I’m not proud of it, but I’ll admit it.
I told Toronto Argonauts punter Noel Prefontaine to… you know…’bleep off,’ part way through my interview with him this week.
What would you do if you asked a guy what he shot on the golf course in the first game he’d played, six weeks after hip surgery and he said “82”?
“The hip didn’t really affect my chipping and putting, which is really the strong part of my game,” he smirked.
The 2012 Eastern Semi-Final matchup is just days away, as the Toronto Argonauts host the Edmonton Eskimos. Here is everything you need to know ahead of Sunday’s game.
My athletic jealousies aside, there is a reason why golf was a topic of conversation between us just after the Argos had finished up the day’s preparations for the Eastern Semi-Final against the Edmonton Eskimos.
That golf game got the 15-year veteran thinking about a quicker-than-anticipated return to booting the leather around CFL fields again. Which, in turn, has allowed him to start making third down contributions once again as he ramps it up for the post-season.
Prefontaine is back and in better punting form than he’s been for the last two and a half years, if you ask him.
Although he pegs himself at just around 85 per cent healthy, he is confident enough and sturdy enough to play an important role in the field position battle on Sunday.
Originally, he’d hoped to be an option for the Boatmen only if they ran into critical kicking trouble in the post-season. Instead, he returned to game action on October 14th, against Montreal. That golf game was a catalyst.
“The first few weeks (of rehab) were quite discouraging, with the brace I had to wear, being on crutches and going through my rehab exercises,” said
“I think the ‘a-ha’ moment was when I picked up a stick and started working on my golf swing and I started working on the rotation, you know, my hips and stuff which is what you do in your golf swing. Then I started to feel something there.”
Within two weeks of that, he punted his first post-surgery ball. “I swung my leg through and I probably kicked the ball 20 or 30 yards,” he said. “But, it was nice to feel it. Feel the impact again.”
It’s hard to know just how far back that leg of Prefontaine’s will bounce, but the early comeback numbers are mostly encouraging. A 44.3 yard average
against Montreal, 42.8 against Winnipeg a week later and then a big drop to 35.7 in Regina.
The cold weather was a culprit that day, Prefontaine admitting that the prairie chill was felt in that surgically repaired hip. Last week, against Hamilton, he posted his best numbers, reeling off seven punts for an average of 44.6 yards.
“I can feel it getting stronger,” he says, of the hip. “When you swing your leg and you feel like you don’t really have anything on it when you’re swinging it… that’s how I felt the last 2, 2 and a half years punting. I felt like I was just swinging through the motions trying to make good contact.”
“Now I feel like I’m really getting to the point where I can really try and hit it. Because it’s getting stronger. It just feels like I can get after it a little more,” said the man with 78,173 career regular season punting yards to his credit.
Check Prefontaine’s pro numbers and you can see where that bum hip started to nag him, as he says, two and a half years, or so, ago. Most of his seasonal punting averages were in the 46 or 47 yard range and then – poof – he dropped to 42 or 43 the last three seasons. This year, in limited action, he’s at 42.9 and hoping for playoff averages much higher based on confidence in that healing hip.
The Argos have their special teams captain back and his presence, beyond punting, is felt. Place kicker Swayze Waters, the CFL’s special teams player of the week after going five-for-five against Hamilton in the regular season finale, has watched and learned.
“Just watching how he carries himself,” said Waters, about what he’s gleaned. “How he prepares. That’s really the main thing I’ve gotten is being around him and watching how he does things. You can learn a lot.”
Of course, the Argos would like to see as little of Prefontaine on Sunday as possible, preferring to see his young protegé kicking extra points, instead. But, the 38 year old punter will have occasion to be out there, as is the nature of Canadian football. He hopes his leg and hip will have a banner day.
As for another Prefontaine trademark, the odd down field punt coverage tackle? He’s a little coy about that. Maybe that hip isn’t up to that quite yet.
“I’m a veteran and I understand what I should and shouldn’t be doing,” he said.
So, does that mean that if the situation presents itself, he wouldn’t shy away from the rough and tumble of downfield pursuit and collision?
“Yeah, well, you know me. Of course,” he said, with a grin.
THE EXTRA POINT
Toronto’s last Grey Cup win came eight years ago in a 27-19 win over the B.C. Lions, in Ottawa. Just a few holdovers from that team remain, including Prefontaine and fullback Jeff Johnson.
Johnson sees some similarities between this year’s edition and the one that hoisted Lord Grey’s mug along the banks of the Rideau Canal.
“The teams are quite similar,” he explained. “There was a lot of chemistry with that ’04 team. And there’s a lot with this team. It’s a young group but there’s a lot of chemistry in the locker room. Guys get along really well. We’ve had ups and downs this season and we had ups and downs that year. But things started to click later in the year and they’re starting to click later in the year for us, this year, as well.”
“In ’04, the best games our offence played were in the playoffs. Especially) in that Grey Cup game. Our offence is clicking a little late in the year here, too,” he said.
Prefontaine agrees, noting that the locker room this season has been harmonious. While the 2004 team had an ageless Damon Allen at quarterback, Prefontaine thinks they’re in even better shape now with Ricky Ray.
“I’ve always felt, and everybody knows this, it’s pretty common knowledge when you’re dealing with any football team is you’ve got to have a quarterback,” he said. “Ricky is the best quarterback that I’ve had as a teammate going into the playoffs, in my opinion.”
“We’re a better offensive team than we were when we won the Grey Cup. I think a lot of people would agree with that. That has a lot to do with
that position, with what Ricky’s done. It’s made Chad Owens the M.O.P. (Most Outstanding Player) of the East. He’s done a lot. You need a quarterback to win championships. And we’ve got that.”