SPORTS

Patience a virtue for unsigned CFL veteran players like Stevie Baggs

06/25/2012 02:15 EDT | Updated 08/25/2012 05:12 EDT
At age 30 and with eight years of pro football experience under his belt, Stevie Baggs should just be hitting his prime.

But the man known as Shakespeare — because all he does is make plays — wasn't at a CFL training camp schooling less experienced players in the ways of a dominant pass rusher. While his days remain full — Baggs juggles a busy daily schedule that includes trips to the gym, public-speaking engagements and working on a book project as well as with his foundation — they don't include practising with a team preparing for the start of the 2012 season.

Yet there remains no doubt in the six-foot-one, 241-pound rush end's mind that he can still play at a high level.

"If I felt the gift had dissipated at this point, I would let it go," he said. "But I know I still have a lot of football still left in me.

"It was different not being in training camp but was refreshing because I'm around my family, which is awesome, and I was able to go back home to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and that was really cool."

Baggs joined the Hamilton Tiger-Cats midway through the 2010 season after being a late cut of the NFL's Arizona Cardinals. He signed a deal reportedly worth $150,000 annually, which would've made Baggs' the CFL's highest-paid defensive player.

The former Bethune-Cookman star contributed immediately in Hamilton, registering five sacks, three fumble recoveries and an interception in seven games. But Baggs had five sacks in 18 regular-season starts in 2011 and was a healthy scratch for the club's 52-44 overtime win over Montreal in the East Division semifinal.

Hamilton released Baggs in the off-season reportedly for financial reasons although the Ticats said the decision was football related.

Baggs cited Hamilton's defensive scheme last year as a reason for his drop in production. Greg Marshall was the club's defensive co-ordinator when Baggs arrived but Marshall left prior to the 2011 season to become the Saskatchewan Roughriders head coach and was replaced by Corey Chamblin.

"I was the product of a bad system last year where I wasn't able to utilize my skillset and ended up getting released over the money," he said. "It was sad, it's disheartening but it's a part of this business we're in."

Unfortunately, Baggs isn't the only CFL player on the outside looking in these days. Among the veterans still waiting to re-sign with a new team are running backs Joffrey Reynolds, Fred Reid and Wes Cates, kickers Damon Duval and Sandro DeAngelis, defensive back Tad Kornegay, defensive lineman Anwar Stewart and offensive lineman Alexandre Gauthier.

Former Ticats tailback Avon Cobourne was also on that list, that is, until the 33-year-old returned to Hamilton after Martell Mallett — whose off-season signing prompted Cobourne to ask the Ticats for his release — suffered a season-ending Achilles injury during training camp.

"The good thing is I've not burned any bridges or been a bad character guy in the locker-room and those type of things always help you when you're talking about getting back in, especially with it being a small league," Baggs said. "That veteran presence is always needed and having a guy who knows not only how to produce on the field but how to be a good ambassador off it.

"That's just as important as well."

Here's a look at the other patient veterans:

— Reynolds, 32, also appeared to be a good fit in Hamilton, given his previous association with new Ticats head coach George Cortez and starter Henry Burris. Reynolds, the all-time rushing leader in Calgary before being released this off-season, won a Grey Cup in '08 with Cortez as the Stampeders' offensive co-ordinator and Burris under centre.

— Reid, 30, spent five seasons with Winnipeg, rushing for 4,505 yards and averaging a solid 5.8 yards per carry. But he suffered a season-ending knee injury last season and with the emergence of youngster Chris Garrett was released Feb. 27. He later signed with Montreal before being let go.

— The 32-year-old Cates ran for 4,942 yards over six CFL seasons with Calgary and Saskatchewan, winning a Grey Cup with the Riders in '07 despite playing with a broken foot. The Riders opted against re-signing Cates in February once he became a free agent.

— Duval, 32, played six seasons with Montreal, booting the winning field goal in the '09 Grey Cup against Saskatchewan after missing his first attempt but getting a second chance after Saskatchewan was called for too many men on the field. He signed with Edmonton as a free agent in June 2011 but spent just one season with the Eskimos after being let go Feb. 1.

— DeAngelis, 31, spent his first five CFL seasons with Calgary and three times was a league all-star. He booted five field goals in the Stampeders' '08 Grey Cup win to be named top Canadian. But the native of Niagara Falls, Ont., signed with Hamilton as a free agent in 2010 and was released after making a career-low 76.2 per cent of his kicks. He joined Montreal last year but, after failing to dress for a game, asked for, and received, his release in February.

— The 29-year-old Kornegay ended his 2011 season in style, celebrating a Grey Cup win with the B.C. Lions. But the enjoyment was short-lived for the seven-year veteran defensive back, who was released Jan. 16.

— Stewart spent 10 of his 11 CFL seasons with Montreal, won three Grey Cups and was the club's all-time leader in sacks with 66. But the six-foot-four, 255-pound defensive end was released Feb. 8, a day before his 36th birthday.

— The first player taken in the 2002 CFL draft by Ottawa, the six-foot-seven, 330-pound Gauthier played 10 seasons with the Renegades, Calgary, Winnipeg and Hamilton before spending last year with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The native of Maria, Que., was cut loose Jan. 31.

Baggs made life miserable for CFL quarterbacks in 2009, finishing tied for the league lead in sacks with 12 before signing with Arizona.

Baggs began his pro football career with the Detroit Lions in 2004 as an undrafted free agent. He came to the CFL two years later, arriving in Winnipeg before splitting the 2007 season between the Bombers and Edmonton Eskimos.

He went to Saskatchewan in 2008 and remained there through the 2009 season before signing with the Cardinals. He also spent time in NFL Europe as well as with the Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League.

A spiritual man, Baggs says his faith has helped teach him patience and an understanding that while football is important, it's not what defines him as a person.

"That's why I play this game and whether it's good or bad, it's bigger than me," Baggs said. "If something good happened on the field, I did a lot of celebrating because it was bigger than me and has always been bigger than me.

"I play this game for the love I have for Jesus Christ . . . I need to have that platform for a reason."

A strong faith and determined work ethic have allowed Baggs to overcome plenty of adversity in a pro career that has seen him play for nine teams in four separate leagues. And that includes being a professional athlete despite being pigeon-toed.

"I could've given up the game a long time ago when I had a guy from the New York Giants tell me I was too pigeon-toed and to leave it (dream of pro career) alone," Baggs said. "But being a journeyman and understanding the ins and outs of the business and seeing things that happen to a player like Avon Cobourne, those are all a part of this game.

"It's not about the money, although I do understand my worth. Right now, though, the biggest thing is patience, patience, patience."

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