Messam: Defying the odds

Eskimos running back Jerome Messam rushes against the Alouettes at Percival Molson Stadium in...

Eskimos running back Jerome Messam rushes against the Alouettes at Percival Molson Stadium in Montreal, Que., Aug. 11, 2011. (ANDRE FORGET/QMI Agency)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:37 PM ET

TORONTO - When the second-chance general manager, Eric Tillman, decided he wanted to go after the bad boy running back from Brampton, he called Wally Buono and made him an offer that was easy to refuse.

Tillman wanted Jerome Messam — but with a catch.

“I asked for something I’ve never asked for before,” said Tillman, the Edmonton Eskimos general manager. “We agreed to a tentative deal, but with a condition. If Wally allowed our coach, Kavis Reed, to talk to Jerome before completing the deal and Kavis was happy with the conversation, we’d make the deal.

“Kavis wanted to find out what this kid was all about. Wally actually spoke very highly of him. Said he was a good kid who has a history of making bad decisions. We wanted him to get another shot. When Kavis gave me the go-ahead after their conversation, the trade was made.

And perhaps, so was history.

In the next week or three, Messam, who was academically ineligible to play Division 1 football in the U.S., who walked out on his first college opportunity, who went undrafted in the CFL, who has broken more team rules in more places than he cares to admit, will become one of those very few Canadians to rush for 1,000 yards in a CFL season.

Sean Millington was the last 1,000 yard rusher. That was 11 years ago. Before that, it was Orville Lee in 1988. And this is how obscure and unusual it is for a Canadian back to have this kind of success: In 1964, Bob Swift ran for 1,054 yards for the B.C. Lions. Not long after that he was moved to the offensive line.

Three 1,000-yards-rushing Canadians in 47 years of football. Messam, who is second in the CFL in rushing touchdowns, needs 151 yards over the Eskimos’ final three games to run where few have gone before. And this is just the beginning of the story of a young man, troubling and complex, angry and untrusting, immensely talented and occasionally undisciplined.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a problem child but I’ve had my problems,” said Messam in a lengthy telephone conversation. “It’s not easy for me to trust people and it’s not easy for me to have people get to know who I am. That’s just me. I put up a wall. Growing up, having it tough, having to look out for myself and my younger sister, it was rough. I know I’ve done some things. I don’t want to go over them. But what’s happening now, this is real.”

It is real and it is impressive. At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, Messam has fullback size and tailback moves. And he plays with an edge, just as he speaks with an edge with none of the usual quiet Canadian happy and hopeful talk. When asked how he wanted to be perceived, he provided a window to his inner-being.

“Do you want the politically correct answer or the real one?” he asked. “To be honest, frankly, I really don’t care. My politically correct answer is I wanted to be known as a hard worker who goes all out for his teammates and gets respect and can look himself in the mirror every day. The politically incorrect answer: I don’t give a shit what people think about me.”

It does matter, though, what Tillman thinks and more importantly what Coach Reed thinks.

“When I first talked to Jerome, I told him ‘There’s a reason your eyes are in the front of your head. That way you look forward, not back,” said Tillman. “I told him I don’t care what happened in the past. I care what happens now. I know there’s always been concerns and questions about him, mostly off the field, which is why he got passed over in the 2008 draft.

“But all the credit here goes to Jerome and Kavis. Kavis was very clear with him from the beginning. This is what I expect of you. They’ve had a few conversations behind closed doors this year. When Jerome stuck his tongue out and made a comment about Swaggerville, Kavis needed to talk to him about that. He wants to rein him in a little. “It’s like a father-son relationship with those two, with Kavis doing most of the talking and all of the mentoring. You have to realize, this is a young man who had made major strides in the terms of the maturation process. He has a chance to do something amazing right now.

“What’s nice is when the light comes on and you see a young player finding his way in life. There will still be bumps (Messam was ejected from a game this season for punching B.C.’s Tad Kornegay). There will still be days. But Kavis has made tremendous strides with Jerome.”

The talent was never in question. When Messam ran for Notre Dame high school or for the summer league Brampton Bulldogs, there was no doubting his ability. He was going to be big time. Major American universities like USC had interest.

“If I could do anything over again, I’d take high school more seriously,” said Messam. “I dicked around in high school and got Cs. I didn’t realize what that would do to me.” He didn’t get very good grades and when he combined those numbers with his SAT scores, he was deemed academically ineligible for NCAA schools. “I could have done it, I just screwed around too much.”

When he couldn’t go to his school of choice, he ended up at North Dakota State College of Science, a junior college. Notre Dame, it wasn’t, and we’re not talking about his high school. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a freshman and then things went awry. He either left the team or was asked to leave.

“I ended up getting in trouble so I left school. Me and my head coach, we didn’t see eye to eye. I was young, immature, I wanted to do my own thing. I didn’t want to buy in.”

So he was shipped out, ending up at Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa, an NAIA school. His play at Graceland was impressive enough to get him an invitation to a New York Giants mini-camp. But that didn’t last. And in his CFL Draft year, he foolishly chose to skip the league-run combines in Toronto, and wound up not being selected by anyone. When the draft ended, the B.C. Lions placed him on their private negotiation list. Had that not happened, who knows where he would be today?

Certainly not on the verge of star status and not about to do something that Canadians who starred at Nebraska or Stanford have been unable to match.

“I want to be a quote, unquote, star,” said Messam, letting his guard down momentarily. “I want to be a role model and do the right things. To me (what’s happening to him) is the culmination of the right setting and right opportunity. It feels good to be doing this.”

On Friday night at the Rogers Centre, Jerome Messam makes his real Toronto debut as a player of consequence in the CFL. He actually played here last year with the Lions, carrying the ball just once for no gain, but not like this, not in this position of proWhen the second-chance general manager, Eric Tillman, decided he wanted to go after the bad boy running back from Brampton, he called Wally Buono and made him an offer that was easy to refuse.

