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This article was published 17/7/2019 (265 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In a season that started with so much promise, it’s been a difficult journey for Chris Matthews in his return to full-time CFL work.
Matthews, the prized free-agent receiver the Winnipeg Blue Bombers signed over the winter after finishing the previous year with the Calgary Stampeders, was considered the missing piece to a complete puzzle on offence. He was brought in to provide some much-needed size and playmaking ability. Instead, he’s battled just to stay on the roster.
"I’m healthy now. So it’s all about going out there and making it happen, man," Matthews told reporters after the Bombers closed practice Wednesday. "Things happen. It’s a rough start for me but hopefully that was the final one that made me sit down and now I can go out there and actually contribute the way I want to contribute."
Injuries have plagued the 29-year-old veteran for much of his professional career.
In his first stint with the Bombers back in 2013 he was limited to just four games with a foot injury. After years of battling through bumps and bruises with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks – and narrowly missing being named MVP of Super Bowl XLIX – the injury bug bit him once again when he joined the Baltimore Ravens. Matthews spent the entire 2016 NFL season on injured-reserve with a torn ligament in his thumb required reconstructive surgery.
This season, Matthews streak of bad luck began in training camp when he suffered a lower-body injury on a seemingly innocent play at practice. He missed the first game of the season but returned soon after. Then in Ottawa for a Week 4 matchup with the Redblacks, another innocuous play left him with a dislocated pinkie finger that pierced the skin and needed stitches.
"It surprised the hell out of me, for sure. But it’s part of football — injuries happen. This is not going to be the last time Chris Matthews gets hurt, or anybody, for that matter, with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers or any team," reasoned Matthews, who, in two games, has three catches for 26 yards. "With this team we have a really good team, we’re stacked in all positions — offence and on defence — and the next guy has to step up so we can get to the ultimate goal, which is getting to the Grey Cup and actually winning one."
In previous years, it would have been an obvious choice to re-insert Matthews directly back into the line-up. And it still kind of is. In all likelihood, he’ll be granted his return Friday when the Bombers host the Redblacks. After all, he was the Bombers best player in training camp and though he’s been limited in his play through the first month of the season, very few offer what he can.
"He’s 6-foot-5, 230 with a great ability to high-point the ball, a super long stride. He’s been a pro for a number of years and has done it on the field for many years," Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said. "He shows a good understanding of the playbook and his work ethic, even when he was down, was pretty high to make sure he can get back."
He added: "I’m sure Chris had a mindset coming in of what he wanted to accomplish and how he wanted to help the team and it has been tough because he has been down a little bit."
Still, O’Shea wouldn’t confirm whether Matthews was going to play or not. That could be simply because he doesn’t have to. Rosters aren’t submitted until the day before the game and O’Shea has never been one to show his hand ahead of time.
But it could also because he’s undecided. The Bombers have a talented group of receivers, many of whom have exceeded expectations.
Darvin Adams has been his usual self, stretching the field for long catches, while also providing a safety net in the slot. Nic Demski is on a torrid pace to start the year, with touchdowns in each of his last three games. Lucky Whitehead is in contention as the league’s most exciting — and fastest — player for what he’s done on some of his touchdowns this year. And Drew Wolitarsky currently leads the team with three receiving scores.
"It’s low-key intimidating that we’re doing so good and everybody is hitting on all cylinders. Then it’s me coming in with all these expectations and not being able to do it because I’ve been hurt," Matthews said. "It’s a little bit frustrating but you got to be professional, come out and figure out a way to get it done. That’s the mindset that I’m on right now."
Then there’s Kenny Lawler, who has been the primary replacement for Matthews. At 25, he’s still mostly unproven but the Bombers like what they have in the California native. The same goes for Rasheed Bailey, who has been patiently waiting for his opportunity while stuck to the one-game injury list each week.
If Matthews is in, that means someone has to come out.
"I just internalize it, work it within myself because I know it isn’t always something I can control. I know Chris is a very talented receiver and he’s going to go in and get the job done and I’m not going to be mad at him, I’m not going to be mad at the coaches," Lawler said. "I have to stay patient and that’s always a test. It’s a long season and, man, I believe we’re all going to get our opportunity at some point."
There are plenty of politics at play in the CFL. Veteran players often earn the benefit of the doubt. Some coaches have a philosophy that a player shouldn’t lose his job because of injury. O’Shea, for his part, said he doesn’t follow any hard and fast rules.
"Every week there’s an opportunity for guys to step in and play, for a variety of reasons," O’Shea said. "Not just because the guy in front of him is injured but because they have shown through practice that they are capable of playing."
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.