Wagner's a thumper

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:29 AM ET

Aaron Wagner plays one of the toughest, merciless, meanest positions in football.

He's kicked butt from Lethbridge through a college career that took him to Washington State and Brigham Young, an appearance in the Holiday Bowl, an all-star game and finally last week, to a three-year contract with the Toronto Argonauts.

He is more than training-camp fodder. He is player personnel director Greg Mohns pet project. "When we drafted him (14th over-all after his junior season in 2006) the thought was that he had the ability to replace (Mike) O'Shea," Mohns, said yesterday. That's a significant commitment to a rookie untested in the ways of professional football. But Aaron Wagner is no ordinary rookie. He has not taken the usual path to the professional gridiron.

He is battle-tested in life, if not in the CFL. Born into a Mormon family in Lethbridge, Alta., his parents divorced and as he says: "I kind of fell off the path a bit. I went to Washington State for football and to party ... but after the partying I just felt empty."

It was after his freshman season that he decided to go on a two-year mission for the Church of the Latter Day Saints. If anyone thinks playing linebacker is tough, try peddling the word of God in the toughest, bad-ass part of Las Vegas.

"I met some interesting people," he said, yesterday, his one-week anniversary as an Argo. "It's kind of an eye-opener. You're knocking on doors every day, it's 120 degrees (F) and you're in a shirt and tie, riding a bike with a backpack full of bibles. Some people are great and give you a glass of water because you're sweating but others just aren't interested and you get people cussing you out, slamming doors. We had knives pulled on us ... once a gun. No matter how strong you think you are, when someone pulls a gun on you, you're scared. I had experiences where I was trying to fight people off with my bicycle. There were some crazy times."

They work in teams of two.

"You're living with another guy, maybe you like him maybe you don't but you learn to get along with people, patience, you learn to relate. A lot of it is religious but you also learn things to help you in other aspects of life.

"There were some pretty scary times. They have one of the highest per capita crime spots in the world ... you have to stay alert or you can get into some trouble down there."

Which, in a curious way is kind of like playing linebacker where the 6-foot-2, 250 pounder is now on a mission. "You can be a nice guy playing quarterback but not at linebacker. I have my spiritual side. But then I come out on the football field. I turn the switch. Now I'm a prick. I try to tear people's heads off. Then when the game's over it's like 'hey, man, it's all in good love.' "

He laughs at the seemingly polar opposites.

But the Argos liked what they saw on both sides of him. When his mission was up, he transferred to Brigham Young, recording 75 tackles in 13 games in 2006 and catching the Argos' eye. "He was the second leading tackler on the team; good movement skills, quick from sideline to sideline," Mohns said, "and he's intelligent."

The Argonauts also like his life experiences. Said Mohns: "He's mature and he has been exposed to a lot of things. I'm sure coming to Toronto after all he has been through isn't a big change for him. With his missions, he has been around a lot of people and found himself in a lot of situations."

If there is one thing Wagner recognizes it is a door of opportunity being opened to him. "I'm hoping," he said, "I can become a mainstay around here."


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