it could be any of those guys at this point."

The five-foot-nine, 190-pound Coombs, a Winnipeg native who played at the University of Manitoba, said Kackert's retirement hasn't changed his approach.

"It's pretty much the same because we had a lot of good backs that just came in this year," he said. "It's not like it's free pickings now.

"It (starting) is a huge possibility . . . but you can't think too far ahead. I've just got to get used to the speed of the game and it's coming along slowly but surely. Whether Kackert is in or out I still have the same mentality: Show up to practice, learn the playbook and get better."

NOTES — Lost in Kackert's retirement was Toronto released offensive lineman Scott Mitchell on Sunday. Mitchell was selected second overall by Edmonton in 2011 and signed with the Argos in the off-season as a free agent. He failed his physical Saturday but there's word the expansion Ottawa Redblacks have an interest in the former Rice star . . . The Hamilton Tiger-Cats signed defensive lineman Ed Laurent on Sunday, The six-foot-one, 303-pound Montreal native spent three seasons with the Eskimos.

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