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April 10, 2017

O’Leary: Argos’ Gabriel already putting ’16 in the rear view mirror

He’d made it through a scary-looking neck injury, limited playing time and the helplessness that comes with having a small role in a largely unsuccessful season. When Jermaine Gabriel got to the point where he thought that it could only get better, the bottom fell out from under him.

“It was really tough. I was in the middle of contract negotiations,” Gabriel says while laughing. He laughs about it now but on January 24, when the Toronto Argonauts relieved then-GM Jim Barker of his duties, it felt a lot more serious.

“I was supposed to sign a (restructured) deal the day of Barker’s firing. All of that blew up,” he said. “We didn’t know who the GM was. Who do I talk to? That was pretty crazy. But I know right now we’re in good hands and whatever happened in the past, that’s done now and we’re moving forward.”

When you’re a part of a five-win team that finished its season losing 11 of its last 12 games, you can’t move forward quickly enough. His neck injury – his head hit teammate Matt Black’s shoulder as Ticats punt returner Brandon Banks was brought down to the ground at the end of the Argos’ Week 1 loss to Hamilton — wasn’t as bad as it looked and he healed up, before he landed on the six-game injured list a couple games later. He returned from that and played in the final eight games last year, but as the Argos slid down the standings and out of the playoff picture, he couldn’t get his season on track.

“I’d say halfway through the season I had to adopt a part-time role playing linebacker on second down. That was new to me. It was something that they wanted me to do, so I just did it,” Gabriel said.

Jermaine_Gabriel_2016_2

The Argos’ season ended on Nov. 5 in Edmonton. Gabriel had one special teams tackle, playing a bit role in a meaningless game. He finished the year with 17 tackles, seven on special teams and one QB sack. It was his worst season out of his three in the CFL.

“I was healthy. I was there, I was just on the sideline. I wasn’t on the field for some reason,” he said. “I don’t know what that reason was. I was healthy and ready to go, but I guess the coaches thought otherwise.”

While the organization has gone through its overhaul, bringing in GM Jim Popp, head coach Marc Trestman and his staff, Gabriel has focused on getting stronger and playing in 18 games this season.

“I missed most of last season and the season before that I tore my groin and missed six games,” Gabriel said.

“I pride myself on being healthy. Two years ago, that was the first time I ever missed a football game, period, from when I started playing. Being hurt, all that was new to me. I’m just trying to prove people wrong and show I still have what it takes to be great in this league.”

Gabriel’s path to the CFL was too long and arduous to have him talking about feeling the need to prove himself just three years in. He went from high school football in Toronto to Bishop’s University for two years, then went to Saint Mary’s in Halifax, where he didn’t get into the school and had to find a new plan. He moved across the country to Calgary to play junior football and worked construction to cover his living expenses. That led him to the first-ever CFL Regional Combine in Edmonton in 2013, where only two out of 38 kids came out of the dark and into the spotlight with the nation’s top CFL Draft-eligible players at the combine in Toronto. The Argos took him in the second round, 17th overall.

Jermaine_Gabriel_2016_3

“Whatever happened last year with that team is completely washed away. We’ve got a new team, a new roster of guys that are hungry and want to be great in the city of Toronto playing for the Argos.

– Argos safety Jermaine Gabriel

Gabriel wants to get back to the reasons that the Argos took him in the draft four years ago, and wants to get back to the rising star status he had after his first two seasons in the league.

“I’m in the best shape of my life right now,” Gabriel said. “Last year I would have said the same thing but I had the neck injury so I didn’t really get to show what I had. This year I’m ready to go. If the season started right now I’d be ready, to tell you the truth.”

He looks at the Argos roster and how it’s started to come together since Popp was hired. Gabriel isn’t as boisterous as his teammate, Shawn Lemon, who bet Tiger-Cats linebacker Simoni Lawrence $2000 that the Argos would make the playoffs this year, but he likes what he sees shaping up around him.

“The CFL, any year, any team could be that team because there’s so much turnover,” he said. “Whatever happened last year with that team is completely washed away. We’ve got a new team, a new roster of guys that are hungry and want to be great in the city of Toronto playing for the Argos.

“I think that’s what it takes, is guys that don’t think they’ve already made it but guys that are hungry to be a good team. We’ve got a lot of hungry guys.”