CALGARY — Among the players cleaning out their lockers Monday, none felt more defeated than Mike Labinjo.
The Calgary Stampeders lost 27-17 to the Saskatchewan Roughriders Sunday and their season suddenly ends, but Labinjo had nothing to do with it outside of cheerleading.
As a healthy scratch the past four weeks, the 29-year-old Toronto native took the benching as a wakeup call.
“Deep down in my heart, I know I can make a difference on this team,” said Labinjo, who came back after missing six games due to a leg fracture.
“I may have put myself ahead of the team and I feel bad about that. I want to come back next season stronger, faster and ready. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, but it’s a challenge I’m looking forward to tackling.”
The 2009 season started with so much promise for Labinjo.
Following an all-world playoff run last year, Labinjo signed a long-term deal before the Grey Cup victory over the Montreal Alouettes.
With a full season to play his preferred position of defensive end, Labinjo had a terrible training camp after coming in a bit heavier than the team would like.
He was moved to defensive tackle after the first couple of weeks and never found a footing playing inside.
By the time he suffered a fractured leg Aug. 8 against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the season was already going off the rails.
As Labinjo left McMahon Stadium Monday, he received enough encouragement that his time in Calgary can continue if he loses weight.
“From ownership down to (head coach John Hufnagel) and the other coaches, they were positive,” Labinjo said.
“They know what I’m capable of doing. They know I want to get back to the old Mike Labinjo everyone saw last year. Chalk this up to a life lesson.
“I realize what they want is not someone who is 310 lb. playing defensive end. That’s not what they want. They want someone who is 280 at defensive end.
“I may have taken things a little for granted that I could be this weight and still play the position. If they want me to be smaller, then that’s what I have to do. Overall, it should improve my overall game if I do that.
“It’s going to be a long six months but one I’m looking forward to. I learned a lot this season. I’m planning on regaining my spot at defensive end.
“I know I have to come back a bit leaner. I’m going to be hungry. It was tough sitting out this last month and not playing, especially going to Saskatchewan and just being a cheerleader, not being able to help on the field.”