Ahmad Carroll lives on the edge.
In the games of life, he is more roller-coaster than merry-go-round; less chess than Risk.
He is more likely to go all-in with a seven-two than play tight.
He's Danger-Man Inc.
The approach has brought him success, made him a college star at Arkansas, and a first-round draft pick in 2004 by the Green Bay Packers.
Conversely, it has brought heartbreak, cut in October 2006 and dubbed a "bust" by the Lambeau loonies, he spent a couple uneven seasons with the Jets and eventually wound up making pitstops in a half dozen AFL and UFL cities.
He plays tough, he plays aggressive, making him Argonaut defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones' kind of player.
Conversely, sometimes that aggression gets him into trouble.
He gets inopportune penalties and, by reputation, has difficulty tracking the ball, thus making him vulnerable to the deep pass. He is the complete package: The good, the bad and the ugly. And, this, his first CFL season, has pretty much been a microcosm of Carroll's life.
The ugly came in a game early in the season in Edmonton, the good a week later against Hamilton, and the bad when he was benched in favour of T.J. Williams.
"One minute people think I should be cut; next I'm CFL defensive player of the week," said Carroll, of being left inactive a week after winning the weekly honour.
But Carroll is the ultimate survivor, not easily dissuaded.
Williams was released several weeks ago and this week Carroll has been preparing for the Eastern semifinal against the Eskimos and Fred Stamps, one of the most accomplished receivers in the CFL.
"It isn't because I all of a sudden played any different. My results might've been different but I never stopped believing in myself."
Not even when after being cut by the Jets, he couldn't find another NFL gig. Certainly not after that disastrous outing against Edmonton in which he alone surrendered 79 yards on four penalties, and was schooled by Stamps on a 44-yard pass.
"In the position I play you got to have a short memory," said Carroll, who limited speedy Ticats receiver Chris Williams to one catch and stepped in front of a Henry Burris pass -- with Toronto trailing -- for a game-changing interception to win that CFL player-of-the-week honour. He finished the season with 18 tackles, four special-team stops, a sack, three interceptions, including one for a touchdown.
Now, Sunday, comes a rematch against the Eskimos and Stamps.
Although, Carroll presents an interesting caveat. As much as he respects Stamps, he believes the Double Blue's ultimate success must come by stopping the ground game.
"Gotta stop the run! We gotta stop the run! It limits the team to one dimension. When they can run, it opens the pass. I know this is the CFL and people say the pass opens the run -- but it doesn't. Anytime you can stop the run and limit the pass it should be a short day at the office," said Carroll.
"The run opens every dimension for an offence. 'Cause if it's first down and they get six or seven yards ... it opens the offence. Now you can chuck it down field, run an intermediate route, or run the ball again. When you see offences struggle it's usually because they don't have a running game."
His prime example is Montreal.
"You go there and they're dressing three running backs. If this is a passing league how come they're dressing three? It's because running backs can do different things -- some like going between tackles, you got your scat backs and then you can use them in the open field on screens. Screens are really part of the running game."
So, it appears, are penalty flags. There haven't been as many in the second half. Some have suggested the CFL game allows defensive backs to be more physical without getting flagged.
Carroll disputes that.
"It's not that you're allowed to be more physical. It's that you're playing in a lot of space and I think referees take that into account. You might say DBs are impeding the process of the receivers but receivers also have four to five yards sideways they can run. I think the refs know that and they know a lot of receivers in this league get away with murder. They come up push, run pick routes ... As DBs we don't complain to the refs. We just take it with a grain of salt."
Left unsaid is that receivers can be whiners. And, it isn't often that Carroll leaves anything unsaid. He is a chatterbox on the field, although off it he appears more quiet-spoken and thoughtful.
As that famous football coach, Winston Churchill, once noted on the eve of another monumental struggle, he is a bit of "a riddle wrapped in an enigma shrouded in mystery."
So it is that Carroll's game can be both frustratingly uneven and exhilarating.
"We need him to do everything right. That's all we're asking. You know how coaches are," joked coach Scott Milanovich. "The only great negative is his history of taking penalties. His leadership, his demeanour, he has a veteran presence even though he's a rookie in the CFL."
