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April 22, 2018

O’Leary: Heath’s ‘mind was always back’ with Argonauts

From the moment he was abruptly traded away by the Toronto Argonauts in 2016, T.J. Heath knew that wanted to make his way back to where his CFL career started.

This week at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, Heath finally got to put some Argos gear back on.

“It was just how everything went down for me. It didn’t sit well for me,” Heath said. “I was in the middle of something and I had to get shipped off. It was always in the back of my head.”

Heath’s departure came out of nowhere to him. He’d just had his best game of that season, a two-interception performance in a win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats that ended a four-game slide.

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Heath makes a play during Argos mini-camp this week (Jason Roberts/Argonauts.ca)

The celebration inside the Argos’ locker room had just started when Heath came back into the room, shocked. He found out as he came off of the field that he was part of the deal that brought the Argos quarterback Drew Willy. The uniform he was still wearing was out of date. He was in that instant a Winnipeg Blue Bomber.

Heath didn’t slow down in Winnipeg. He added two more interceptions with his new team to close out 2016, had five in 2017 and was named a CFL All-Star in both seasons. As much as he liked playing with the Bombers — and being able to join a playoff team when the Argos were headed in the opposite direction — he felt like he wanted to get the chance to finish what he’d started in Toronto. He kept in contact with some of his former Argo teammates over the last year and a half.

“It was a plan for me. If things didn’t work out with Winnipeg, which they didn’t, my mind was always back here.”

Just a year and a half later, the team is drastically different than it was when Heath left. GM Jim Barker has been replaced by Jim Popp. Coach Scott Milanovich is the QBs coach in Jacksonville in the NFL, with Marc Trestman steering the ship in Toronto. And the team goes into 2018 as the defending Grey Cup Champions.

“I’ve talked to (Trestman) through text a good bit and I’ve had the opportunity to talk with him through meetings and just off to the side in practice,” Heath said. “Great guy. I’m going to learn and he’s going to better me as a player and a person. That’s all I’m looking for.”

In a pads-free mini-camp, Trestman said it’s hard to get too excited over anything you see on the field, but he was very happy to welcome Heath in.

Heath played 10 games with the Argonauts in 2016 before getting traded to Winnipeg (The Canadian Press)

“He looked like T.J. Heath. He fit right in,” Trestman said. “He’s got a great personality, fit into the team well, fit into the system well. I don’t think there are any transitional issues that we had. He’s at the boundary half and that’s where we’ll keep him.”

“That’s what I’ve really been using this camp for; getting a feel for how they do things and getting my mind prepared for training camp,” Heath said. “I really wanted to see what things we’ll be doing, what will be new for me. I think I achieved everything I wanted to.”

With all of the change the Argos have seen since Heath’s departure, he didn’t really know what to call his return. Matt Black and Jermaine Gabriel are the only DBs that are still on the roster that were on that Toronto team with Heath.

“They made some changes…and the guys that have been here they welcomed us, me, I guess. I’m a new guy. Kind of,” he said.

“But they accepted me and we’re just playing ball and having fun now. That first day was kind of a jittery day for me, being back in this atmosphere but I’m glad I made this choice and that the guys have accepted me.”

Aware that anything can happen in any season, Trestman said he didn’t know what Heath will bring to that group of players, but the expectations are high.

“He’s got to step up, he’s got to show up. He’s got to show us he can play at that same level. We expect that he will,” Trestman said. “He’s a guy who’s around the ball, he’s a team player, he’s a high-character guy. We don’t need to do anything, just let him play and he’s just got to do his job.”