So, now what?
It’s a question hundreds of CFL players likely asked themselves when the 2020 season was officially axed owing to COVID-19.
Some are still clinging to the idea of playing football this year, including wide receiver Kenny Lawler, defensive end Thiadric Hansen, returner Janarion Grant and defensive back Mercy Maston. Each player asked the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for their release so they could pursue NFL opportunities.
Meanwhile, other members of the Blue and Gold have accepted that strapping on a helmet won’t happen this calendar year. These players are choosing to use the time away to spend more time with family and/or build a career outside of football.
The Free Press chatted with four Blue Bombers this week to see what their year away from the gridiron entails.
Instead of chasing down quarterbacks, the CFL’s reigning Most Outstanding Defensive Player now finds himself running a daycare.
Well, not exactly, but it sure looks and feels that way for the 6-7, 250-pound defensive end from Beaumont, Texas. During the day, Willie Jefferson’s nieces and nephews — who are between the ages of four and nine — are at the house doing online schooling. He and his wife Holly also have a two-year-old daughter named Kelley.
"I’m just trying to be quiet and tiptoe around and see if everything’s OK," said Jefferson, who re-signed with the Bombers on a two-year deal in February. "Just trying to help the family out. Having their parents still going to work, we’re just trying to give them a little peace of mind knowing that they’re OK being over here doing their school."
So, are we going to see a ‘Willie Jefferson Daycare Centre’ open up when he decides to hang up the cleats?
"Nah, nah, nah. I don’t think that’s gonna happen," said the 29-year-old Jefferson. "I’ve been doing a lot of other things besides just babysitting and stuff like that. I’ve had more time to focus on myself, do a lot of reading, get out and do some things with my wife and little girl."
When the house isn’t overrun with young learners, Jefferson keeps busy with the odd side gig, such as training high school football players, landscaping, construction and moving furniture. But Jefferson is a family man and if he can’t be on the field, he’s going to use as much time as he can to be around his loved ones.
"When I heard there wasn’t going to be football this summer, I (saw it as) a lot more family time. That was one of the big things for me as I never get to spend this time of the year back at home with friends and family," Jefferson said.
Micah Awe can’t hit the field with his new team this year, but the hard-hitting linebacker is still trying to be a gamechanger.
The three-year CFL veteran, who left the Toronto Argos to ink a two-year deal with the Blue and Gold this off-season, is working on a health/fitness/recruiting app that will help athletes find opportunities at the next level, among various other things. The idea for the app came from Awe’s time in the NFL.
After a four-year career at Texas Tech, Awe was clocked running the 40-yard dash on his pro day at a hand-timed 4.67 — a tad slower than the average NFL linebacker. But according to Awe, who now lives in Chicago, if you watch the tape of his run and time it on the computer, he ran a 4.48. However, the 4.67 time is the one that was posted on his draftscout.com profile. Awe went undrafted in 2016 and was signed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but released after a brief stint on their practice squad.
"I look to my right and they have a huge flatscreen TV with the depth chart. They had offence on top and defence on the bottom. They had me at WILL linebacker and I was third string. All they had was our names and our 40 times," said Awe on his meeting with Bucs management when they told him they were cutting him.
"I’m looking at the first string, Lavonte David, a five-time Pro Bowler, like definitely a hall of famer, and they had his NFL draftscout.com 40 time right next to his name and he’s been in the league for what, six or seven years already. I was like ‘Man, that’s how much 40 times matter?’ And I’m thinking like ‘Well crap, that 4.67 probably changed everything.’ If a scout brings in a wrong time, that can make you go from a first-round pick to undrafted."
For aspiring pros to avoid a similar situation, Awe’s app will allow them to upload a video of themselves running a 40 on a marked field and have their sprint time verified. Awe said the app will not only be a tool that’s more accurate than a hand timer for teams to use, but also a way for athletes to track their 40 times to know whether their training has been effective. There are more features to the app, which will be called PurpleShift, but Awe said he can’t reveal everything just yet. For now, he’s looking for investors and beta testers and encourages anyone interested to reach out to him on social media. He’s hoping the cancelled season will give him the time he needs to push the app past the finish line.
