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May 21, 2019

Hogan: “Old Man” Gabriel

It’s a part of being a football player, coach or fan, the annual ritual of attending training camp.

For the dozens of spectators that showed up for Monday’s practice at York University, they may have spotted a familiar face sitting among them. Peering out at the gridiron from under a battered baseball cap was Chris Rudge, the team’s president and CEO when the team hosted and won the 100th Grey Cup game.

But when the former executive – still admittedly a huge Argo fan – stared at the field, he may have felt total separation from the team for the first time since his departure. With the off-season retirement of Ricky Ray and Matt Black, along with the weekend release of Chris Van Zeyl, there are no longer any players from the 2012 championship team still wearing Double Blue. The elder statesman on the Argonauts is now Jermaine Gabriel.

Yes, that Jermaine Gabriel. The Scarborough kid who grew up watching the Argos, and who became one himself when he was selected in the second round of the 2013 CFL draft. The shy youngster who would barely say two words as a rookie has matured into a team leader, a role he’s grown into gladly.

“I’m the old man in here,” a chuckling Gabriel told Argonauts.ca. “I knew this day was going to come eventually.”

It’s not like he’s an aging veteran, far from it. The safety just turned 29 in March, so he’s still in his prime. In terms of service time, he ranks just ahead of one of his teammates. Offensive lineman Tyler Holmes is also in his seventh season in Double Blue, but he joined the Argos just after the 2013 Labour Day Classic, so Gabriel has a half-season of seniority. That “old man” status hasn’t changed the safety’s sense of duty.

“It’s the same responsibility I’ve felt like I’ve always had,” he admitted. “Just being a leader and making sure guys do the right thing.”

Corey Chamblin is back this season as the Argos head coach and defensive coordinator. He spent the 2018 season coaching at the University of Arkansas after serving as Toronto’s DC for the 2017 Grey Cup season. He may not know everything about this year’s group of athletes, but he knows what he’s going to get from Gabriel, which is now even more important as the head coach tries to keep an eye on all aspects of his team, not just the defence.

“We were in a defensive backs drill and I was there for about two or three seconds and I said okay, you guys know what the free safety is doing,” said an appreciative head coach, who wants to ensure Gabriel learns more than just the position he’s become known for.

“I want to make sure he expands from just playing the safety role to make sure his coverage skills are building as well,” said Chamblin.

Another spring means another influx of new players. Safety has traditionally been a position filled by a Canadian defensive back. This year Jamie Harry has arrived after the Argos selected him in the fifth round of the draft earlier this month, while veterans Matt Webster and Robert Woodson are also in the mix. Woodson is a player entering his third season in the 6ix and has benefitted from Gabriel’s guidance.

“He was great when I came in as a rookie,” said Woodson. “He helped guide me along and teach me how things were done here. He’s been a leader since I’ve been here. He does a great job of leading by example and being a vocal leader. He knows the playbook and the technique and it’s been great for the group.”

Having a veteran presence is particularly valuable at that position, something Gabriel is keenly aware of.

“When you’re playing safety you’ve got to know the whole defence and make sure everyone is lined up right,” explained the veteran. “I just feel a responsibility to the game itself to teach the guys under me, because you never know, if you go down (with an injury) you’re still on the team and you want the team to do well, so you want the guy behind you to know what he’s doing and be able to come in and fill the spot and not be a letdown.”

He’ll turn the big 3-0 on his next birthday, and Gabriel is aware that he can’t take things for granted. That’s reflected in his preparation.

“I do what I’ve got to do to get ready,” said Gabriel. “Whether it’s putting in extra time, or resting my body, at this stage of my career I understand what it takes. I looked at veterans ahead of me when I was 22 and how they went about it. I’ve been able to adjust my regimen to play for a long time.”

Hopefully for the Argos that’s the case, then a few years from now he’ll be able to pass the baton to another player worthy of being the respected elder statesman Gabriel is now.