- Free Agency
On a weekend where some of Canadian Football’s all-time greats were being enshrined into the CFHOF, former Alouette great Peter Dalla Riva had plenty to be proud of.
As the final playoff puzzle pieces fell into place, the three-time Grey Cup champ surveyed the evidence and like a World Wildlife Fund researcher after a rare sighting, and declared the removal of a football species off the near-extinction list.
The Alouettes are bringing the tight end back.
Ryan Bomben’s first career touchdown, which coincidentally fell on the same day his picture was on season ticket holder stubs for Fan Appreciation Day, was the exclamation mark on it.
Patrick Lavoie’s nomination for Outstanding Rookie honours confirmed it.
“I told Lavoie it’s good to see the position come back and when I talked to (Marc) Trestman he told me the kid is learning,” said Dalla Riva.
In fact, the Alouettes’ 2012 first-round pick has surpassed even the legendary Dalla Riva for first year production and you may be shocked to learn how Lavoie stack s up against other great Alouette homegrown hopes in touchdowns and receptions their first years.
Dalla Riva, the prototypical tight end of the ‘70s had only eight catches in his rookie season and four TDs his first two years. Lavoie scored three TDs his first three games, four on the season.
On the tight end evolutionary chain, Dalla Riva having Canadianized what was then an “American” position, gave way to the 80’s TE who would morph into slots—Nick Arakgi.
Lavoie has surpassed his 27 catches and thre TDs his first two seasons combined (though Arakgi busted out for 89 catches in his fourth year.)
The Alouettes’ surprise draft pick has even out-produced wideouts and slotbacks of the 90’s and 2000’s including future Hall of Famer Ben Cahoon, current TSN analyst Jock Climie and past Quebecois hopes Denis Montana and Sylvain Girard.
Even Lavoie’s current teammate Eric Deslauriers, who has taken six years to amass three TDs, has fallen off the radar screen compared to the recent Laval Rouge et Or grad.
“My goal at training camp was just to make the team,” admits the chiselled sometimes fullback from Saint-Flavie, Quebec – population “almost 800 people and about 50 would know football.”
“He’s earned it,” says Anthony Calvillo of his bodyguard originally expected only to be a major contributor only on special teams.
“He has worked his way into our starting lineup, he’s worked his way into earning more passes that are designed for him.
“He doesn’t make a lot of mistake so you have to give a lot of credit to a guy right out of college to make a major impact on our offence.”
“If you don’t believe in someone on the field you are already mentally defeated. So not going to give a young kid a chance – I just don’t buy into that.”
“Lavoie has some natural fluidness in his route-running,” says Coach Trestman, who has bulked up with maximum protection formations frequently this season, putting tight ends to both the short and the wide side of the field.
“He handles the ball well and will only get better. When we get big guys on the edges that helps the running game too.”
The tight end revival comes with a price. Where to fit the tight end in the locker room sociological scale if not on the pay scale?
Bomben was forced by the veterans on the offensive line to cough up some cash not in spite of, but because of his first career touchdown on Fan Appreciation Day against the Eskimos.
“We’re all jealous,” ruled Outstanding Offensive Lineman nominee Josh Bourke.
“Absolutely, man! I’ve been playing this game for, I don’t know, 15 years now and I haven’t even come close to scoring a touchdown. It’s all pure jealousy.”
Bomben’s TD came on a leaping grab for a leap of faith throw from Calvillo on a day when season ticket holders probably didn’t notice his picture on their stubs. Bomben hadn’t even noticed.
All year long, Als tickets have featured a series of players with a key word: “Jamel is Dominant”, “Calvillo is…” “Whitaker is…” Bomben, a reserve o-lineman, didn’t get his name featured on the slogan, but “The Alouettes are united” was the phrase, and Bomben’s name could be seen clearly on the back of a jersey in the foreground of the picture on the ticket.
Bomben forces third-string quarterback Josh Neiswander to throw him 100 passes a day, abnormal behaviour for a guard or tackle on any day, let alone gameday.
They aren’t letting him into receiver meetings, but Bomben insists he is trying to pick the brains of Als’ pass-catchers. He was never even a tight end in high school or university, save for one play at Guelph. You guessed it – a touchdown.
Bomben confesses he’s more like Lavoie than the Richardson’s or SJ Green’s of the club, but they are vital in keeping Calvillo standing upright while scanning the field for the open man on what has become common to see – the Als with only three receivers down field.
Chris Jennings, the smash mouth rumbler at running back who has won the starting job since Whitaker and Anderson have fallen to injury, is also benefitting from the physicality of two-TE sets.
“I had no idea Montreal even wanted me in the draft, or that I’d go first round,” recalls Lavoie, whose #81 jersey has become highly visible in the stands at Molson Stadium, not just because his relatives road trip en masse from his hometown several hours east of Montreal.
He’s made precious few mistakes. Training camp cramming sessions kept him up until midnight memorizing the thickest book he’s ever read – the Trestman playbook. He could see the plays clearly through the fog of 5AM wakeup calls.
Lavoie’s most potentially costly rookie mistake came last Sunday. His huge rooting section made him climb the slick cement of the north side grandstand to revel in the postgame thrill of victory, an exhausted warrior who would have much preferred they come down to field level to meet him.
He nearly wiped out on the way up.
Dalla Riva, like Jim Popp, has already taken steps to ensure these will not be the last tight end dinosaurs to stomp on Molson Stadium in future years.
Former Alouette kicker Gerry McGrath, now coach of the Concordia Stingers, asked his old teammate to work with his tight ends before the 2012 CIS season.
“I worked with four or five kids and told them about being physical, getting off the line, stance. I took pride in blocking. When I broke into the league tight end was ‘an American position’. But if you make plays and work hard, they’ll find a place for you.”
A new generation of aspiring Canadian tight ends can only hope.