For years, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats have been trying to make inroads into the London football community.
They finally have their best marketing tool yet — a Londoner on their Canadian Football League roster.
“It’s going to feel a lot like when I played in university at Windsor,” new Ticat Daryl Stephenson said. “With my family, I had a group of about 30 people come down from London to watch and tail-gate before the game. I imagine, with Hamilton an hour way, it’ll be the same thing.
“I’m pretty excited about it.”
It’s not just going to feel like university for the former Clarke Road standout. He’s going to look a lot more like he did back in his speedy Lancer days.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Stephenson’s employer the past three years, attempted to turn him into a fullback. He was forced to beef up in order to block bigger guys. At one point, he tipped the scales at 242 pounds.
“I played in university at about 215, 220,” he said, “so when you’re trying to get heavier, it’s not always going to be good weight you put on.
“I found you can still run and have that good speed, but it takes a little longer to get going.”
The Steel City wants to see that speed. GM Bob O’Billovich thinks a slimmed-down Stephenson can make a huge contribution on the special teams unit.
And if it works out, he’ll get to show what he can do with the ball. It’s an opportunity the 2006 Hec Crighton Award winner as the best player in Canadian university football has relished.
“They said there’s a chance I’ll get the football in my hands,” the 25-year-old said, “and carrying the football is what I’ve been doing since I was a little kid. I know Hamilton’s quarterback Kevin Glenn, too. He was in Winnipeg and he would come down to Windsor a few years ago and throw to us.
“But whether or not I touch the ball, that’s not what it’s about. I’m going to do whatever they need me to do — run, catch, block or tackle.”
He’s doing whatever he can to extend that gridiron life. Two weeks ago, he took a workout trip to the Sport Science Lab in San Juan Capistrano, about an hour south of Los Angeles.
“A lot of NFL guys train there,” Stephenson said. “(Pittsburgh star) Troy Polamalu has been there. It was my first time. It was a good environment.”
Ditto the Hamilton locker room, even though there’s ongoing debate on the viability of Ivor Wynne Stadium and whether or not the Ticats will ultimately stay there.
“I’ve played on that field many times and we’ll see what happens,” Stephenson said. “The Ticats have signed a lot of good players. It’s very encouraging and I’m looking forward to it.”
He knew his Winnipeg days were coming to an end and free agency was coming.
“There were a few teams I talked to but Hamilton made the most sense,” Stephenson said.
He is working on his graduate studies in exercise physiology at Windsor, but through Dr. Thomas Hawke’s lab at McMaster.
Stephenson was the face of the Windsor football program for five years, but the man who brought him there — Mike Morencie — is out as head coach this season. The two have been in touch.
“I’ll always be a Mike Morencie guy,” Stephenson said. “He took care of me for five years, but at the same time, the university and the city did, too. So I’ll always be a Windsor Lancer no matter who the coach is there and I’ll always feel part of that program and be willing to help out.
“But I’ll always be a friend of Mike, too.”