The long read: For S.J. Green, timing is everything
There are few things as rewarding as the feeling of what you love more than anything in the world loving you back. And there are few things as disappointing as when that thing ghosts you. Chris O’Leary has the story on one of the most mesmerizing stars the CFL has ever seen.
By Chris O’Leary
IN 2002, S.J. GREEN WAS A 17-YEAR-OLD HIGH SCHOOL SENIOR AND LIKE ANY KID FROM FLORIDA THAT PLAYED FOOTBALL, HE DREAMED OF PLAYING FOR THE FLORIDA GATORS.
That dream is shared by many, but realized by very few. Green fell in love with football as a five-year-old playing at his grandma’s home in Alabama, with his cousin, Mike Green. He began to figure out quickly that he was better than a lot of the kids playing around him. He loved dominating, loved playing all over the field and loved what he called the controlled aggression that football lets a young kid release. He’d gone to the Gators’ football camp each year of his high school days and was named the most valuable receiver every time.
At the end of his final Gators camp, another MVP to his name at the end of another hot Florida summer, Green heard what he’d been hoping for.
“The receiving coach at the time, Dwayne Dixon…came to the dorm room in my camp and said, ‘Remember what it takes to get you in this orange and blue. Make sure you get your grades, make sure you’re focused and I’ll see you soon,’” Green recalls.
There are few things as rewarding as the feeling of what you love more than anything in the world loving you back. And there are few things as disappointing as when that thing ghosts you.
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Week by week, Green’s senior season at Brandon High School ticked away and the Gators continued to lay low, out of sight. About two-thirds of the way through the season, a new school came into the picture.
“My first offer, like in person, was from the University of South Florida,” Green says.
“They came to my school and said, ‘Listen, we want to offer you a scholarship but we need to know right now if you want to come to our school. If not, we’re going to go try to recruit some other kids.’”
Green didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity, particularly the one from the Gators that he was holding out for. But there was an opportunity in front of him. A scholarship. A team that wanted him. Right now.
“I didn’t have to (commit), but I felt like I had to. So I committed. I tried to hide it from other schools, but eventually it comes out,” Green says.
“It wasn’t so much overwhelming. It was a situation where I didn’t know who to trust. I had never been through anything like that before and I didn’t know what to expect. It was scary for me, honestly, because you have a bunch of different grown men coming to talk to you and I’m a 16-, 17-year-old kid, and I don’t know what to expect, or what they should or shouldn’t tell me.
“The high school I went to didn’t have that many Division I athletes. I didn’t have somebody to fall back on (for advice). It was intimidating because I didn’t know if they were lying to me, or gassing me up.”
Looking back, the decision was a good one in every way but on the field. He was just 15 miles from home and got to watch his brother play high school football. As a sophomore, he met his wife, Danielle. He got a degree in communications, with a minor in business administration. Football-wise, though, Green was low on the team’s totem pole and never rose up it.
“Sixty-two catches in four years,” he says. No need to look up the stats. It’s one of those things that an athlete carries with them, the way a jilted ex has the days, weeks and months broken down over a years-long relationship, ready for analysis over brunch.
“Our running back had more catches than all the receivers on our team after my junior year (2005),” he says. “I was fed up.”
It was so bad, so disappointing, that Green planned on redshirting his senior year, finishing school and moving on from football. If it weren’t for Danielle, Green would have marched his lanky, six-foot-two frame, his sticky hands, his athleticism and all of that untapped potential into the real world.
“I wasn’t really feeling it anymore. (The USF experience) kind of stripped the joy away from the game. It wasn’t fun,” he says. “The Montreal Alouettes had a workout at my school and my wife told me I should go.
“She said, ‘I don’t want to live with you the rest of your life hearing about what you should have done. You’re going to regret it.’ So I went out there and the rest is history, I guess.”
It was uncharacteristic of him and a hard lesson, biting on an ultimatum from a scout, maybe not having enough faith in himself and his abilities, or that if he’d held out it would have worked out, but he learned from it. It’s from that single decision that S.J. Green found his way to the CFL. The lessons learned allowed him to become one of the league’s greatest receivers.
