HAMILTON — Jovan Santos-Knox was ready to accept that his football days were over. An undrafted linebacker out of the University of Massachusetts, Santos-Knox had tryouts with the Philadelphia Eagles and Calgary Stampeders that led to nothing. If his next tryout didn't end differently, he was pulling the plug and going to pursue a 9-to-5 job.
For his last kick at the can, Santos-Knox hopped in a car with his dad Byron and they drove nine hours from Middletown, Conn., to a Winnipeg Blue Bombers tryout in Charlotte, N.C.
Long story short, Santos-Knox knocked it out of the park and the Blue and Gold signed him. He started his rookie campaign in 2017 on special teams and worked his tail off, leading to starting on defence in the Banjo Bowl.
In his first play as a starting linebacker, Santos-Knox picked off Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Kevin Glenn.
"That's what I loved about my time in Winnipeg was that you have to work your way up the ranks. There was a trust thing and you have to earn the trust of your teammates and coaching staff," Santos-Knox, now a member of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, told the Free Press at Thursday's Grey Cup media availability day.
"Coach O'Shea just did a really great job of teaching me the game, how to play the game the right way, being a pro. I don't think I could have learned from a better person than him… One thing about Winnipeg is they teach players how to be pros, just like they do here in Hamilton."
He got off to a hot start in Winnipeg, but his time in the city ended much differently. The following year, Santos-Knox broke his foot in the final game of the regular season and was forced to miss the post-season. It was a disappointing ending to a breakout season where he had 82 tackles, six sacks, and two forced fumbles. He ended up signing with Edmonton for 2019, but only played three games as his recovery didn't go the way he had hoped. The Bombers opted to roll with a cheaper, and safer, option in Kyrie Wilson.
"I just stepped wrong. It was a freak play," Santos-Knox said.
"I had two surgeries on my foot and it just wasn't feeling right. It took a long time to the point where I don't know if a lot people thought I would play football again or if I'd be the same. I completely understand those doubts and why you possibly wouldn't offer me a contract or something like that, but I'm just happy to be playing football again. That's all I care about."
Santos-Knox, 27, is back to his old self as he played all 14 games this season and finished second on the team with 72 tackles. But his next game is the biggest of his career. This Sunday at Tim Hortons Field is his first Grey Cup and of course, it comes against his former team — the Blue Bombers.
"It's just amazing. It's kind of surreal because I didn't know if I'd ever get to this point. I'm just glad I am. And to be going against the team you started off with, a team you really respect and admire, it makes it a lot more fun and I'm excited for this game," he said.
Santos-Knox said there's no bad blood between him and the Bombers and he remains close with several of his old teammates to this day. But he won't lie, sending the Bombers back to Winnipeg empty-handed would be the ideal way to win his first title."It'd be a little more sweet. Any Grey Cup, no matter what, is what you strive and work for, but I'd be lying if I said it wouldn't be nicer coming against Winnipeg," he said.
"I'm excited that it's those guys because they're the defending champs and those are the guys that you want to knock off."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.