And speaking of apps, that’s how Awe has been getting acquainted with his new teammates — through social media.
"I’m happy for the path I’ve taken because if I was a first-round pick, I never would have came up with the app because everything would have been good for me. But essentially, this is the reason why I’m making it, because I think sports should be objective. It should not be subjective in any kind of way."
The days of showing up to work in sweatpants and a hoodie are over for Jake Thomas, at least for now.
The defensive tackle from New Brunswick, who’s spent the past eight seasons with the Bombers, landed a gig as a real estate agent with Keller Williams Capital Realty in Fredericton. Thomas wrote his real estate exam prior to the 2019 season and was planning on starting in the business in early 2021, but the pandemic put him to work early. It was announced on a Monday that the season was cancelled and by Friday he was at the office starting to job shadow before officially getting his licence.
"Immediately when I decided (to start working) I had a pretty big online order of new shoes, new shirts and some new pants," Thomas admitted. "I would say it’s still the same type of ordeal; you show up early, leave late type of mentality. But yeah, obviously I’m dressing a lot better."
Thomas, 29, has had life after football on his mind for a while thanks to some sound advice from former CFL all-star and two-time Grey Cup champion Adriano Belli. Before Thomas made his CFL debut, he played alongside Belli on a Canadian senior men’s team. Belli encouraged Thomas, who was only 20 at the time, to have a plan for when football is over. But even though he isn’t battling with offensive lineman these days, Thomas still has the mentality of a football player.
"It’s a job where you get what you put in and I really like the idea of being paid for performance. If you don’t perform well, in football terms, you’re on a plane being flown out. I really like that kind of competitiveness in this industry," Thomas said.
"Being an athlete my whole life, I never really want to lose that kind of competitiveness that’s kind of involved with real estate."
Thomas even has a catchy slogan for his new career.
"I’m not sure if I can use it yet, but people like the motto ‘Jake Thomas here to tackle all of your real estate needs.’"
He’s 36-years-old and capped off his ninth season in the CFL by hoisting the Grey Cup over his head for the first time in his career. But long before he became a champ, Justin Medlock had proven he’s one of the best kickers the Canadian game has ever seen. So with nothing left to accomplish and all the questions surrounding the future of the league, why not retire now?
"That’s a good question," said Medlock from his home in Jupiter, Fla. "I think a lot of people are in that boat right now, not just me... There’s obviously people really hoping and begging the CFL will happen next year, but who knows? But I think with this whole situation that’s happened, a lot of careers have ended with COVID. It’s kind of a bummer. A lot of people have played their last game without knowing it was their last game. If the (Grey Cup) was my last game, then it was my last game. If it wasn’t, then so be it and then I’ll come back and be ready to kick field goals and continue to be the best."
Medlock’s main concern at the moment isn’t kicking a ball between the uprights, which is what he did six times in the team’s 33-12 championship victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. He’s more focused on weighing his career options, one of which includes medical sales, and trying to land a job that’s an ideal fit.
"I’ve had other opportunities that I’ve turned down. I didn’t want to take a job just to take a job... For me ultimately, it’s just putting the family in the right position. I’m not from Jupiter, Florida and I don’t think we really want to make this home for us," said the California native.
"It’s nice and it’s a nice place to train and it’s a nice little vacation, but there’s a little more to it than living in vacationland."
It took a long time before the CFL pulled the plug on the 2020 campaign, which made it difficult for players such as Medlock to hunt for jobs as they weren’t sure if they’d have to quit on short notice to return to Canada. Medlock isn’t complaining, though. Like to Jefferson, he’s enjoying being a full-time dad. He and his wife Hannah have a three-year-old boy named Braxton and welcomed baby girl Kaya to the family in January.
"It’s made it an easier time to transition knowing we won the Grey Cup, and you know, we’ll see what happens here down the road."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.