VANCOUVER - There is a lot of “team-before-self” applesauce uttered by professional athletes, many of whom are, away from the microphones, clearly of the me-first persuasion.
Given the shortness of their careers, and the imperative of earning as much money and notoriety as possible before they are inevitably disposed of, maybe looking out for No. 1 is only natural.
But now and then, you see the genuine article, the act of generosity that can only be explained in terms of camaraderie, of fraternity, and makes no sense other than it is what’s best for the team.
For example: B.C. Lions’ injured centre, Angus Reid, 37 years old and facing back surgery, is grooming Matt Norman to take his job.
“Oh, for sure. And that was known before this season started -- heck, before last season started,” Reid said this week. “You know what, though? I’ve had 13 years, really 20 years, of football. What good is it to take it with you?
“To me it’s so much more useful to take all the years I’ve played and try to help pour it into someone else.”
For example: Lions’ $450,000-a-year quarterback Travis Lulay is on the sidelines and in the film room to be a shoulder for Thomas DeMarco to lean on (easy on the right shoulder, Thomas, but the other one’s always available.) DeMarco is less likely to replace Lulay, long-term, but stranger things have happened, especially given Lulay’s apparent susceptibility to shoulder trauma and the often startling promise DeMarco has shown in the four games since being thrown into the fire.
“I stay positive, because you can only worry about things that are in your control. And I am controlling those things, doing everything, and then some, to get myself healthy,” says Lulay, who has only the vaguest idea when he might return from his latest throwing-shoulder calamity.
“But if I can’t play, I’m going to find ways to add value to the team. I’m going to share my input, without being overwhelming. You’ve got to balance that, too, you don’t want to be the fifth guy telling the quarterback ‘do this, do that.’
“But Thomas and I, honestly ... there’s a bit of a difference in a player-player relationship that can work to our benefit. And it works whether you’re healthy or not. It’s just how quarterbacks communicate.”
Part of the explanation is, as Lions GM Wally Buono says, “because that’s part of mentoring, and succession, and leadership. What people left you, you’ve got to leave, and hopefully leave a little bit more.”
But part is just who Lulay and Reid are. Team guys.
“He’s the calm guy on the sideline who’s been there before,” DeMarco said Thursday. “Aside from Buck Pierce getting in there for three series or whatever it’s been, Travis is the only guy who’s been back there.
“It’s easy to say what you saw on the sideline, it’s more effective to hear it from him, because he knows. The way he words his questions, the fact that he understands that sometimes things don’t go as planned, you know -- he’s a friend, a colleague, a teammate that I respect, and it’s very easy to listen to his input.”
Sometimes, he said, very little needs to be said.
“There’s emotion, there’s body language. You know, you come off and you might be like, ‘Hey, did I miss anything?’ He’ll kind of shrug and maybe say ‘You’re fine’. And a lot of times just hearing that -- ‘You’re good, don’t worry about it’ -- it makes you not doubt yourself.”
Reid, who has been as important a player to the Lions as any non-quarterback, has been living with searing (and worsening) back pain since injuring himself in training camp. He has two herniated disks that haven’t responded to treatment and need surgery, ASAP. He can barely tie his shoes, but he is out there each day, in full pads, unable to do much but watch and commiserate, and lighten the mood of what can be a repetitive, tedious practice routine.
But he’s also there for Norman, 25, the second-year pro who never played centre in his college career at Western Ontario and was thrown into the position here on zero notice.
“I think it’s good to be thrown into the fire,” says Norman, who’s been progressing rapidly, but essentially from scratch. “I mean, I would love to have Angus not be hurt. But being thrown in like this, I’ll be better for it in the end. Baptism by fire, you gotta learn or ... well, you gotta learn. There is only one way. You gotta perform.
“Having Angus around has been incredible. Especially at home games when he’s on the sideline there, he offers me so much insight. He’s got a great eye for what everybody’s doing out there. It’s just making the best of a bad situation. We’re making do.”
Asked how many years it took for him to be comfortable at centre, Reid said, “it’s funny, Matt asked me the same question the other day. I told him, honestly, around my third year of starting.
“Probably the best thing I did was the old ‘fake it till you make it.’ As a centre, people look to you to be a leader and be confident with your calls, and my first couple of years it was ... the art of selling. I sold it to them, and they believed it while I was figuring it out on my own. You don’t want to show that you’re kind of confused and scared a little bit, so you put up that front until you believe in yourself, and then it becomes reality.
“I’ll never forget, my first year starting, Week 3 we played in Montreal and I had a horrible game and (line coach) Dan Dorazio had the nerve to tell me during the meeting, ‘Don’t worry, Angus, by Year 5 you’ll be fair.’ I didn’t know what that meant, but by 2007, my fifth year, I had the best season of my life.”
That may seem a long way away for Norman, but Reid says: “I think you’re looking at the beginning of a fantastic career.”
Listening to the ultra-articulate Reid, it’s small wonder Norman has been a sponge, soaking up the data.
“Angus is a storyteller. He has a lot of talents and one of them definitely is conveying information,” said Norman.
Evidently, being a great teammate is another.
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