TORONTO - The Toronto Argonauts hope to have something old, something new and something that finally looks presentable in Double Blue this weekend.
Veteran Maurice Mann and, DeMario Ballard, a tall, rangy basketball player who has never played a regular-season professional football game, are being looked at to boost a offence that can’t seem to complete a pass further than quarterback Steven Jyles can spit.
Both have been getting first team reps in practice this week as Mann attempts to re-establish a career while Ballard tries to find one.
“It’s been a roller-coaster but at some time everyone goes through it,” said Mann, traded to the 4-12 Argonauts from the playoff-bound Hamilton Ticats two weeks ago. Ballard, meanwhile, has barely had a chance to get on the football roller-coaster. A month ago he didn’t know anything about Canada except that “it was a place I’d seen on a map.”
Then the undrafted rookie was cut from the receiver-rich Detroit Lions’ camp. The Argos were intrigued by his leaping ability and 6-foot-6 frame, so on Tuesday, he was lining up with the starters and diving after passes in the end zone.
“Guess I’m not supposed to do that. No pads,” he said, laughing. “Hey, I’m excited. I hope I play Friday.”
It might not be the pro debut his buddies in Georgia envisioned but it’s still a big step from Siskiyous junior college in California where he got his first taste of football while a basketball standout. “I knew from the first day at Lions’ camp it would be tough to break into that lineup. The folks back home look at the NFL as the top league and I never thought about Canada. But this is a second chance. I was glad to get this opportunity because a lot of guys like me are out of work.”
Guess the rock quarry back in Thomas, Georgia, that he called work before heading off on his football adventure, can wait.
“He’s an interesting prospect. I haven’t been around a guy like him. He’s green and has to learn to play the game,” said Argos head coach Jim Barker.
But, in a lost season, these final two games are just as much about management learning who can play the game. Ballard can jump. He can run: 4.39 over 40 yards.
“He ... always seems to have his hands in the right place when he’s trying to catch the ball (and) for a basketball player he seems to be very physical so we’ll find that out in the game,” Barker said.
Mann is playing for a contract next season — and he’ll get it. Somewhere. Question is, will it be in Toronto?
There have been hints he could be a premier receiver.
“Not to say he’s at that stage but the way he moves he reminds me of Ken Yon (Rambo) in Calgary,” said Barker. “Ken Yon has proven it and Maurice hasn’t. We’ll see how he does. He has to show he can make plays or we won’t bring him back. But everything I’ve seen from him (in practice) has been positive.”
Of course, things looked positive, too, in Hamilton.
Mann was expected to be one of Kevin Glenn’s go-to receivers and the first two weeks that’s what unfolded. He was the CFL’s leading receiver with 173 yards. Then his football world collapsed. He cut his foot on a locker-room door. He got an infection.
“I was afraid I’d never play again, so I’m just happy to be here with my buddy Steven Jyles,” Mann said.
It was Mann who caught Jyles’ first touchdown pass when both broke in with Edmonton in 2007. After a solid 2010 season in Hamilton and, after catching 73 passes for 917 yards in 2009, this had the look of a breakout season.
Instead, during six weeks on the sidelines, Chris Williams became the go-to guy and Mann became, well, gone.
“When I expected too much, so little came out of it. I got comfortable that everything was going the right way. It teaches you about adversity and perseverance.”
Adversity. Like when he hurt his hand catching balls from a machine his second week with Toronto.
“Strange,” said Mann, summing up his season.
That, too, pretty much describes the Argos’ misadventures of 2011. With nothing left to lose, Barker can experiment like a mad scientist searching for some magic. He must find a receiver who can stretch the field. On an offence that is week to week the CFL’s worst, Ballard might help; Mann should help.
“It’s important to be with a team that believes in you. If I can’t get the ball, I can’t make the team better,” said Mann, in veiled reference to his exclusion from Hamilton’s offence. “It’s not an arrogant thing. It’s about figuring the best way to help your team win. Playing here is a good way for me to figure out if I’m good enough to help a team win.”