It was spring 2015, just days into his first camp with the University of British Columbia football team when head coach Blake Nill, feeling frustrated and annoyed with how his defence was practising, called an impromptu meeting on the field.
Nill, a native of Hanna, Alta., had accepted the job with the Thunderbirds just three months before, taking over following a successful run with the University of Calgary Dinos and before that with the Saint Mary’s Huskies, winning two Vanier Cups in seven trips to the CIS title game.
Upset with what he was getting from his players, now huddled around him as the rain poured down, Nill saw it as the perfect time to send a message — and he had the perfect man to do it with.
"See that guy up there in the stands?" Nill told them. "He is going to come in and take someone’s job, so you better start picking it up."
In the stands was Taylor Loffler, a 6-4, 220-pound beast of a man who, in his only season with UBC, would become the driving force on defence.
"The plan worked just the way it was supposed to — it was a win-win," Nill, who with the help of Loffler led the Thunderbirds, a team that had gone 2-6 the previous year, to their fourth Vanier Cup in school history and first in 18 years, said in a telephone interview Thursday.
The plan: if Loffler, who had two tears to the ACL in his right knee and labral surgery on both his hips and therefore was limited to just one full season in four years at Boise State University of the NCAA, could help bring some stability to UBC’s football program then Nill, who over his decades of coaching in the CIS had built close relationships with CFL scouts, would help him get noticed.
"That was the biggest thing talking to him, knowing he’d had a lot of success and that he had a lot of connections," said Loffler, who first learned the game while living in Australia, where he played Aussie rules football. "That was my biggest goal going there, just to be able to move on and make it to the CFL, and I knew he would probably be the best man for that."
Months later, Loffler would get his wish, selected in the third round — 19th overall — by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the 2016 CFL Draft.
Now with the Blue and Gold, Loffler finds himself in the same position, only this time taking over the starting job at safety that once belonged to Macho Harris. Harris, who had played well before pulling up lame in Week 5, returned to practice this week and has been taking second-team reps with the defence behind Loffler.
"He’s been getting better each week with his coverage, with reading offences while working with the other defensive backs," said Bombers defensive backs coach Tony Missick, speaking about Loffler. "He doesn’t take any practices off, he basically takes every rep at the free safety position and never complains. He’s still surprising us coaches as to what he can actually do."
In nine games with the Blue and Gold — five at safety — Loffler has 24 defensive tackles, two interceptions and a quarterback sack, while also chipping in with four tackles on special teams. In those games he’s shown a keen football IQ, flashed his deceptive speed, earned respect with his hard hits, all while building a trust within the team’s secondary.
Though he remains a work in progress — "we’re not ready to let him loose just yet," said Missick — Loffler has quickly emerged into one of the most compelling stories for the Bombers this year and maybe even in the CFL; a quick trajectory that has put him in the discussion for CFL rookie of the year.
Of all his upside, it’s his ability to throw the big hit that has Bombers fans eager to see how his story plays out.
"The biggest thing is it sets a precedent," said Loffler, who was born in Regina but grew up on a ranch in Montana before moving to Kelowna, B.C., where he played high school football. "You want to be physical out there, especially at safety. You want guys looking at you as you’re coming across the middle."
In his first start at safety in a Week 6 win over the Edmonton Eskimos, Loffler brought fans to their feet when he went toe-to-toe with former Bombers receiver Adarius Bowman, separating him from the ball with a crushing hit that left Bowman briefly dazed on the turf. Two weeks ago against the Montreal Alouettes, Loffler threw every inch of himself at receiver Nik Lewis, knocking the 5-10, 240-pounder off his feet.
"It’s like the nail and the hammer theory," he said. "If you’re the nail, that’s when injuries happen."
For Darian Thompson, a former teammate of Loffler’s at Boise State and now a safety with the NFL’s New York Giants, it comes as no surprise to see Loffler doing so well. Thompson saw it first-hand as a teammate, both his ability to deliver punishing hits and his drive when it comes to overcoming injuries.
"One thing about Taylor, whether he’s practising or playing, is the sideline has to be aware because if somebody is running down that sideline he’s going to fly in full-speed like a missile," said Thompson. "He has an extreme love for the game of football, and a couple of serious injuries left him standing around watching sometimes for a full year before he was able to get back onto the field. You could tell when he got back out there he had been waiting for the opportunity and he tries to make the most of it."
That’s exactly what Loffler is doing, trying his best to enjoy the moment and not take things for granted.
"You just got to keep working every week. You can never get satisfied with how you’re playing," he said. "It’s been a great experience so far. I love the city, love the fans, love my teammates, and love my coaches — I couldn’t be happier."
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.