Butterflies on first day

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:29 AM ET

He's been with three NFL teams and played for one of the most storied programs in U.S. college football, but here he is, a rookie all over again at 26 -- with the same nerves and jitters he had the first time he ever walked into a training camp.

"It's funny, I'm a rookie again," said 27-year-old linebacker TJ Hollowell, a University of Nebraska product who comes to Edmonton via the New York Giants, Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos.

"I'm still learning every day. I've been on a few different teams and you're always a little nervous when it's your first day and you're just getting to know all the guys. It's a natural feeling for everybody."

They're all feeling it, no matter who they are or how they ended up at the first day of Edmonton Eskimos rookie camp. Whether they're Canadian, American, young, older, straight out of school or relaunching their career after a failed stint in the NFL, the one thing all these "rookies" have in common are butterflies.

"It's a totally different environment than what you're used to in university," said defensive lineman Justin Cooper, Edmonton's third pick in the last CFL draft.

NOTHING PREPARES YOU

"To prepare for it is near impossible. But it's exciting to have the opportunity to make this a career. It's always kind of been a dream of mine, getting an opportunity to compete with the very best in the country, and across the U.S. To compete at a professional level is something that's always driven me."

Cooper, who just finished up at the University of Manitoba Bisons, says the difference between a student athlete and a professional athlete is something that jolts everyone who's ever tried to make the jump.

"It's a much bigger stage," he said. "And it's for real in the sense that this could be how I put food on my table, so you kind of have to take a different approach. I think the trick is just to stay focused and keep my eye on the goal, and, God willing, I'll reach it."

The CFL is brand new to Chicago-born running back AJ Harris, but he's quite comfortable chasing his dream to faraway places. His resume includes the University of Northern Illinois, the Chicago Bears, Seattle Seahawks and an NFL Europe team in Cologne, Germany.

When Edmonton gave him an opportunity to keep playing, he jumped at the chance.

"I've bounced around quite a bit," said the 23-year-old. "I just love to play. I've been playing since first grade. That's a long time and I don't feel like I want to give it up yet.

"There are some differences (in the Canadian game) that I'll have to get used to, but in the long run the main rules are the same, it's still just football."

Dan Bass Jr. knows the CFL as well as any of the rookies who took part in medicals and fitness testing yesterday, but it doesn't make the first day or two any more relaxed.

"I'm very excited but very nervous at the same time," said the son of the former Eskimos great. "We've got guys from all over North America coming over to try and make a professional team, so it's far more intense."

STRONG SUPPORT GROUP

Having a strong support group helps.

"It definitely does give me some comfort," he said. "And I've known a few (U of A teammates) who've gone to Eskimo camp and told me what to expect and what to work on coming in.

"They just said work on speed, that's the biggest jump in the game. And don't worry about (being a rookie again), you're going to come in and learn a lot, it's a great learning experience."


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