Tillman wanted Jerome Messam — but with a catch.

“I asked for something I’ve never asked for before,” said Tillman, the Edmonton Eskimos general manager. “We agreed to a tentative deal, but with a condition. If Wally allowed our coach, Kavis Reed, to talk to Jerome before completing the deal and Kavis was happy with the conversation, we’d make the deal.

“Kavis wanted to find out what this kid was all about. Wally actually spoke very highly of him. Said he was a good kid who has a history of making bad decisions. We wanted him to get another shot. When Kavis gave me the go-ahead after their conversation, the trade was made.

And perhaps, so was history.

In the next week or three, Messam, who was academically ineligible to play Division 1 football in the U.S., who walked out on his first college opportunity, who went undrafted in the CFL, who has broken more team rules in more places than he cares to admit, will become one of those very few Canadians to rush for 1,000 yards in a CFL season.

Sean Millington was the last 1,000 yard rusher. That was 11 years ago. Before that, it was Orville Lee in 1988. And this is how obscure and unusual it is for a Canadian back to have this kind of success: In 1964, Bob Swift ran for 1,054 yards for the B.C. Lions. Not long after that he was moved to the offensive line.

Three 1,000-yards-rushing Canadians in 47 years of football. Messam, who is second in the CFL in rushing touchdowns, needs 151 yards over the Eskimos’ final three games to run where few have gone before. And this is just the beginning of the story of a young man, troubling and complex, angry and untrusting, immensely talented and occasionally undisciplined.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a problem child but I’ve had my problems,” said Messam in a lengthy telephone conversation. “It’s not easy for me to trust people and it’s not easy for me to have people get to know who I am. That’s just me. I put up a wall. Growing up, having it tough, having to look out for myself and my younger sister, it was rough. I know I’ve done some things. I don’t want to go over them. But what’s happening now, this is real.”

It is real and it is impressive. At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, Messam has fullback size and tailback moves. And he plays with an edge, just as he speaks with an edge with none of the usual quiet Canadian happy and hopeful talk. When asked how he wanted to be perceived, he provided a window to his inner-being.

“Do you want the politically correct answer or the real one?” he asked. “To be honest, frankly, I really don’t care. My politically correct answer is I wanted to be known as a hard worker who goes all out for his teammates and gets respect and can look himself in the mirror every day. The politically incorrect answer: I don’t give a shit what people think about me.”

It does matter, though, what Tillman thinks and more importantly what Coach Reed thinks.

“When I first talked to Jerome, I told him ‘There’s a reason your eyes are in the front of your head. That way you look forward, not back,” said Tillman. “I told him I don’t care what happened in the past. I care what happens now. I know there’s always been concerns and questions about him, mostly off the field, which is why he got passed over in the 2008 draft.

“But all the credit here goes to Jerome and Kavis. Kavis was very clear with him from the beginning. This is what I expect of you. They’ve had a few conversations behind closed doors this year. When Jerome stuck his tongue out and made a comment about Swaggerville, Kavis needed to talk to him about that. He wants to rein him in a little. “It’s like a father-son relationship with those two, with Kavis doing most of the talking and all of the mentoring. You have to realize, this is a young man who had made major strides in the terms of the maturation process. He has a chance to do something amazing right now.

“What’s nice is when the light comes on and you see a young player finding his way in life. There will still be bumps (Messam was ejected from a game this season for punching B.C.’s Tad Kornegay). There will still be days. But Kavis has made tremendous strides with Jerome.”

The talent was never in question. When Messam ran for Notre Dame high school or for the summer league Brampton Bulldogs, there was no doubting his ability. He was going to be big time. Major American universities like USC had interest.

“If I could do anything over again, I’d take high school more seriously,” said Messam. “I dicked around in high school and got Cs. I didn’t realize what that would do to me.” He didn’t get very good grades and when he combined those numbers with his SAT scores, he was deemed academically ineligible for NCAA schools. “I could have done it, I just screwed around too much.”

When he couldn’t go to his school of choice, he ended up at North Dakota State College of Science, a junior college. Notre Dame, it wasn’t, and we’re not talking about his high school. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a freshman and then things went awry. He either left the team or was asked to leave.

“I ended up getting in trouble so I left school. Me and my head coach, we didn’t see eye to eye. I was young, immature, I wanted to do my own thing. I didn’t want to buy in.”

So he was shipped out, ending up at Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa, an NAIA school. His play at Graceland was impressive enough to get him an invitation to a New York Giants mini-camp. But that didn’t last. And in his CFL Draft year, he foolishly chose to skip the league-run combines in Toronto, and wound up not being selected by anyone. When the draft ended, the B.C. Lions placed him on their private negotiation list. Had that not happened, who knows where he would be today?

Certainly not on the verge of star status and not about to do something that Canadians who starred at Nebraska or Stanford have been unable to match.

“I want to be a quote, unquote, star,” said Messam, letting his guard down momentarily. “I want to be a role model and do the right things. To me (what’s happening to him) is the culmination of the right setting and right opportunity. It feels good to be doing this.”

On Friday night at the Rogers Centre, Jerome Messam makes his real Toronto debut as a player of consequence in the CFL. He actually played here last year with the Lions, carrying the ball just once for no gain, but not like this, not in this position of prominence.

His mother, father, brother, sister, and close friends will all be in attendance for the game against the Argos. “I’m in for at least 20 tickets. My mom’s my biggest fan, though. She’s always calling me and letting me know how I’m doing. My dad, he’s been a big fan of mine, too.”

“This is a young man everyone should be cheering for,” said Tillman.

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca


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