Dreams do come true

Toronto's Mike Labinjo (left) has come a long way since his high school days with St. Michael's. He...

Toronto's Mike Labinjo (left) has come a long way since his high school days with St. Michael's. He is now making a name for himself with the Philadelphia Eagles. (Toronto Sun file photo)

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:09 AM ET

Most of his Philadelphia Eagles teammates were going through the motions as though not even the glare of Monday Night Football could light up a nothing game. But for former Toronto high school star Mike Labinjo, the meeting against the St. Louis Rams couldn't have meant more.

He was playing for every Canadian kid who ever dreamt of making it in the NFL.

He was playing for every undrafted free-agent rookie who goes into such a venture with the odds stacked against him.

And he was playing to prove that a long season as a living, breathing tackling dummy on the Eagles' practice roster was worth the effort and sacrifice.

"It was awesome being out there, this is the stuff a lot of kids just dream about when they start playing football," Labinjo said over the phone from Philadelphia. "You hope you get the opportunity and when it does come, it's incredible."

It was, in fact, much better than Labinjo could have imagined when he got the word he would play the bulk of the second half while Eagles starters got some pre-playoff rest.

The first down the former St. Mike's running back played in the NFL was one he will remember for the rest of his life.

Inserted in the lineup to start the third quarter, Labinjo took his spot at linebacker awaiting the snap of Rams quarterback Marc Bulger.

By the time Bulger handed off to running back Steven Jackson, Labinjo was in the backfield wrapping his arms around the Rams rookie and tackling him for a three-yard loss.

Quite a debut for a 24-year-old whose previous best Monday Night Football experience was watching at the weekly gathering receiver Terrell Owens holds for his teammates.

"I was so pumped up, going in there and making a play like that really allowed me to settle down," said Labinjo, who finished with five tackles in the Eagles' 20-7 loss.

"(His teammates) were excited for me to do well. They said they were going to do their best to make life easy for me."

The year itself had been anything but simple for Labinjo, who was converted to a linebacker at Michigan State.

Disappointed at not getting selected in the draft last April, Labinjo got over it when the Eagles signed him on spec.

Spurred on by the success a fellow Torontonian, running back Kerry Carter, was having with the Seattle Seahawks, Labinjo looked at it as an opportunity.

Such a deal is far from glamorous, however. The money for practice squad players is nothing special and neither is the workload.

"Our defence is one of the most complex defences in this league," Labinjo said. "If you can understand this, you can do what you want in this league. At first it was hard. But of of the qualities I think I have is that I'm able to pick up things really fast."

Picking up the complicated teachings of defensive co-ordinator Jim Johnson was no picnic. And as a practice squad member, the weekly assignment is the grunt work of defending the Eagles' first-team offence to prepare them for the coming week.

"It was hard to do both," Labinjo said. "But I worked hard at it and spent a lot of time in the film room trying to pick things up. I felt like when they did call me up, the coaches were impressed with how I was able to keep up."

The hard work paid its biggest dividend on Dec. 12 when linebacker Jason Short had to be placed on injured reserve. Labinjo was activated for the Dallas game on Dec. 19, where he was limited to special teams duty.

He'll likely play most of this Sunday's game against Cincinnati and expects to play on special teams as the NFC's top seed attempts to make a lengthy playoff run.

"The coaches have shown a lot of confidence in me," Labinjo said. "(Monday) night they wanted to see what I was able to do. It was a chance to see how I handled the pressure of playing linebacker on a big stage like that."

Helping Labinjo's development has been three-time Pro Bowler Jeremiah Trotter, who saw in the Canadian a little of himself.

"He has been cool with me since Day 1," Labinjo said of Trotter. "He says he likes to compare me to a young him. We have the same physical qualities and in his first year he spent most of his time on special teams. He was frustrated, but the next year he made it to the Pro Bowl."

On Monday, Trotter was one of the first to greet the 6-foot, 245-pound Labinjo on the sidelines offering advice, encouragement and criticism.

Though the task of mimicking opposition defences had its tedious moments, it offered some challenging benefits. For much of the year, Labinjo had to go against quarterback Donovan McNabb, Owens (before he got hurt) and the rest of the potent first-team offence.

"There were a few times I had to cover (Owens) on my own and it was like 'this isn't fair,' " Labinjo said with a laugh. "But I liked the challenge of going against Pro Bowl type players in practice. It's going to make me a better player."

Labinjo got to see another side of Owens. Besides the regular MNF gatherings, there was a 31st birthday bash to top all bashes a few weeks back.

"I will say he knows how to throw a party," Labinjo said.

The young Eagle also has enjoyed the company of McNabb, and not just because he is a wide-eyed rookie.

"I talk to him just about every day," Labinjo said. "He's a really friendly guy and he's very cool with the younger players. This is a bunch of good-quality guys. Coach (Andy) Reid does a good job of bringing in guys that fit into the team."

A team that now includes on its roster a Toronto kid who has been awakened from his dream.


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