TORONTO - Suiting up for a playoff game is special for any player. But playing when it’s Veterans Day in the U.S. and Remembrance Day in Canada is extra special for Toronto Argonauts linebacker Robert McCune.
Before embarking on a pro football career, McCune served three years in the U.S. National Guard, with tours of Afghanistan, Kuwait and South Korea. And coming from a military family, the first-year Argo appreciates what the respective holidays represent and is extra-motivated to play the Edmonton Eskimos in the Eastern semifinal on Sunday at the Rogers Centre.
“Any time it’s Veterans Day, I get flashes from when I served time in the military and all the great guys I served with and some of the great things we did and some of the things that happened that weren’t so good,” McCune said. “So playing on Sunday is great. I’m not in the military anymore but I appreciate what they have done and what they’re doing to keep us safe and sound.”
It’s not unusual for a professional athlete to have a military background, but McCune’s journey to pro football is certainly not typical. Coming out of LeFlore High School in his native Mobile, Alabama, the 6-foot, 245-pound linebacker didn’t receive scholarship offers from any of the top Division I colleges.
“Our high school didn’t have a winning program, so a lot of colleges didn’t scout there,” McCune said. “I did have a couple offers to places like Alabama State, Alabama A&M, Southern University. But I always wanted to go to a good Division 1 program.”
He also didn’t have the financial means to pay tuition and room and board, so he decided to join the National Guard, with an eye on saving up enough money to attend university and hopefully make the football team as a walk-on. During his three years playing for Uncle Sam, McCune saw plenty of action as a specialist, fuelling aircraft, tanks and armoured personnel carriers.
“Wherever the infantry guys went, I was there too,” said McCune, who, ironically, is built like a tank. “It was a pretty tough job being out there in the heat of the battle, but God is good and he protected me and kept me safe.”
McCune has nothing but fond memories of his time in the military. Still, three years out of football wasn’t the optimum way to further his football career. Then again, pro ball was never in his plans.
“My goal was just to get to college, hopefully play some college football and get my degree,” he said.
When his stint in the Guard ended, McCune called the University of Louisville, worked out for the coaching staff and made the team, though not as a starter. But he did impress coach John L. Smith enough that by the start of the second season, he was granted a scholarship, and by his junior year led the Cardinals in tackles with 143 and was named third team All-Conference USA. In 2005, he was drafted in the fifth round by the Washington Redskins. He also spent some time with Miami, Baltimore and Cleveland before making a move north to the Calgary Stampeders in 2010, before being released in June and signing on to the Argos, where he had a career year, leading the Boatmen with 86 tackles while playing under defensive coordinator Chris Jones, his coach in Calgary.
Now 33, McCune hopes to play for 2-3 more years.
“I did get a late start on my pro career, but I wouldn’t take my experiences in the military back for anything,” he said. “It taught me some things as far as growing up, maturing and just being a man, and how to take care of myself financially. So I don’t have any regrets, even though it put a little hold on my football career. But if it wasn’t for those three years, I wouldn’t have played as long as I did. “