Argos' Eiben no tackling dummy

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:59 AM ET

Kevin Eiben has been there when the Argos served up season performances that looked like a dog’s breakfast, and he has been witness to those which ended in champagne celebrations.

The team’s longest-serving player will don his double blue No. 35 jersey for his 150th regular-season game in the Labour Day Classic against Hamilton. Eiben was celebrated yesterday as the league’s outstanding Canadian of the month, but for the Argos he has become much more than that.

If a team can have a conscience and a soul, it would be the Argos’ little ball of intensity in the middle of the defence.

Away from the field, he comes across fairly laid-back, thoughtful even, and he looks every bit like an Ivy Leaguer with a Masters in business. In the real world, Eiben is the brains behind SST Canada, a sports-training enterprise with facilities in Oakville, Milton ... and counting.

In his play world, Eiben is the brawn; the fulcrum, of a defence that has brought life, hope and winning back into a bunch of Charlie Browns.

“It’s an honour, but I can’t win anything without my teammates,” said Eiben, dismissing the monthly league award. “I just do my job and try to be there to make a play.”

That 150th game? No big whoop. If he has his druthers, he’s going to be around for another 150.

“I’ve played football since I was 5 years old,” he said. “I know nothing else. I’ve always wanted to play. My father (a safety at the University of Cincinnati) raised me on football. My brother played (with B.C). I would play until I was 60 if I could.”

Go ahead. Laugh. He’s serious. Given half a chance, he’ll make Gordie Howe look like a quitter.

Mike O’Shea recalls Eiben’s arrival in Toronto back in 2001. O’Shea was entrenched at linebacker and Eiben made a modest impression, barely scoring a spot on the practice roster. Yet, O’Shea saw something intriguing when Eiben made cameo appearances on special teams.

“From the moment Kevin Eiben became an Argo, even back when he was just on the practice roster, it was evident that this guy was extremely talented and there wasn’t anything on the field, if he was asked, that he couldn’t do. He’d never,” said O’Shea, now special-teams coach. “He’d give you that look of, ‘Uh, I don’t know....’ He’d just go out and do it.”

He was never the fastest or the strongest, but in 2002 he led the Argos with four special-team fumble recoveries. At Bucknell, he played safety. He was never the biggest, at 6-foot-1. He just plays big. In 2003, he led the CFL in special-teams tackles with 33.

He’d also been moved from the secondary to linebacker.

“I don’t think I was ever too small (to play linebacker),” he said. “I always had the heart. I have the speed within the box. I never played linebacker until I got to the Argos. My first year, I came in at 220 and my first practice I came downhill and I crushed a running back. The next day, they moved me to linebacker. They said: ‘You’re too big, too physical, lets move you ... I’ve been with the big boys ever since.”

His big break came in 2004 when defensive co-ordinator Rich Stubler called Eiben the best player not playing regularly; then instituted the 3-4 defence to get him into the starting lineup.

“I’d been just a nickle-back, but Rich brought in that defence and it took us to the Grey Cup. That’s what got me on to the field,” he said.

He’s been there ever since. Even injuries haven’t been able to dislodge him. The most serious was a torn labrum in 2006, but he still showed up for every game but one. In ’08, he hurt his foot. Otherwise, he’s been invulnerable working one of the game’s most dangerous intersections.

“When an opportunity comes, you have to shine because there may not be another one,” said Eiben. “They gave me the opportunity and I got the most tackles I ever had in a year. It motivated me for the next season and I realized what I had to do to reach that next level.”

In 2004, he was the Eastern Conference’s outstanding Canadian and led the league with 110 tackles.

What makes him so good?

“He can do it all,” says O’Shea. “He transitions from extraordinary special teams player (he still holds for the placekickers, too) to a best-in-the-league linebacker. He’s intelligent, aside from being athletic. When you talk to offensive linemen, they’ll tell you he’s extremely difficult to block. He’s wiry, gets under and around blocks. He’s instinctual, he’s just, really, a football player.”

There may be no nicer compliment one player can pay another. Five seasons, Eiben has been named the Argos’ outstanding Canadian. Even he admits he never saw all this coming in 2001 while running with the practice teams.

“I was just going game by game,” he said. “I wouldn’t have thought back then that I’d still be here. I was just on the practice roster and ... I didn’t know when my last game would be.

“Every game, you don’t know if it’s going to be your last play so you want to leave it all out there on the field and enjoy it while it lasts.”

That perhaps is one reason he has endured. He puts all of himself into every snap, every tackle. Team officials will watch game film and marvel that the one sweater seen almost in every frame when the tackle is made is No. 35.

Looking ahead is a different story. He was on the dean’s list at Bucknell and on the Patriot League Academic Honour Roll — and a fourth-round pick by the Argos. There are a lot of former fourth-round picks packing groceries — and Eiben is not unaware of that sad football fact.

Options open

He was determined not to become a football player without an option. He started SST or Sports Specific Training in Oakville.

“We work with everyone from career athletes, triathlon and speedskaters and people who just want to stay in shape or lose weight,” he said. “It’s something I enjoy and always had a passion for. I know from other veterans in the CFL that when the game is over, they struggle. I want to be prepared.”

Not that he expects a career change soon. This week, there is the Labour Day Classic and, after being beaten by Hamilton in their most recent game, Eiben says: “We owe the Ticats a bit of payback.”

After that, he wants to get back into the playoffs after two seasons of disappointment. And, then?

“Maybe I can play until I’m 40. There’s nothing like being on the field and the competition, trying to beat the other guy. I never want to lose that.”

bill.lankhof@sunmedia.ca


Videos

Photos