Ten years later, Brock Sunderland remembers evaluating Green on the USF field at that open tryout.
“Size, hands, his routes, his catch radius really jumped out,” Sunderland says. Now the GM of the Edmonton Eskimos, he was in charge of player personnel with the Alouettes back then. Former Als GM Jim Popp gave Sunderland the parameters of a contract for Green and Sunderland worked it out with the player and signed him.
“At those open tryouts the quarterbacks are usually horrible,” Sunderland says. “He caught everything.”
“His patience was remarkable. Not just as an individual but you’re also talking about a young man who was married with a child through all of this. Not everyone can do that. How he did it and managed it, I’m not sure.”
Jim Popp on Green’s first few years in the CFL
He didn’t realize it when he was signing his contract, but Green’s next test of patience was about to begin.
“I remember this like it was yesterday,” Green says. “I was speaking to Brock Sunderland. I was asking questions about how it was going to work. Are we going to come in and fight for a position and whether or not you end up on practice squad. I told him, ‘I’m not going to be on practice squad’. I remember that.
“He was like, ‘Yeah, OK. Yeah you are. Yeah you are’,” Green laughs.
Green sits comfortably at a Burger’s Priest in Vaughan, Ont. after a mid-July Argos practice. Four weeks into his first season with his new team, he’s already attained regular status with the staff. The woman behind the counter takes his order of two patties, bacon and ketchup, then stops him to ask if he wants the buns buttered — you always get the buns buttered, she tells him. He balances a steel tray with his burger, fries and a drink over to his table and takes a seat.
Present-day life is good — a year after a brutal knee injury, Green’s back, playing his first season with the Argonauts and having the most productive season of his career to date — but as he sits down and begins to make quick work of his burger, Green’s thinking back to those early days in Montreal. Playing in a new country, in a Francophone city for the first time in his life and learning the nuances of a new league, the only familiarity that he found was on the field, where he was sitting on his talents and waiting on the practice roster for something to give.
“I had to wait two years. I hadn’t learned about the ratio and I felt like there were guys in front of me that weren’t better than me,” he says. “It’s the process you have to go through as an athlete. I waited my turn and it took about two and a half years.”
Fortunately for Green, he had a budding star on the Alouettes’ practice roster with him.
“It was really tough. Me and S.J. kind of leaned on each other and pushed each other during those times and you see how it paid off,” says Brandon Whitaker, who joined the Alouettes in 2008 and was reunited with Green this season in Toronto.
“It’s just one of those things that builds character. It can either break you or build you up and that’s what it ended up doing. We leaned on each other a lot and we got through it. It was a couple of years of being on and off the practice roster but it all paid off in the end.”
“We didn’t change the receiving corps in Montreal for four straight years,” says Popp. “(Green’s) resilience, his patience was remarkable. Not just as an individual but you’re also talking about a young man who was married with a child through all of this. Not everyone can do that. How he did it and managed it, I’m not sure.”
Marc Trestman arrived in 2008 and focused on the day-to-day with a team that he’d lead to three Grey Cup appearances and back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010. He knew that Green had good support around him.
“He was patient. He worked. He got to understand that it’s all a process and working through it, it’s all a journey,” Trestman says. “We’re all on our own individual journeys and I think he realized that and he went about his business to get better every day. He was around a good group of guys that supported him and lifted him up.”
Through the Lens: S.J. Green over the yearsThe gallery was not found!
There were more lows than highs in the wait. After his first season with the team, he was determined to come back in 2008 and become a starter. That winter, Popp signed Jamel Richardson, who had spent three years with the Roughriders before getting a shot with the Dallas Cowboys in 2007. Richardson led the league in receiving touchdowns in 2008 and had 1,287 yards, en route to being named an all-star, solidifying his spot on the roster.
“I feel like I beat him out of camp, and I feel like Trestman went with him because he was a four, five-year veteran. He’d had some success, which I understand now,” Green says. “Just looking back in hindsight, I feel like I should have been a starter that year, but I wasn’t. I had to wait another year.”
