Sometimes when life knocks you down, no matter how hard it is, football gets you back up. It provides a getaway – a chance to let out raw emotion; to make an impact in ways that are often otherwise impossible.
Then there are times when football knocks you down, and usually, that’s when life kicks in. It provides context – the realization that football’s a game and other things are more important.
Cary Koch knows what it’s like to be knocked down both in life and football. And in each of those things, he’s gotten back up.
It’s his third season in the CFL, and with some help from injuries elsewhere, he’s moved up to number-two on the Eskimos’ depth chart at receiver.
The 26-year-old has 622 yards and six touchdowns in that role this season, and he’s shown a propensity for making the big play exactly when it’s needed.
An emerging playmaker
In his first season with the Eskimos, Cary Koch hasn’t been shy to make the big play, earning his spot in the weekly Top 10 plays on more than one occasion.
More than that though, and it’s something you might not see through just numbers alone, he’s found something he couldn’t during two seasons in Riderville: a team that truly believes in him.
Right now, he’s high on life and football.
But the path here wasn’t so simple, and just like with any player in this sport, the future is no guarantee either.
A road less traveled
In 2005 Koch took the first big step to becoming a professional football player, earning a full scholarship at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, a stone’s throw away from his hometown of Baton Rouge.
A month into his freshman year, before the season even officially kicked off, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the state, including Baton Rouge and especially New Orleans. Told to pack their bags for two or three days, Koch and his team were evacuated the night before the storm hit.
“We had to charter bus the whole team to Jackson State, and we slept on their gym floor for two or three nights and the hurricane actually came up to Jackson State, so we lost power there,” says Koch.
After that the team moved around with Southern Methodist University in Dallas, stationed in a hotel for 17 nights and practising and playing games from there.
They were relocated to Louisiana Tech after that, where the students could finally enroll in classes while living in a condemned dorm that was re-opened.
“It was just traumatizing,” Koch recalls. “A lot of people were from New Orleans or Louisiana so we all had family back home, and the focus was not on football it was more on life and the things that were happening in our state.”
But with the ongoing trauma of the hurricane also came opportunity for Koch and other first-year players. That’s where life and sport intersect in this story.
The seniors all had off-campus housing and cars that were destroyed in the storm. The freshmen, meanwhile, had lost only some possessions in their dorms.
“It kind of gave us freshmen a time to shine and step up, and it kind of filled the roles of these older guys that were worrying about these things back home and kind of shutting down from football things.”
With an expanded role, Koch enjoyed a strong freshman season, despite life’s distractions. He made the freshman all-conference team, putting together a nice little resume and emerging as a player with plenty of pro potential.
The next year though, he decided he needed a change of scenery. With the city and team rebuilding around him, it was time for something different.
He re-recruited himself, and with help of his coach at Tulane, found a spot with the University of Virginia under Coach Al Groh, where the NCAA allowed him to transfer without sitting out a year because of the circumstances of the hurricane.
The next three years didn’t go so well for Koch.
“We were called ‘tight end university’ and usually used just two receivers, and I was playing the slot which is the third receiver in the game, so I didn’t really see a lot of offensive production,” says Koch.
“I was playing special teams and still hanging around to do what I could do to help the team, but offensively we weren’t really a powerhouse, throwing offence, we were more of a tight end, big down sets with big running backs and we just ran the ball a lot.”
After spending the off-season preparing for a fifth collegiate season, Koch was denied eligibility for the extra season and forced to graduate earlier than planned.
His redshirt status had been burned during his sophomore season after playing in just two games, but the team was optimistic he would get it back.
Upon graduating, he wasn’t prepared for a pro day, passing on his chance for NFL teams to take a close look at him. His agent helped him attend mini camps for Washington, San Francisco, and Dallas, and while they helped him re-gain his confidence, nothing came of the opportunity.
