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Waiting out linebacker Bear Woods' injuries pays off for Alouettes

11/12/2014 06:32 EST | Updated 01/12/2015 05:59 EST
MONTREAL - That a guy named Bear Woods looks and plays like a wild man is hardly a surprise.

That the Montreal Alouettes waited through most of two and a half seasons for Woods to be healthy enough to be turned loose on a football field was the unusual part in the 27-year-old middle linebacker's story.

Canadian Football League teams often let newcomers go after one injury, but Alouettes general manager Jim Popp felt Woods was worth waiting for despite three serious injuries in as many seasons.

It paid off this season as the Florida native with the striking red-brown dreadlocks became what defensive co-ordinator Noel Thorpe calls "the centrepiece of our defence."

"We knew he had talent," Thorpe said Wednesday as the Alouettes (9-9) began on-field preparations for the CFL East semifinal against the B.C. Lions (9-9). "Jim raved about him.

"We saw what he could do in pre-season games and knew he could be a good player for us. It also speaks to his character because he's persevered."

Woods missed the entire 2012 season with a foot fracture and got into only eight games, mostly on special teams, in 2013 after tearing a quad in training camp.

He injured a hamstring in this season's training camp, but the Alouettes waited that one out, too.

It proved to be well worth it, as Woods returned for the seventh game of the campaign in Saskatchewan and has been a dynamo on defence, helping Montreal end the season on an 8-2 run after a woeful 1-7 start.

The tackles and sacks he piled up won him CFL defensive player of the month for September and October, and on Monday, he was among 11 Alouettes named to the East all-star squad.

He will be a key player when the Alouettes play host to the Lions on Sunday at Percival Molson Stadium.

"It was a long time coming," Woods said of the accolades. "I've been here a few years but haven't played, either for injury or ratio purposes.

"I'm doing exactly what I expected. As far as awards, that's out of my control, but my production is what you can expect out of me every year."

Woods is glad the Alouettes didn't give up on him.

"I can go back to 2012 when I fractured my foot," he said. "That was a season-ending injury and, being a rookie, I knew the team had no obligations to me financially.

"But when Jim Popp kept me on the roster and chose to pay me, to allow me to get my veteran status and stay with the club, I was very surprised and thankful. I'm glad now that I'm actually producing and showing good faith for his decision."

It helped that the job was open after middle linebacker Shea Emry signed with Toronto in the off-season. Defensive lineman Aaron Lavarias started the season at middle linebacker.

Woods joined the Alouettes just as they began to turn their season around. It started on a two-game trip to western Canada. While they lost both games, they sensed they were playing better and set a goal of going 8-2 down the stretch and making the playoffs.

The defence allowed 17 or fewer points during a six-game winning run that ended with a 29-15 loss in wet weather in Hamilton last weekend. Two Tiger-Cat touchdowns came off turnovers.

Jonathan Crompton took over at quarterback and, while not showing all-star form, at least got the offence moving. That also played a big role in the turnaround, but mostly, the games were won on defence.

"We run and hit and we enjoy doing that," said Woods. "We're playing at a high level.

"We got better every game. Even last game, we gave up two touchdowns we're not proud of, but still, defensively, 17 points is what we gave up."

Woods, whose given name is Jonathan, got his nickname from his grandfather, who once sat the toddler on a kitchen counter only to see him crawl up into a cabinet and figured the kid was agile as a bear cub. The name stuck.

Now he will get his first look at the Lions. He was injured when Montreal split a pair of games against B.C. early in the season, a 24-9 win at home on July 4 and a 41-5 thumping in Vancouver on July 19.

The past decade has been like that for the two teams, with Montreal 8-2 at home against the Lions but 1-9 on the road.

"Winston Venable wasn't a starting linebacker then either, so it'll be a different defence they're facing this time," Woods said of the Lions. "But they're a veteran club."

Running back Tyrell Sutton and kick returner James Rodgers trained on the sidelines but hope to practice with the team on Thursday and be ready for the game. Defensive lineman Gabriel Knapton and cornerback Geoff Tisdale also hope to return from injuries.

The Lions finished fourth in the West, but crossed over to the East semifinal because they had a better record than Toronto, which was third in the East. Montreal is 3-0 in crossover games against western opponents, including wins over the Lions in 1997 and 2009.

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