“He played very well in pre-season games,” Popp says of Green. “His last year he got activated (in 2009), he had a 10-catch game against Toronto in the pre-season and we still didn’t change the receiving corps.
“We felt so bad for him. NFL teams had been through camp, asking about him because he looked so good in practice. We told S.J., we said, ‘What we’re going to do this first week is take you and put you on the practice roster and give these NFL teams a chance to sign you, since you’re not active’. We put him there and that time of year, the NFL teams have off, it’s their vacation time. They couldn’t make a decision in that week.”
An opportunity did present itself in 2009, though. In need of a receiver and impressed with that 10-catch pre-season game, the Argos reached out to Green and offered him a way off of the Alouettes’ practice roster.
“We told him we weren’t going to stand in his way,” Popp says. “(But we told him) you may get activated any minute. He chose not to go.”
The moment felt familiar. Seven years later, another team had approached him with a less-than-desirable offer, but it was something.
“Not disrespecting the players that were here in Toronto, but there was too much instability,” Green says of an Argos team that went a league-worst 3-15 that year.
“I knew that if they took me off practice squad that I would have two full paycheques. I didn’t want to risk two game cheques for my career. If I came to Toronto and we didn’t have success, we didn’t win, I wasn’t making plays…it’s not that I didn’t have confidence in myself. I didn’t have confidence in the team that was here. I didn’t have the confidence that I had in that team in Montreal.
“The platform that was there, with Trestman. I was developing as a player there and I didn’t see myself developing as a player in Toronto. That was really what kept me in Montreal. I didn’t trust the fact that I’d be going to another general manager. Popp made me feel good about wanting to stay in Montreal, also. He told me he’d take care of me, gave me a little bit more money on the practice squad and I just made the decision to stay in Montreal. I thought we had the better team, even if I wasn’t playing.”
Green rattles off the names of teammates and people in the organization. He saw Richardson as a big brother that he was learning from daily. There was Ben Cahoon, Calvillo, Kerry Watkins and Popp. Then there was Trestman, who Green calls a mad scientist of a coach who, both Green and Whitaker admit, it took a couple of years to learn his demeanour and what he was about.
“Those two years allowed me the opportunity to learn and just sit in the classroom and listen to Trestman and how he talked to the other players, how he coached them up and see how players would respond,” Green says.
“I would see how he would deal with the players. I would see things and say, ‘I’ll do that,’ and ‘I won’t do that.’ It was almost an advantage because I was able to see what to do and what not to do. When I had my opportunity I knew exactly how to play into Trestman’s hands. I knew how to give him what he wanted. I think that benefited me a lot.”
Als’ receiver Andrew Hawkins broke his ankle in the 2009 playoffs and when the injury lingered into the 2010 season, Green had finally gotten his opportunity. It’s no coincidence that in the season-opener that year, he made one of the best catches of his career, helping Als battle in an OT loss to the Riders. It cemented his spot on what would be a Grey Cup-winning team. The wait was over.
Fast forward five East Division all-star selections, four seasons over the 1,000-yard mark, another Grey Cup ring and six years later and Green had firmly established his place in the upper echelon of the CFL.
Then with one play in Week 2 of the 2016 season — Green got tangled up with Ottawa’s Jerrell Gavins and tumbled to the turf at Percival Molson Stadium — his knee shredded and anything that had been firmly established started to feel shaky.
“I was hoping that it was just the ACL, at worst,” Green says. “When it happened my knee was just numb. I couldn’t feel anything down there. I knew the way the doctors were talking that it wasn’t good.”
“I was there at the game,” Danielle says. “I didn’t think it was that bad, I didn’t think it’d be an ACL injury. Then when they called me down out of the stands, I thought it had to be serious.
“He had his head down. We didn’t know yet for sure, but they were almost sure that it was ACL. We found out later what it was and it was devastating.”
Two days later, the Alouettes announced that Green had torn his ACL, MCL, PCL and the meniscus in his right knee. His season was over and his career hung in the balance. Doctors gave him a 30 to 50 per cent chance of playing again.
