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This article was published 4/5/2018 (533 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The game film showed an obvious level of extreme talent, the kind of highlight-reel tape that doesn’t often accompany a football player with a Canadian passport.
But when compared to his actions off the field, Rashaun Simonise, a physically gifted wide receiver at nearly 6-5 who clocks in at more than 200 pounds, was hardly considered by many to be a catch. Whether the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ decision to select Simonise with the No. 12 pick in Thursday’s CFL Draft will be deemed a reach or coup, only time will tell. But ask Kyle Walters what he’s added to his football club by choosing the big-bodied receiver early in the second round, and the Bombers general manager sees it more of a steal than a stain.
"He’s just so, so talented, and if we can get him back to that level, get him back committed to football in this building — training, looking after his body and committing to football full-time — there’s a very high ceiling for him," Walters said during a post-draft press conference Friday morning at Investors Group Field.
Simonise, 22, had been a freak at the University of Calgary, where he made it a weekly ritual of terrorizing opposing defences. He was so dominant at the Canadian college level that he would eventually catch the eyes of NFL scouts, who were in awe of his size and speed.
"I'm fortunate and blessed for this opportunity they have given me to allow me to play for this team and I'm very hungry to come into work" - Rashaun Simonise on being the Bombers' pick at 12th overall in the 2018 CFl draft
After interest from a number of teams, the Cincinnati Bengals acquired him in the 2016 supplemental draft. The Bengals would ink Simonise to a contract, and soon after he was dressed for a pre-season game against the Baltimore Ravens. It was a play during that exhibition game that convinced Walters he was watching a special player.
Simonise had caught slant pass, and in two quick strides he blew by the Baltimore defence — much like he had done with the Dinos.
"I said, ‘You don’t see that too often on a Canadian draft pick’s cut up,’" the Bombers GM said. "We believe he’s the most talented player."
But talent wasn’t what Walters needed to confirm if they were going to move forward on selecting Simonise with their first pick of the draft. What they needed to know was whether his troubled past was truly behind him.
Though Simonise was one of the few Canadian receivers to reach the NFL, he didn’t last all that long there. The consumption of an illegal weight-gaining supplement while with the Bengals would led to a failed drug test and his eventual release prior to the 2016 season. Before heading to the NFL, Simonise was deemed academically ineligible to return to Calgary, so his options were limited.
He was still eligible to play in the CFL, but because of a new drug policy put in place by the league — one that explicitly stated any player with a failed drug would have their draft eligibility postponed by a year — Simonise would have to wait until 2018 to be selected. Had he been drafted in 2017, many believed he would have been the clear choice at No. 1.
What Walters said eventually convinced Winnipeg to take a chance on Simonise was a conversation between Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea and Ben Macauley, head coach for the Okanagan Sun of the Canadian Junior Football League, where Simonise had played the past two years.
In a phone interview Friday, Macauley recalled the 20-minute conversation with O’Shea, noting that much of what the Bombers coach was looking for was proof Simonise had changed his off-field ways. What O’Shea got was an honest assessment from Macauley, who, besides being a football coach, also works as a youth counsellor — a job that requires he spend hours every week helping troubled kids.
"As head coach to head coach, you want to know what you’re getting into, and I told him, ‘Here’s a guy that is just desperate to play the game of football,’" Macauley said. "From the NFL to back to playing junior football, I think was a big slice of humble pie for Rashaun. And for a guy to put that all aside and just want to get onto the field somehow, some way, it spoke a lot to his drive and passion for the game of football."
Macauley said he, too, had his concerns early on. But whatever preconceived notions he might have had about Simonise were gone the instant he arrived.
Case in point: Macauley was forced to bench Simonise for his first game with the team because of incomplete paperwork. Not knowing how the news might affect Simonise, Macauley was pleasantly surprised when he saw him stand and cheer on his teammates, some of whom possessed much less talent than him, for the entire game.
"He was more excited than they were for making catches. That really said a lot about his ability to be a teammate and pick other players up, because it was certainly something he didn’t have to do," said Macauley, who added Simonise was one of the few players who never needed to be reminded about putting in extra work. "I think that’s the one thing that gets missed with him, because there are so many questions about his history of failed drug tests and things like that."
As for the man himself, Simonise said he viewed his opportunity with the Bombers as a second chance at football and at life. He said his experiences over the past few years has changed his perception of the world, and made him a more mature person on and off the field.
"I felt like my talents were going to take me all the way, and just me being on the field was going to take care of things. It really came down to not being a professional, not conducting myself as a professional," said Simonise, who came across as polite and engaged.
"Unfortunately, my favourite thing in the world was taken away from me for a couple years, and that really made me evaluate my situation and made me think deep into really what I wanted to do and it all came back to football."
Simonise will be at Bombers training camp later this month, and if all goes well, he could be pushing for serious playing time as early as this season. He said he’s eager to make plays and prove to his teammates that what happened in the past won’t affect his future.
"I realized this is almost a second chance, so this time I’m going to do it the right way and put all my efforts into it. I’m fortunate and blessed for this opportunity they have given me to allow me to play for this team, and I’m very hungry to come into work."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
Updated on Saturday, May 5, 2018 at 8:59 AM CDT: Final