Ejiro Kuale isn’t quite sure just when the fever first hit. It started innocently enough, when he was playing Pop Warner football and he found he was a natural leader, as far back as the age of seven.
He’d fire up his teammates before a big game. Check that. He’d fire up his teammates with some kind of high energy performance before ANY game. That love of football, that seemingly endless pool of energy, has developed into something remarkable and maybe even crucial to the success of the 2012 Toronto Argonauts.
“I always say we need to transform into an Argonaut when we step onto the field and that’s part of the process,” Kuale explained, a little cryptically.
“You’ve gotta be intense, ” he continued. Ironically, he said it in a low key way, contrary to the beast he was describing. “It needs to be electric in the locker room for everybody to be on the same page.”
Ask an Argo how much they love Kuale’s pre-game pump up session and they’ll tell you it might just be essential. Ask an Argo to describe it and that’s another story.
“Can’t be done unless it’s HBO,” wisecracked head coach Scott Milanovich.
Quarterback Ricky Ray can’t find the precise words, but he can give you an example of the furious tornado that is E.J. Kuale in the moments leading up to his team’s exit from the locker room, just before kick-off.
“One game he flipped a table over,” began Ray, as a smirk started to crease his face. “He spilled the Gatorade. I was standing right there and all of a sudden my foot got really hot. I was like ‘man, did something hit me?’ And there was hot coffee on the table too. Now, I stand back a little further because he can get pretty intense.”
That was free safety Jordan Younger’s immediate utterance when told the topic of discussion was Kuale’s traditional human blender impersonation.
“He’s one hundred per cent a ball of energy. I don’t know how he stays wired like that for an entire football game. We feed off his energy, you know what I mean?”
Football fans have been witness to the speed and energy of the third year Argo, first as a linebacker and now as a defensive end in coordinator Chris Jones’ system of fast-moving, interchangeable pieces. Not only that, the product of Louisiana State University is a prized member of coordinator Mike O’Shea’s special teams.
O’Shea, who calls Kuale a “special character,” wasn’t able or willing to take a shot at describing Kuale’s pre-game magic. When I attempted to draw a comparison between Kuale and the Energizer Bunny, he shook his head.
“Saying Kuale and bunny in the same sentence? Unless he’s that rabbit from Monty Python, the one that bites people’s heads off, then I’m not okay with that analogy,” he said. “If it’s any other rabbit, it doesn’t make sense to me.”
When I turn back to Kuale for an explanation, he feels around for the words to describe it all.
“When it’s time for me to break down, when Chad (Owens) looks me in the eye, he gets that energy. Then Coach O’Shea looks me in the eye and everybody looks me in the eye… it’s time to go.”
If he can’t quite pinpoint the exact time and birthplace of his penchant for firing up teammates, he does know exactly when it made it to the next level, where simple pre-game frivolity became unstoppable ritual.
As a high school player, Kuale’s teams had been ousted from a berth in the state championship every season. They weren’t even supposed to get close in his senior year, after losing their starting quarterback. Knowing they needed something special to pull together, Kuale introduced a new level of performance art, and pushed his Mainland, Daytona high school team to a district championship.
“I just had to think of something to bring our team together and it worked,” he said. His performance on the field may have had a little something to do with it, as well. That year, Kuale racked up 120 tackles, 9.5 sacks and 7 forced fumbles.
Kuale’s pigskin ritual is an ever-changing entity, it seems, with most of it just spooling out once he gets wound up.
“Once the music gets playing, that’s when I start dancing. I start feeling it. Close to game time, that’s when I start getting aggressive. I might dump out a water jug. I might flip a table (see Ricky Ray). Then, everybody knows it’s game time. No nonsense, no more smiles. It’s time to go out there and get this win.”
“I try to give a pre-battle speech and it’s just straight off the dome,” said Kuale, off his freelance vocal ways. “It gets a little bit explicit.” (see Scott Milanovich) “Yes, I go off, but we’re not gonna talk about that now,” he said with a grin.
Not that everything is original, spur of the moment Kuale. One of his favourite phrases to use is “there are no words between Lions and men,” a slightly altered line from the movie “Troy.”
He likes the line and the movie, he says, because of a scene he enjoys, where warriors charge off their boat and storm the beach. It’s nautical, you see, and apt for an Argonaut.
“For the Grey Cup, I got a speech that no one’s ever heard,” he teased. “It’s centred around ‘Argonaut.’ War. Trojans. Spartans. It’s all about that.”
Sounds like Kuale might already be getting keyed up. Could he reach dangerous levels before game time Sunday? That’s not likely to happen, he assures, as a teammate keeps him in line, whenever things look to be getting a little too ‘out there’ during the locker room transformation.
“Usually, it’s J.Y.,” he said of Younger. “He’ll be like ‘five!’ (Kuale’s jersey number) ‘Okay, that’s enough.”
Younger is happy to let Kuale walk the line, to take over the room, because it’s essential to the whole.
“He means it from the bottom of his heart,” Younger explained. “You can see it in his body language, you can see it in his eyes. How passionate he is about the game. How passionate he is about being out there with us. And we just feed off of that. That’s why we let him lead it.”
“I’m always hyped, 24/7, when it comes to football,” shrugged Kuale. “I always like to see the reaction of my teammates when I turn it up to the next level.”
Grey Cup Sunday, his teammates might see a level they’d never even imagined.