Popp watched the player that he’d signed, the guy that waited and worked and fought his way into elite status in the league, crumple on the turf that day and he knew instantly that if Green could heal up, he’d give him a shot. Before he says a word about Green’s injury, Popp lifts the bottom of his shorts and shows the scar that circles its way around his own right knee.
“I have sympathy for people. You’re talking to someone that blew ligaments in his leg as a college football player,” Popp says. “I know the persevering; I know the struggles; I know the hard work it takes for you to find inner-strength in that (in rehab) you probably worked harder than you ever have in your life. You’re determined to prove people wrong.
“Knowing S.J. as a person, he had all that. Then this happens and he wanted to prove to people that I’m coming back, I’ll be there. It’s perseverance. You have to have luck along the way. You have to hope you don’t have setbacks. Things happen.”
Green was lucky in that he had friends and family around him near Tampa that had all been as unlucky as he was. After his surgery, he had a receivers’ support group of sorts that knew what it was like to have the game send you under a surgeon’s knife.
There was his brother-in-law and Hamilton Tiger-Cats receiver, Brian Tyms. There was BC Lions receiver Nick Moore, who tore his ACL two weeks after Green but had surgery 10 days before him. B.J. Cunningham, Green’s teammate from Montreal, trained with the group as well.
“They wouldn’t let me settle for not pushing myself. I wouldn’t either, but it was great to have them out there. It really helped me develop my confidence,” Green says.
It helped to have Moore especially, since they were going through similar things on the same timeframe. Moore says they were in physical therapy five to six days a week together.
“It was kind of like we were teammates. We aren’t, but we were doing rehab and therapy, all the same stuff, we were everyday teammates, essentially,” he says, a week after a 10-catch, 220-yard showing against the Tiger-Cats.
“We would have those days where we would text each other in the morning, where man, I don’t feel like going today and he’d text me back and agree or vice versa. But we went and put our work in and we were happy that we did.”
Tyms thinks back to the winter and sees endless workouts with the slim receiver he’s always called Fat Boy.
“He tore his ACL and I’d torn my Achilles the previous year. So I knew what he had to do. We did a lot of work, man, we didn’t miss a day,” Tyms says, then repeats it for emphasis. “We didn’t miss. A. Day.
“We worked and trained through the off-season, lifts and runs, we put some of his stuff in the weight room and some of mine. We just kept going at each other. I truly believe that if half of the dudes in this league worked out with us for a week they wouldn’t last.
“We’re going about five, six hours straight, from pre-work, lifting and running and then me and S.J. would always get extra catches at night. We’d take the kids to the track, and we’d practice. We’d catch balls, 500 a night. One-handed, just playing H.O.R.S.E.”
For Green, the fire was lit when he was told of the odds he had of returning.
“I just knew I was facing an uphill battle. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy but I also knew I didn’t want to go out with that being my last play,” he says. “I didn’t want people to remember me as ‘he had some good years in Montreal when Calvillo was the quarterback and after that he never had a good quarterback and he just kind of fizzled away’.
“I didn’t want that to be the last image of myself. I kind of packed that all in the back of my head, packed my lunch and went to work every day. I was determined and I still am determined to be as dominant as I know I can be.”
And just like that, Green began a thousand-mile (or 1,609 km) journey with one leg, determined that the other one would get in on the act eventually.
Danielle saw him approach it with the same patience he’s had with everything else in life.
“With our kids, even with our marriage,” she says. “Sometimes marriage is not perfect but with everything, he’s very patient, he’s very determined, he’s very positive. Even with his rehabbing.
“I spoke to different wives that went through it with their husbands and injuries and they were telling me about their husbands being depressed. He was never depressed. He was just determined. Every day he woke back up and he was determined to get back on the field.”
As Green progressed, change was afoot in Montreal. The Alouettes parted ways with Popp on Nov. 7, 2016, ending his 21-year run as the team’s GM and occasional head coach. The team hired Kavis Reed to replace him as GM on Dec. 14. Reed began to shape the roster to his vision, acquiring Darian Durant from Saskatchewan in January, then signing free-agent receiver Ernest Jackson in February. In March, Reed traded for offensive tackle Jovan Olafioye. All were high-profile pickups that would require some salary cap juggling. The writing was starting to appear on the wall for Green. He anticipated what was coming when he met with his new GM in April, after the Als’ mini-camp.
