MISSISSAUGA — He’s one of the CFL’s most dangerous players, capable of turning a game with a big return on special teams or clutch reception.
But three years ago Chad Owens was out of football, unsure if he’d get another chance at a pro career. That opportunity finally came in June 2010 with the Toronto Argonauts and Owens has been running with it ever since.
“Do I think about it? Yeah,” Owens said Tuesday. “I reflect on that only to understand how fortunate I am to be in this position and realize you have to take advantage of every opportunity.
“I’m just truly thankful and blessed to be here, to continue my career doing big things in the playoffs moving towards our goal of winning the Grey Cup.”
The 30-year-old Hawaiian enjoyed a banner 2012 season, highlighted by amassing a pro football-record 3,863 all-purpose yards. Owens also quickly developed a rapport with first-year starter Ricky Ray, registering 94 catches for a league-high 1,328 yards and six TDs while also being tops in kickoff returns (71 for 1588 yards).
Ray and Owens helped lead Toronto to second in the East Division and the right to host its first home playoff game since 2007. The Argos face the Edmonton Eskimos in the conference semifinal Sunday afternoon at Rogers Centre.
“It’s a new season and already mentally it feels that way,” Owens said. “It’s kind of like when you’re done with your off-season and come into training camp and can’t wait to play that first game.
Eastern Semi-Final Playoff Centre
The 2012 Eastern Semi-Final matchup is set as the Toronto Argonauts host the Edmonton Eskimos. Here is everything you need to know ahead of Sunday’s game.
“You almost forget you’ve just played 18 regular-season games and the grind your body has been through. Something inside just triggers me and it’s a fresh start.”
Owens enjoyed a brilliant college career at Hawaii, becoming the school’s all-time leader in all-purpose yards and in 2004 claiming the Mosi Tatupu award as U.S. college football’s top special-teams player. But after being selected in the sixth round of the ’05 NFL draft by Jacksonville, Owens had shorts stints with the Jaguars and Tampa Bay before signing with the Colorado Crush of the Arena Football League and heading north of the border after just one AFL season.
The five-foot-seven, 182-pound Owens began his CFL career with Montreal in ’09, appearing in just one game against Toronto before being dealt to the Argos in June 2010.
Owens made an immediate impact with Toronto, being named the league’s top special-teams player. In the off-season Owens spurned an offer from the NFL’s New York Jets to sign a three-year extension (two plus an option) with the Argos before becoming the first player in CFL history to surpass 3,000 all-purpose yards in consecutive seasons in 2011.
Turning down the chance at more money south of the border to stay in Canada and provide stability for his family wasn’t a difficult decision for Owens.
“The NFL was headed towards a lockout, there were no guarantees they’d even have a season,” said the married father of three young children. “I had just gone through a great season in 2010 with a great group of guys in Toronto and felt it was the right decision for me and my family and it has proven to be.”
Argos head coach Scott Milanovich, an assistant with Montreal when Owens was there, always knew Owens could dominate on special teams. But he was pleasantly surprised to see his receiving prowess in training camp last summer.
“When he was in Montreal we liked Chad but he didn’t get an opportunity,” Milanovich said. “This year in training camp I did see it (Owens’ receiving ability), a lot of us on staff did, and I believed Chad would be a 1,300-yard receiver this year with Ricky.
“You could see in training camp they just couldn’t stop him in the slot and we’ve got some pretty good DBs. It took me until this year to realize how good he had the opportunity to be and I’m very happy for Chad, he has earned this opportunity.”
Owens entered camp eager to show he could be a top receiver with a proven quarterback like Ray under centre.
“I envisioned success,” Owens said. “I believed Ricky was going to be a guy who could come in and give us a chance and give me a chance to be able to perform like I knew I could. “But it has opened up what we can do as an offence as a whole.”
The lone blemish on Owens’ season has been turnovers. He has fumbled 10 times this year, losing eight.
“That’s the only complaint I’ve got about Chad,” Milanovich said. “He needs to concentrate on locking up the ball a little more . . . just like Ricky needs to make good decisions and our defence needs to get turnovers.
“There’s more of an emphasis on Chad because he gets so many touches and you want the ball in the hands of your best players.”
Success, though, hasn’t changed Owens, who remains the humble, team-first player he was when he first arrived in Toronto. Given the long, bumpy road Owens took to CFL stardom, he realizes just how quickly football can be taken away.
“It is so true,” he said. “This league, this game, this career is all about getting the right opportunity at the right time . . . all it takes is opportunity.
“If you’re one of the guys on a roster, on a team in any league you need to really take advantage because there’s plenty of other guys out there who are better than you but haven’t gotten the opportunity.”
Edmonton swept the season series against Toronto 2-0 but the Argos come in having won their final two regular-season contests. The Eskimos have dropped three straight and eight-of-10 overall.
But for Owens, a loss Sunday would tarnish his gaudy 2012 accomplishments.
“Lose and you’re done,” Owens said. “This is the playoffs, everyone is at 0-0.
“What’s going to win us this game are alignment and assignment, details, doing your job and playing hard with passion. We respect them but it’s on us. If we take care of business and do what we’re supposed to do we’ll give ourselves the best chance to win.”