Movin’ on up
“It’s been a great joy of mine to just see my career develop and I feel like it’s definitely on the rise right now. They’re calling my number quite often, so I think it’s really a chance for me to step into that role and continue to build chemistry within the team.”
– Cary Koch on his growing role
That’s what led him to the CFL.
“The spring of 2010 came around, and with that confidence of those NFL camps it just kind of gave me the fuel I needed to do a pro day,” recalls Koch. “In that training period for the pro day, Saskatchewan came down and had a tryout in Baton Rouge.”
“I signed in late February and the rest is kind of history.”
The Next Step
Koch had 299 yards and three touchdowns in his first season with the Roughriders, showing an ability to make big plays and possibly carving out a future for himself in the league.
The following year, primed to be a top receiver and an important cog in the Riders’ offence, a hand injury made his football future cloudy once again.
“I think they were going to let me run in Saskatchewan and kind of take over and see if I could be the guy,” says Koch. “Breaking my hand really put at a disadvantage and kind of behind the eight-ball, and I really just didn’t get a shot after that.”
“They kind of moved on after I hurt myself, and after I came back I just didn’t get a shot to prove myself,” he recalls. “That hurt my feelings.”
At the end of the 2011 season, he returned to his hometown of Baton Rouge. His contract with the Riders was nearing the end, and there didn’t appear to be a future with the Roughriders.
Koch trained hard, hoping he could land on his feet and continue playing professional football. But with a degree in economics, and an interest in pursuing a career in law just like his father, a lawyer, he also kept his eyes open for other opportunities.
On the first day of free agency, after the Riders hadn’t been in touch all off-season, Koch’s agent received a call from the Eskimos. He became the first free agent to be signed in 2012.
“Working with my agent, he said Edmonton had shown slight interest in me, even while I was on the practice roster with the Roughriders my first year,” says Koch. “So we knew that they definitely had some interest in me even before I played with the Riders.”
“Being the first player picked up in free agency, I think that spoke of how the Eskimos thought of me as a player and as a person. That was definitely encouraging.”
This season, Koch had renewed motivation in football. He got married in April to his wife, Tyler Gordy, just in time to make the 41-hour drive to Edmonton for the start of training camp.
On the field, life with the Eskimos couldn’t be better. He’s emerged as a favourite among fans and teammates, while he’s caught league-wide attention for a number of exciting highlight-reel plays.
Most importantly, he feels like he has a future in football. Something that’s possible eluded him at certain times throughout his career up to now.
“I feel great, I feel like I can have a few more years here and I think I can be the guy,” he says. “I think I’m ready to step up and continue to be a dependable guy who’s going to make the plays whenever the team needs me to do that.”
His extended role with the Eskimos is something he’s never experienced in his professional career, and with the combination of snaps on offence along with special teams duties with returning punts and kickoffs, he’s been given a new sense of responsibility with the Green and Gold.
“It’s been a great joy of mine to just see my career develop and I feel like it’s definitely on the rise right now,” he says. “They’re calling my number quite often, so I think it’s really a chance for me to step into that role and continue to build chemistry within the team.”
“I think it’s an exciting position for me because I feel like I’m finally seasoned enough and ready to really take on that role.”
This might not have been possible without the Eskimos taking a shot in the dark, though, and giving Koch the chance he’s been waiting for.
“I feel like in Saskatchewan they didn’t let me spread my wings and let me battle through some ups and downs, and just see if I could battle with some adversity and competition,” says Koch.
In Edmonton, he was given that chance.
“Coming to Edmonton from Saskatchewan, it couldn’t have been an easier situation for me,” he says. “The team accepted me and I just kind of worked my way into the system.”
He didn’t expect to find himself surging up the depth chart so quickly, but with injuries to Adarius Bowman and Tyler Scott, suddenly Koch had a chance to prove himself.
The rest, of course, is history.
“I think that played a major part in it, I was able to just put the confidence in the coaches and the quarterbacks and the team that I could carry my weight and step up and be in that role.”
For Koch right now, neither life nor football could be better.