“Basically (Reed) wanted me to adjust my contract. I was willing to, just not as much as he wanted to do,” Green says. “I didn’t think cutting me was an option. If you’re going to cut me you should try to trade me, get something for me. So we looked at that option and I said, ‘If you trade me, where are you going to trade me?’
“He told me three teams. He told me Edmonton, Saskatchewan and Toronto. I didn’t think Edmonton was serious and I didn’t think Saskatchewan was really serious. I only thought one team would be interested and that was Toronto.”
“As soon as Jim Popp and Marc Trestman became the GM and coach in Toronto I was jealous. I don’t want anyone else in the CFL to be coached by Marc Trestman without me being there. That’s my coach, you know?”
Green on Marc Trestman’s hiring in Toronto
The other major change in the league through the off-season was that the Argos had brought Popp and Trestman in, reuniting the successful GM-coach combination. As much as Green wanted to stay in Montreal, the idea of reconnecting with the GM he trusted the most and the coach he was closest with in his career was too much to pass up on.
“As soon as Jim Popp and Marc Trestman became the GM and coach in Toronto I was jealous,” Green says. “I don’t want anyone else in the CFL to be coached by Marc Trestman without me being there. That’s my coach, you know?”
Green didn’t have to think about it. Send me to Toronto, he told Reed.
“Send me where I’m comfortable. I know Jim Popp. If I’m going to get f—– over by a general manager, it’s gonna be by Jim Popp. It won’t be by anybody else, I won’t allow it to happen. I know for a fact that I can play for Trestman. I know what to expect from him. I know the offence inside and out.”
Green became an Argo on April 20. He began to answer all of the questions about his knee, his ability and his future on June 25.
The first catch came less than four minutes into the Argos’ season-opener. Green ran downfield, jumped up, turned backward to pull the pass in and took contact from Tiger-Cats Courtney Stephen and Terrence Frederick as he came to the ground. It didn’t matter.
“He’s baaaaack,” TSN’s Duane Forde said as Green popped up and saw the chains moving. Forde and his broadcast partner, Rod Black, would have plenty more of Green to dissect that day, as he pulled in an incredible one-hander moments later while being shrouded by Ticats’ linebacker Simoni Lawrence. He finished with seven catches for 124 yards in the Argos’ win.
“That first catch was everything I needed in one play,” Green says. “That seam ball, it was two guys there, I was able to go up and do what people have seen me do for a long time.
“I was able to elevate, I was able to get hit in traffic, I was able to fall down hard. I watched that play and I jumped up immediately, there was no hesitation. I felt in my mind, like, ‘You can play, bro, you’re good. Go ahead. Do your thing.’”
Green’s done his thing and then some this season. At 32, with a heavily repaired knee and the chipped shoulder that a veteran will have being traded when he’s at his most vulnerable, Green is on pace for a career year. He’s battling Ottawa’s Greg Ellingson for the receiving yards lead this season. After Thursday’s loss to the Stampeders, Green briefly moved in front, with 43 catches for 673 yards and three touchdowns.
He was always a great receiver, but his name floats around the top of the heap now.
“I think he’s the top receiver. I think Ellingson is right there. He’s definitely right there. But if I had to pick one guy it’d have to be S.J.,” TSN’s Milt Stegall says.
“You look at his career and I don’t think he’s accumulated over 1,200 yards (in a season) but he’s been that veteran guy that when you need that big, magical, unbelievable catch he’ll come up with it nine times out of 10. You can rely on him. For the most part, he’s sure handed.
“But he’s showing something a little different this year that I haven’t seen. They’re going downfield to him. He’s not a burner, he knows that, everyone knows that, but I think what he’s done in the off-season is he’s really worked on his route running. He’s really been patient, he’s really worked on setting up DBs and that’s the big reason he’s able to go downfield and make those plays.”
