Ticat caught up in Labour Day rivalry

FRANK ZICARELLI, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 12:37 AM ET

HAMILTON — It’s the talk in Tigertown, the renewal of a pigskin rivalry that has stirred Eric Wilbur’s passion and made this import take notice of the occasion’s uniqueness.

As a Florida native who witnessed up close an in-state battle pitting the Gators and Florida State, Wilbur isn’t new to gridiron feuds.

On Monday, he’ll be part of his first Ticats-Argos tilt under the backdrop of the Labour Day classic.

“Everyone’s been talking about it,’’ Wilbur said on Friday, a day when torrential rain forced a brief interruption to the team’s preparations at Ivor Wynne Stadium. “The guys on the team kind of equate it with Thanksgiving games in the NFL, big rivalries throughout the league where the fans go crazy.

“It’ll be a sell-out crowd and the guys said the energy in the stadium is just amazing.”

During his time at Florida, which included a national championship, Wibur recalls quite vividly the program’s most hated rival.

“It was Florida State, an in-state, out of conference game. Back in the ’90s, when those programs met it was No. 1 versus No. 2 and it just carried into the decades. The second the game before that was over, all the focus was turned to Florida State.

“The coaches knew it, the players knew it and the whole town knew it.

“You could just feel the energy starting to build.”

During practice, Wilbur, who grew up in Winter Park, Fla., said the Gators would pipe in the Seminoles’ song as a means to prepare for the big game.

As hosts of Monday’s game, the Ticats haven’t been forced to practise with noise resonating throughout Ivor Wynne, no point in simulating a loud crowd when all the noise and venom will be directed at the visiting Argos.

Wilbur joined the Ticats four weeks ago and the team has gone 3-0 with Wilbur as its punter.

His time in the Hammer has been fun for Wilbur, who has averaged 42.9 yards.

Curiously, football was the last thing on Wilbur’s mind when he decided to work as a substitute teacher at his high school alma mater, Trinity Preparatory School.

To augment his salary, he’d conduct private kicking lessons, this on top of being part-owner of a peanut company.

The call that would bring Wilbur to Hamilton came when he was spending time with his girlfriend and her family in Tampa.

“It was around noon when Obie called,’’ Wilbur said of GM Bob O’Billovich’s pleas in summoning the punter to the CFL. “By eight that night, I was on a flight.”

One practice later, Wilbur emerged as the Ticats’ punter. A day later he’d make his debut against Winnipeg.

“I had no clue,’’ Wilbur said of his knowledge of Hamilton and his potential role with the Ticats. “All I was told was that I’d have a working tryout.”

For obvious reasons, things, so far, have worked out.

“I don’t want to take credit for it, but I like being undefeated,’’ he said. “I like to think that I am contributing.”

At Trinity Prep, Wilbur would evolve into the top punter in Florida. The Gators, Miami, Notre Dame and Central Florida each recruited Wilbur, who decided on Florida.

He’s auditioned for NFL teams, but the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Wilbur is enjoying life as a punter in three-down football.

“The kicking game is a lot more important here,’’ he added. “And everyone understands its importance. It’s more of a skill here in terms of placement.

“In the U.S., it’s all about hang time. Here, it’s placement. Coaches don’t care if it’s two feet off the ground as long as it gets to where it needs to go.”

To date, Wilbur hasn’t been part of the sometimes bizarre sequence that features teams kicking to each other on the same possession, having a punter line up in the end zone to avoid conceding a point or a team asking a punter to be an athlete.

“I’ve been told about it,’’ Wilbur said as a flashed a mischievous grin. “I’ve studied up on it and I’m excited about that situation coming up because I like to think as myself as a little bit of an athlete.”

In high school, Wilbur played football, soccer, baseball and took part in track. At Florida, football and track were his sports.

The Ticats are certainly glad to have Wilbur.

“He’s a big part of our team,’’ head coach Marcel Bellefeuille said.

“You never know what it’s like until you have a really good qualified guy at that position.”

frank.zicarelli@sunmedia.ca


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