High risk. High reward.
So it has been throughout his career. He's done good things. Yet, always, there has been a "yeah, but ..."
The end with the Packers came in an October 2006 game against the Eagles.
The Jekyll and Hyde in Carroll's game was evident that day, too. In the first half he broke up three passes, sacked Donovan McNabb and played solid coverage on five of the six balls thrown his way. In the second, he gave up three completions totaling 99 yards, including a game-altering 45-yard touchdown.
"I never questioned my ability. I might have questioned my work ethic and me understanding the game a bit more. I used to wonder how guys like Ty Law and Darren Sharper were playing at 31, or 32 -- but they know the game, understand it, what spot to be in and when to be there. That's what I'm getting accustomed to," said Carroll, who now sits just a candle shy of 30 himself.
"Coach Jones told me just the other day, 'A lot of times I think you're playing off your savvy instead of your physical ability' ... I said, 'Coach I'm a nine-year vet in the pros. It's time I played off my savvy a bit because I don't run a 4.2 like I used to.'"
So it is that each week he plays his dance with fate.
"Coach Jones told us in training camp: ' ... it's the fourth quarter, we're down by two or three points, you have to have the tools to make a play. I don't coach DBs that are scared to make a play'. I took that to heart."
Carroll has been many things. Scared never has been one of them. So it is that today he has a home in Toronto. Where that leads tomorrow, Carroll doesn't know. He lives, play to play, day by day. And, lately the days have been pretty good.
"That's not just sports. That's what life is all about. Everything in life doesn't go your way either. It's just that as an athlete what you do is under a microscope."
It is nearly a decade since Carroll left college a year early -- as the NFL's 25th pick -- to such acclaim that then-Packers general manager Mike Sherman suggested that if he'd played his senior season he'd have been a top-five pick.
It is a lifetime since he played with legends such as Brett Favre and perhaps it would be reasonable that Carroll should feel short-changed.
He might be excused for believing his love for the sport has gone unrequited. Many former U.S. college stars and high-round NFL draft picks come to Canada and believe they're just "settling", always with one eye looking for a road -- any road -- back to the NFL. Not Carroll. There has been nobody more vocal or enthusiastic since the first days of camp this spring.
He's here out of necessity. Difficult to deny that. But he has turned necessity into a labour of love.
"A lot of people who come up here don't know the history. My dad lives in Minnesota and he's a big sports fanatic and he told me about the CFL when I was growing up, he'd talk about Warren Moon and how he was in two Halls of Fame. I remember asking how he could do that?
"He talked about Doug Flutie and how he came from the CFL. A lot has been said about how guys come here and look down on the league. But one day (backup quarterback) Jarious Jackson wore his ring, the one he won with B.C last year. I've seen a lot of rings but that was the best looking ring I've seen. Ever. That put it all into perspective. I want that ring. I want to win one."
CARROLL'S FOOTBALL JOURNEY
Position: Defensive back
College: Arkansas. Played three seasons (2001-'03) with 140 tackles, 25 pass defections, four interceptions.
Drafted: 2004 first round (25th over-all) by Green Bay Packers
Personal: Nicknamed 'Batman' by team-mates in Pop Warner when he repeatedly jumped over opposing centres.
2004: Green Bay: Played 14 games, 52 tackles, two sacks.
2005: Green Bay: Started 16 games, 47 tackles, two sacks.
2006: Green Bay: Played 4 games, 13 tackles, released.
2006: Jacksonville: Played 1 game, 1 tackle, 2 forced fumbles. waived.
2007: New York Jets mini-camp. Never signed.
2008: Orlando (Arena League) 71 tackles, all-rookie team.
2008: New York Jets: Played 16 games, 22 tackles, mostly on special teams.
2009: New York Jets: Played six games, 3 tackles, waived.
2010: Hartford (UFL): Released; Calgary practice roster (CFL). Did not record any stats.
2011: Virginia (UFL): Season cancelled. Signed Orlando (AFL)
2012: Traded by the Orlando to Milwaukee to Arizona (AFL). Refused to report. Signed by Argos May 10.