Argos defensive coordinator Corey Chamblin had coached against Green for years, through stops as a DBs coach in Calgary and Hamilton before his four-year stay as the head coach of the Saskatchewan Roughriders. He calls Green “the perfect receiver.”
He also hears plenty about him around his house. Green is Chamblin’s son’s favourite player.
“He has the perfect height, he has the perfect speed and he has, I guess, it’s a will to win on each play,” the coach says.
He sees Green make those one-handed catches in practice, too, and he says it makes his defence better every day.
“Everything matters to him, even in practice,” Chamblin says. “If he misses a ball or anything, he wants to know, ‘Was I close to it? What can I do better?’ He reminds me of Milt Stegall a lot, the way they approach the game and their mindset and how they want to be the greatest when they play.”
“Well I know he doesn’t look as good as me,” Stegall says, laughing. “I played for Corey in 2007 and saying that means a lot because S.J. is a hard worker, he’s professional.
“I wasn’t a burner either. I used my patience and my route running to set up guys. I could see it in him. Of course I’m not as big and strong and didn’t have the jumping ability of S.J., but we were both making plays downfield, trying to make spectacular catches. I can see a little S.J. in me.”
“When I go back to Montreal, I’ll have an even bigger chip on my shoulder. I promise you I will. I want so bad to make them feel that, you know . . . When Montreal gave me the cold shoulder, that lit a fire in me. Like, ‘Man, are you serious? You don’t want me here no more?’ That kind of hurt.”
S.J. Green on his departure from Montreal
“I feel like I’m in a good place, mentally,” Green says of his success this year.
“I feel like a lot of things that were in my mind before are not really there anymore. I have a deeper appreciation for the game. I try not to think as much as I used to. I try to go out and react and have fun. It’s never guaranteed.
“Sitting at home for 10 months and watching guys make plays and watching the announcers anoint guys who really don’t deserve it, it ate me alive. To have this opportunity again is a blessing. I’ve just got to take it and run with it.”
Sitting in that Burger’s Priest in Vaughan, the Argos’ game against the Alouettes in Montreal was still almost a month away, but it was already on Green’s mind. It’s not just a big game for Green; it’ll mark a return to Montreal for Popp, Trestman, Whitaker and Bear Woods, who the Als cut early in their training camp this year.
Green watched Darian Durant celebrate near the Roughriders’ bench in Week 1, when the Als scored their last-minute win over his former team. He knows the feelings that come with leaving a team that you’ve been an important part of, especially when you feel like you still have more to give them.
“It’s almost impossible not to feel like that,” Green says. “When you give everything you have to this game, to this organization and to the city and then they just do you any kind of way?
“There’s no player that’s been traded that didn’t feel a certain type of way about it. I just don’t see how it’s possible; especially when you have some tenure there.”
Green drifts between the head and the heart as he breaks it down. He gets it, but when he thinks about it he feels it all again.
“I don’t feel like I’m holding a grudge, but you better believe that there’s something there,” he says.
“When I go back to Montreal, I’ll have an even bigger chip on my shoulder. I promise you I will. I want so bad to make them feel that, you know?
“I already was in a state of mind that I’ve got to go prove to the world that I’m back, I’m ready and I’m here and I can do what I know I can do. When Montreal gave me the cold shoulder, that lit a fire in me. Like, ‘Man, are you serious? You don’t want me here no more?’ That kind of hurt. But I got over it quick, because I was comfortable with the fact that if I end up in Toronto, everything will work out, it’ll be all right.”
If there’s one thing that Green has learned through his football career it’s to wait it out, seize the right moment and make the most of it. Green has waited for a lot of things. Over the last year, he’s waited to get healthy and get back on the field. And for the last three-plus months, he’s waited to get back to Montreal.
“You want to learn to be patient in an impatient game,” Chamblin says. “He’s mastered that and I think that’s a good quality for him to have.”
“Oh he’s patient. I always tell him that If I had his patience I’d still be in the NFL. But that’s just the thing he has. Quiet, humble patience,” Tyms says, then starts to laugh. “But don’t piss him off.”