TORONTO - Djems Kouame got a little choked up last week when Michael (Pinball) Clemons addressed the Argonauts freshmen prior to the opening of rookie camp.
"Just the way he was talking, I was so happy to be part of his organization," Kouame said on Wednesday. "Knowing all the pain I had, the fall downs, that I came back up. It meant a lot to me."
The Argos selected Kouame, a native of Montreal who grew up in Ottawa, with the 18th overall pick in the Canadian draft in May. The 22-year-old played for four seasons at the University of Montreal but did not earn an invitation to the CFL combine in March.
As it turned out, that didn't matter.
Kouame was invited to the national combine run by Duane Forde of TSN, and that's where Argos head coach and general manager Jim Barker had his eyes opened.
"I saw him on film, and I loved his explosiveness, but he was green, and he dropped the ball," Barker said after the Argos finished back-to-back practices at St. Marcellinus Secondary in Mississauga. "He did not know how to run routes.
"Then I went to Duane Forde's camp and watched for myself. The guy goes 500 miles an hour on every play. He kept jumping in there, and I said, 'This kid, we have to have him.' "
Kouame came by his determination honestly. A couple of years after he was born, his father Aka was out of his life. Kouame's parents had emigrated to Montreal from the Ivory Coast, but work beckoned his dad back to their home country.
From that day, Kouame, who has an older brother and sister, was raised by his mother, Maimouna. She worked as a church secretary and later as a teacher and now has a salon in Ottawa.
That work ethic was absorbed by Kouame. Nothing will be handed to him.
"Every day I saw my mom working, and why should I be lazy?" Kouame said. "This is what we had at home, and that's what I am doing here on the field.
"It was hard, but it was life, you know? Everybody has problems. My mom gave me the best life a child could have."
Kouame kept in contact with his father through the years, and saw him a few times during visits, but his dad's absence created a painful void in his childhood.
"Not having a father figure, I wanted to be the man," Kouame said. "When I saw my friends with their fathers, I saw they were more manly. When I have kids, I think I will be a great dad. I don't want them to miss anything.
'Working on it'
"I try to forgive him, and he is trying to buy our relationship back. We are working on it."
Barker has made it clear that he considers Kouame, and another young Canadian receiver, Spencer Watt, to be big parts of the Argos' future. Because of his fearlessness and do-anything attitude, Kouame is expected to contribute on special teams, which not every receiver does.
"We're ecstatic with Djems," Barker said. "He is a gem, he really is. Now he is learning his stuff. You can see him setting in. He's a keeper."
Kouame transferred to St. Patrick's High School in Ottawa so he could improve his English. He plays the piano and guitar and can sing, and is working toward producing his own record.
But football is first for the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Kouame.
"I always had hope, always had that fight," Kouame said. "I kept fighting, and now I am here."