11/07/2012 04:28 EST | Updated 01/07/2013 05:12 EST

Chad Owens at top of CFL ladder, but it wasn't always smooth sailing

TORONTO - Chad Owens thought his pro football career was over when he ripped up his knee playing for the Colorado Crush of the Arena Football League.

Then the league folded.

"And there was no really guarantees coming back from the injury that I'd have a job, at least (in) football," the compact Argos receiver-returner said Wednesday. "But I believed, man. I believed that God wasn't finished with me and there was something better to come.

"So I worked hard, had an opportunity to come up here that next season, 2009."

Three years later, Owens is a finalist for the CFL's outstanding player award. The 30-year-old multi-threat speedster from Hawaii is up against Calgary running back Jon Cornish.

The Argos celebrated news of Owens' nomination with cheers and fist pumps after coach Scott Milanovich told them in a team huddle at the end of practice inside the Rogers Centre.

Toronto (9-9) hosts Edmonton (7-11) on Sunday in the Eastern Conference semifinal. The Eskimos cross over from the West by virtue of having a better record than the 6-12 Tiger-Cats and Blue Bombers.

Owens set a pro football record this season by collecting 3,863 all-purpose yards. He led the league in receiving yards (1,328) and combined return yards (2,510)

Listed at five foot eight and 180 pounds, Owens looks like somebody's little brother as he lines up in the Argos huddle. But his size doesn't seem to matter when he hits full speed.

The Flyin' Hawaiian is hard to catch or keep up with.

Milanovich credits improvement in technique for Owens' breakthrough in receiving this year. Prior to this season Owens had never cracked the 1,000-yard mark as a receiver.

Milanovich, a former quarterback himself, says Owens had improved the way he runs routes for quarterback Ricky Ray.

"Part of the thing with receivers is they think they're open but if they're not open when the quarterback's ready to deliver the ball, they're really not open," Milanovich said. "And so that was one of the things that Chad had to really grasp — it's not good enough to get open but you've got to get open when Ricky's ready to deliver."

Owens credits Ray for delivering the ball on time.

"And he throws just such a catchable ball,'' he said. "I don't want to say a soft ball — it gets to you on time but it doesn't have that sting. It's just so easy to catch."

It has not all been smooth sailing on the field for the father of three. Owens has fumbled 10 times this season, losing eight of them.

Ball security has been a constant watchword in recent games.

The former University of Hawaii standout was acquired by Toronto in a June 2010 trade with the Montreal Alouettes in exchange for a pick in the 2011 CFL Canadian draft.

Originally drafted in the sixth round of the 2005 NFL draft by Jacksonville, he had shorts stints with the Jaguars and Buccaneers before signing with Colorado.

He says his circuitous road to football success proves you should never sell yourself short, regardless of your circumstances.

"If you believe in yourself and you believe in what you can do and you believe that there's something better for you ahead, man you've got to keep working, you've got to stay true to yourself, stay true to what you believe in, man, and just keep working. And you'll never be denied.

"That's been me, my whole life. I've always believed and always believed that if I worked harder than you, then I will beat you. Not to sound big-headed or anything but that's just the way I had to do it. I was under-sized so I had to out-work them and I had to believe."

He points to his injury at Colorado — "It was like playing in the phone booth," he said of the indoor game — when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament. When it happened in 2008, he said his immediate reaction was to look up and say 'Why me?'

"But that same night it hit me also and I realized something. I needed that," said Owens, wearing a wristband citing the biblical reference John 3:30. "I needed to get slowed, as we learned in church. God slowed me, man, and it wasn't my time. So I had to get back, I had to realize what I really had and how fortunate I was.

"It definitely made me realize that ... I'm thankful man that I got blessed with the opportunity to come up to the CFL."