MISSISSAUGA — Tangling with 300-pound linemen and running sideline to sideline to track down a speedy running back is the easiest job Robert McCune has ever had.
The Toronto Argonauts linebacker isn’t mocking the physical demands football places on a player. But they simply don’t compare to the rigours and real-life threats military personnel serving overseas deal with on a daily basis.
The six-foot, 240-pound McCune knows this first-hand. After graduating from high school, he spent three years in the U.S. National Guard, a component of the United States Army, and served overseas in Korea, Kuwait and Afghanistan.
McCune spent eight months in Afghanistan fuelling planes and an assortment of other military vehicles. Working long hours in sweltering heat was a big enough challenge, but it paled in comparison to living with the constant threat of an attack on a fuel compound located in a hostile territory.
“It was a wonderful learning lesson to make you appreciate the small things we have here like clean water and a roof over your head with air conditioning because over there people aren’t always fortunate enough to have those.”
– Argos LB Robert McCune regarding his experience in the military
“There was always that threat,” McCune said. “There were nights you’d be lying in bed and you’d hear shots being fired or missiles blowing up or you’d wake up scared silly.
“Yeah, there were nights I woke up scared wondering ‘What’s going on?’ and you’d have to throw on a gas mask and be prepared for some sort of gas attack or anything like that. But the military does a good job of preparing you for those type of situations and after a while it became like second nature to do what you had to do.”
The 33-year-old McCune was hoping to play university football after high school but opted for military life when no suitable scholarships came his way. With his father and sister both having served in the military before him, McCune said it wasn’t a hard decision to follow in their footsteps.
“Military life taught me discipline, it taught me to not only be on time but be places early,” McCune said. “It also taught me the importance of a work ethic and doing what you’re supposed to do.
“It also taught me how to work with different people who come from different backgrounds and ethnic groups, how to get along with one another and coming together to become a team to achieve a task. It didn’t matter if one person didn’t like the other or if someone had a bad attitude because you had to put that all aside to become a team and accomplish your goal.”
All of which certainly served McCune well when he enrolled at the University of Louisville following his military service.
“When I got back and went to college and was playing football, that was like the easiest thing in the world,” McCune said. “All I had to do was go to class and play football with no real stressful moments.
“But it was a wonderful learning lesson to make you appreciate the small things we have here like clean water and a roof over your head with air conditioning because over there people aren’t always fortunate enough to have those. But I think everyone should get a taste of military life for at least a year to put things into perspective regarding what is real.”
Working well with different people to help accomplish a team goal is also a quality McCune is drawing upon with the Argos. He joined the CFL club roughly two weeks ago after being released by the Calgary Stampeders, a team McCune spent two seasons with.
But McCune isn’t the only new face on a Toronto defence that boasts just four returnees (defensive ends Ricky Foley and Ronald Flemons, tackle Kevin Huntley and defensive back Jordan Younger) from last year’s squad.
“Being around the guys every day you get to know who is who,” McCune said. “Most have been together for a month since the start of training camp so they know who everyone is, whereas I’m still learning some of their names but I know most of their faces.
“But we talk about more than just football and it’s a great group of guys and I’m looking forward to learning more as we go. The more you’re around guys, the more comfortable you feel, the more you know how they play and react to things and the communication gets better and I think we’ll be much better this week.”
McCune had a team-high seven tackles in his Argos debut Saturday, a 19-15 season-opening road loss to Edmonton. Toronto’s defence didn’t play badly, holding the Eskimos to 236 yards passing and 68 yards rushing, but the unit did receive its share of the 18 penalties the visitors were flagged for in the game.
But working in McCune’s favour is his familiarity with defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones’s defence after playing for him in Calgary.
McCune is also a versatile performer in Jones’s schemes, able to play both middle linebacker and defensive end. However, he prefers lining up in the middle rather than at end opposite an offensive tackle.
“At linebacker I can run sideline to sideline and that’s what I like to do,” McCune said. “I can also see things develop better from the middle whereas on the defensive line things happen very quickly and there’s no real room for error.
“But I’m pretty comfortable at both and if there came a time where I had to play defensive end I could be comfortable doing so.”
Toronto is the sixth stop of McCune’s pro career, which began as a fifth-round selection of the Washington Redskins in 2005. McCune also spent time with Miami, Baltimore and Cleveland south of the border before joining the Stampeders in 2010.
McCune faces his former teammates Saturday when the Argos host Calgary in their home opener. McCune said he won’t have redemption on his mind against the Stampeders — who opened the season with a 38-10 home win over Montreal — but is expecting plenty of friendly banter on the field.
“Oh, there will be because of the competition that will be out there,” McCune said. “Calgary is a very good football team and I know how they operate…it’s not going to be a quiet game.
“But that’s fine, I’m just looking forward to going out there and playing the type of game I play and trying to get a win.”