TORONTO - They love me; They love me not; They love me ...
Noel Prefontaine has felt the rejection that comes from professional sport but yesterday he was back where he belongs — in Toronto Argonauts’ Double Blue — feelin’ the love.
Traded back to the Argos after 21/2 years in the Edmonton Gulag, Prefontaine was nearly giddy at the prospect of working under special team’s coach Mike O’Shea.
“He groomed me when I first came into the league. To have him as my coach is beyond words for me,” Prefontaine said.
Prefontaine replaces injured punter Jamie Boreham and place kicker Justin Medlock, who’s only shortcoming is that he’s California-born while Prefontaine is homegrown and spent the first 10 years of his career with the Argos.
Prefontaine never wanted to leave in the first place.
“When the trade happened, and the way it happened and the people involved with it (at the time Rich Stubler was the head coach and Adam Rita was the general manager) it was personal and it was hurtful.”
At the time, Prefontaine was dealing with a concussion.
“I was supposed to have a physical the next day … with a young pregnant wife, having my home here, being here so long, I was hoping they’d have given me a heads up. They knew what was happening and someone should’ve told me to maybe prepare for something. It was a total surprise.”
He was hurt and resentful. He had considered himself a lifetime Argonaut, someone who would stay within the organization after he retired. In retrospect, he says his angry outburst at the time was misunderstood. It wasn’t so much the organization as the people involved in arranging his ticket out of town that upset him.
By contrast, current coach Jim Barker calls Prefontaine the best Canadian punter/placekicker in the CFL. So it’s a mutual admiration society.
“I’ve always had a good relationship with Barker and O’Shea and (Bob) Nicholson the new president. They were here early in my career. The people who are now in power here didn’t feel the same way as the other management felt,” Prefontaine said.
So, when the Eskimos told him they had arranged for a return ticket, he was pleasantly surprised. Unlike in Edmonton, Toronto’s special teams have been a bright spot and Prefontaine said he has been impressed, “along with a lot of OTHER Argo fans. They pull the trigger. They play to win, they don’t play not to lose.”
Now there’s a statement loaded with implications. “Other Argo fans?”
So, he’s been an Argo fan? Still? Even as he was castigating the organization? Even while exiled to Edmonton?
“A small part,” he said, a small grin tugging at his lip. “I think when I left here a lot of the stuff that I said and was upset about was taken out of context. This is the organization that gave me my start. I played here 10 years. This is an organization I won a Grey Cup with, so it’ll always be special in my heart.”
Special from a practical vantage point, too. Prefontaine has been at odds with the Eskimos’ schemes and play-calling. Richie Hall’s team set a league record for safeties, hardly expected from a team that has a punter with a thunder foot.
The six-time CFL all-star remains Toronto’s leader in kickoff yardage (36,265) and still ranks second in points (935) and punting yardage (57,246).
But this year there was public muttering about the kicking game and his 43.1 yard average.
“There was a lot of things said by the fans and in the media about how I punted. It’s unfair to me as a player because I’m just doing what I was asked to do.”
What Prefontaine was asked to do was become a one-step punter.
“The majority (of kickers) are two or three steps. The scheme we ran in Edmonton called for (one step). It was uncomfortable ... it was hard for me to play well.”
It was difficult enough changing a life-long skill but then to have none of his coaches go out of their way to explain why he was having difficulties, was doubly difficult for Prefontaine to accept. “You wouldn’t hear me say anything if they’d protected me but there was never any protection. But that’s history ... (the Argos) use a different scheme.”
Prefontaine is 21 of 25 on field-goal attempts this season, including a career-best 57-yarder, evidence he must have something left in his leg. When the day comes that he doesn’t, he’s hoping for a second chance to retire in Double Blue.
“If I could rewrite history I would’ve been here 20-plus years, then hung my cleats up and helped the organization in the community or whatever they asked me to do. That’s what I originally envisioned. It didn’t happen, so now I’m playing it year by year until another football opportunity arises in this league in management or coaching ... when that arises I’ll contemplate not playing anymore. Basically, I’m trying to figure how much longer I can play and if they want me here.”
They are questions without answers. Such is life in the CFL where yesterday’s heroes are today’s trade bait and tomorrow’s real estate agents.
“That’s this business, as bad as it is. But I’ve never loved the business. I only love the game. There’s a huge difference,” Prefontaine said.