Ticats' return threat

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:11 PM ET

HAMILTON — It is one of those endearing, sometimes annoying, curiosities of the Canadian Football League; the one place in professional sports where yesterday’s somebody can survive being today’s nobody to become tomorrow’s hero.

“I was so down. I was home just ready to find a job. I’d been cut by three different teams and I was thinking, ‘like, maybe this isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing,” Marcus Thigpen said yesterday, after being named the Eastern Division nominee for CFL rookie of the year.

He had 2,190 combined yards in kick and punt returns for the Hamilton Ticats, second behind only Chad Owens of Toronto. Both Thigpen and Owens have gone from being unwanted to becoming key factors in which of the two teams wins Sunday’s East Division semifinal.

Owens was named the East’s special teams player of the year yesterday. Both scored four touchdowns on returns this year — both were deemed expendable last summer. Montreal passed on Owens; the Roughriders were so blase about Thigpen they suggested he try Hamilton.

“This is such a blessing,” said Thigpen, “I didn’t know what I was going to do. I’d tried out in the NFL with the Eagles and didn’t make it. I tried out with Denver and didn’t make it. Went to Saskatchewan and they had Dominique Dorsey coming in and I guess they promised him a lot of things.”

Always in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It had been a familiar refrain for Thigpen since leaving Indiana University in 2008. “I thought maybe I should just find another job and take care of the family.”

But two days after telling his mother back in Detroit that it might be all over, the Ticats called. “They wanted me to play right away and everything started happening so fast.”

The first time he touched the ball he returned a kickoff 93 yards against Winnipeg for a touchdown. In the same game he ran back a missed field goal 119 yards for another TD. “I’d never really had a chance before. Saskatchewan gave me an opportunity, but not really ...”

Thigpen is knee-high to a waterbug. And just as shifty. He’s built to return kicks on the wide-open CFL fields and he has the perfect mindset. “I just like the adrenalin rush when I get the ball. Returning kicks has been my thing ever since I got a couple returns in high school,” he said. “A lot of guys don’t like (special teams) because of the full-speed contact. You’re running full out and it’s hit or miss. I can make people miss, but if they hit you ... (he rolls his eyes and laughs) it’s gonna hurt.”

A week later he returned a punt 93 yard against the Stampeders. When it comes to the hurt, Thigpen is finally giving more than he’s receiving.

Who has the better game Sunday — he or Owens — looms large. According to CFL statistics, Owens has 78% of his team’s total return yards, Thigpen has 79%. This is the biggest collison course of kick returners in a divisional championship since Edmonton’s Gizmo Williams and Calgary’s Pee Wee Smith.

“I love doing this because it can be such a game-changer. With the five-yard rule here I’ve got room to make people miss. You can be on a bad spot on the field and in one play and we can flip the field.”

Owens led the league with 2,701 return yards. He had 16 returns of 30-plus yards. Thigpen had 15 returns of 30 or more yards. With that kind of threat standing in the shadows of the uprights it can make a coach think twice about taking a chance on a long field goal attempt. It can alter not just the game but the thinking behind the game.

The Argos and Ticats have controlled — if not stopped — each other’s potent return game. In the final meeting of the season Owens had 75 yards on eight returns. “On special teams, they’ve done a good job against us, and vice-versa,” Ticats’ head coach Marcel Bellefeuille said this week. Not only do the Argos return kicks well they defend well. Neither team has allowed a kick to be returned for a TD.

But Thigpen has averaged more than 20 yards a return and Owens had the second-most return yards in CFL history, so every kick comes with an invitation to the end zone. “With our speed and how big the field is, we can be a big part of the offence. Even if you don’t score it can set the offence up ... it’s not a competition between me and him,” said Thigpen, “but if (I) see him score ... you definitely want to do the same thing.”


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