McGrath the Joe-to guy

JONATHAN HUNTINGTON -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 7:42 AM ET

Joe McGrath is in demand this week.

The young Eskimo offensive lineman usually flies under the media radar.

But this week is different. This week the Eskimos travel to Saskatchewan to battle the Roughriders.

Reporters are turning the spotlight on the 24-year-old CFL sophomore left guard because he is returning home for the first time this year - where his remarkable story started.

Coming from Moose Jaw - a small city one hour west of Taylor Field in Regina - McGrath worked his way from the offensive line at Vanier High School to a starting position at the University of Miami, which is home to one of the top football programs in the United States.

UNHEARD-OF ACCOMPLISHMENT

Such an accomplishment is almost unheard of in Saskatchewan.

"It's a crazy world - coming from the middle of nowhere in Saskatchewan to the most exciting place in North America," said McGrath.

"Miami is the place everyone wants to go and everyone wants to be."

But his five-year stay with the Hurricanes in Miami didn't come easy or quick.

After graduating high school as the second-highest ranked offensive lineman in the country, McGrath rejected offers and possibilities from several smaller U.S. colleges.

"It was a gut feeling that I went on," he remembered. "It was a big risk because you could get hurt or end up with nobody wanting you."

But McGrath rolled the dice because he really wanted a shot at a prime-time school.

"As a kid growing up I always watched Notre Dame and those big time schools go at it," he recalled of his days watching TV on a Saturday afternoon in Moose Jaw. "I was always fascinated by that and that is what I wanted."

That dream opportunity finally came several months after graduating high school when Miami officially offered him a scholarship that hundreds - if not thousands - of high school players across the continent coveted.

FIVE-YEAR RUN

The five-year run that followed at a football-crazy school brought him a national championship in the Rose Bowl in 2001 and a big lesson in dealing with pressure, which has been key this fall as the Eskimos' offensive line has come under fire with fans and the media.

"We are playing for the national title every year (at Miami)," said McGrath. "You lose a game and you are done. Here you lose four and you're still in great shape."

After being lifted - in controversial style - from the Calgary Stampeders practice roster early last year, the six-foot five, 300-pound happy-go-lucky lineman is in his second season with the Green and Gold, impressing his teammates on a regular basis.

"He anticipates well and reacts well," said Bruce Beaton, the unofficial dean of the O-line, with three CFL all-star selections to his credit in his 12-year career.

"And he doesn't panic.

"There are definitely players that have a hard time going into a game in a hostile environment ... and they sort of bug-out mentally and have a lot of difficulty processing what they see.

"He does a good job seeing the game."

There will be lots of eyes watching McGrath and the entire Eskimos offensive line Sunday.

At 7-4 in the western division, this weekend's tilt with the Roughriders is critical in the fight for second place.


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