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O’Leary: Former NFL star getting acclimated with Argos

Sometimes, Toronto doesn’t do much to work against the stereotypical perception Americans might have of it.

Dexter McCluster had a lot on his mind in his first practice with the Toronto Argonauts on Tuesday, but in the midst of his crash course to Canadian football, the moment still caught his attention for a second.

As the Argos ran around the field at Lamport Stadium in downtown T.O., the top of the CN Tower poked out of the skyline, staring down at the players on the field. A speaker on the west end of the field toward the end zone blasted Drake’s I’m Upset. A handful of players cheered the song, danced a little and continued their day. McCluster noticed.

“I noticed that everybody talks about the Tower when I first got here,” McCluster said when practice had ended. “But every other song that I’ve heard here on the radio is always Drake. I understand. He loves the city, he does a lot for the city, so I’m rocking with it.”

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So far Argos head coach Marc Trestman likes what he’s seen from Dexter McCluster (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

The 29-year-old former NFL returner and running back had never been to Canada until last week, when the Argos brought him up to finalize a contract with him. Everything is new to him here — the way the game is played, the money, the people — but with each passing day, he’s feeling more like a part of the organization. That’s because he’s getting some help from who many people might call the ultimate Argonaut, in Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons.

“That’s family, actually,” McCluster said of Clemons.

Clemons’ wife, Diane, is McCluster’s second cousin, thanks to their great grandfathers being brothers. McCluster’s family has known about the Clemons his entire life but he hadn’t met them until this past week. Pinball was at Argos practice on Tuesday and eager to chat with McCluster, making plans to have him over this weekend for a home cooked meal.

“I’ve got family everywhere I go. I feel at home already,” McCluster said.

It was a coincidence that the Argos had placed McCluster on their negotiation list, but he said he takes it as a good sign for the next chapter in his football career.

“When I was thinking about coming out here, talking about it, my whole family was calling and saying, ‘You know you have family out there’. I’d forgot about that. It’s always good to have family in a place that’s kind of foreign to you.”

On the field, things felt a little foreign to him in Day 1. He ran through some basic drills with the running backs, but spent most of Tuesday watching.

“I hadn’t seen a whole (CFL) game before but I didn’t realize how different it was until I really got here,” he said.

“One thing I can say, with the starting motions, the width and the length of the field, they’re very fast-paced up here. I guess (you have a) four-hour (work) day…so you have to catch up fast.”

“It’s very humbling coming back here knowing that the love of the game is real and it’s good to get back to that . . . You can lose that sometimes.”

Dexter McCluster

McCluster first proved himself through a seven-year NFL career. The 36th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft by Kansas City, McCluster went from there to Tennessee and finally San Diego. Through 89 games he has 236 catches for 1,993 receiving yards and seven touchdowns and has rushed 250 times for 1,042 yards and two touchdowns. He’s taken 74 kick returns for 1,554 yards and 133 punt returns for 1,388 yards and three touchdowns. He fractured his forearm in September, 2016 and hasn’t seen action on a football field since.

“I’ve been totally impressed with him as a person and his attitude and where he is right now in his career at 29-years old,” Argos head coach Marc Trestman said of him.

“I’ve been very impressed with him. I’ve watched him on tape…and he’s a very capable player. There have been guys like him that come up here and finish their career in a very productive way.

“We’ll see what happens. It’s his first day out today, so we’ll see. But he’s been great in the classroom and I think he’s a very good fit for the locker room.”

Trestman was excited about what the speedy, five-foot-eight, 170-pounder might be able to bring to his team, but he wants to ease him into the Canadian game. He doesn’t expect him to play on Saturday against Winnipeg.

“I think our guys know that our personnel situation is fluid,” he said. “We’re still trying to find the best 44 each week to play and that’ll be ongoing.

“We’re not here to threaten any player, we don’t do that around here. We just try to create competition.”

Trestman said ideally, he’d like to get any new player invested in the team before throwing him into game situations, so that when they get in they’re thinking team concepts and not individual performance.

After coaching with a high school team in his hometown of Brentwood, Tenn. over the last year, McCluster said he got the itch to play again. With the Argos, he’ll be happy to help out in any way that he can.

“It’s very humbling coming back here knowing that the love of the game is real and it’s good to get back to that,” McCluster said. “You can lose that sometimes, when you’re at a certain level in your career.

“I think right now I can get back to being a kid again, enjoying the camaraderie, enjoying the love of the game.”