On the field a large media scrum sways around Argonauts returner and receiver Chad Owens Thursday morning, because he will win the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player award a few hours later, and because he is Toronto’s most recognizable weapon.
Owens looks supremely confident holding court; he is listed a generous 5-foot-8, but with shoulders back in the middle of the horde he looks eight feet tall. If Argos quarterback Ricky Ray continuously drops the ball into Owens’ hands this Sunday, so many believe Toronto will win the 100th Grey Cup.
He and his teammates, Owens insists, are all playing their part in “destiny.”
Off to the sidelines, sitting on an aluminum bench, Toronto Dontrelle Inman stares up at the empty blue seats inside the Rogers Centre with simple wonder.
The lithe 6-foot-2, 197 pounds rookie receiver is talking about being the cause that produces a winning effect. Inman caught a two-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ricky Ray at the start of the third quarter of last Sunday’s division final to tie the game.
“A spark plug fires so the engine can start,” Inman says. “We needed a spark [last Sunday]. Ricky threw a great ball and coach made a great call, the offensive line blocked it well, and we just schemed it right.
“I always say on the sidelines. ‘We need a spark, no matter who it is or what it is, we need one.”
Inman is asked if he can be a catalyst Sunday: With the eyes of fans and Calgary Stampeders alike tracking Ray and Owens, maybe history will remember the contributions of the tall skinny kind wearing No. 11. Inman smiles wide.
“If my number is called I’ll be prepared,” he says. “But at the same time we have so much talent. I feel like, when we come out this Sunday everybody is going to be the spark plug.”
In a season when Ray’s development in Toronto’s offence was thoroughly scrutinized, the quarterback quickly developed a connection with Inman, who replaced injured veteran Maurice Mann during training camp. Ray launched the ball three times to Inman in Toronto’s home opening win against Calgary Week 2, and in his second professional game, the Virginia product made three receptions for 107 yards with two touchdowns.
Inman finished as Toronto’s third ranked receiver, with 50 receptions for 803 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Among receivers with 50 or more catches, Inman finished top five with an average of 16.1 yards per catch. A hamstring injury meant he caught no passes in October, and it likely ruined his bid to be named East division rookie of the year.
Inman tries to compose himself as he enumerates all his accomplishments in 2012, and talks about possibly winning the Grey Cup in Toronto, but modesty is pointless: Inman is 23, carefree and confident, and about to step onto the biggest stage.
“I’m striving to be the best, and striving to do the best that I can,” he says.
His rough edges are visible. Toronto receiving coach Kez McCorvey demands Inman catch passes with his fingertips after a few early season throws bounced off his chest and morphed into interceptions. And Inman, with the speed of an unbroken colt, even slammed into the goal post in a Week 11 game against Hamilton. The timing will come, says Mann.
“We taught [Dontrelle] everything that we know,” Mann says about he, Jason Barnes and Ken-Yon Rambo making Inman their collective project. “Everything that I would have done I told Dontrelle, Rambo has told Dontrelle, and Jason Barnes has told Dontrelle. He thanks me all the time for what I’ve helped him do.
“The boy has great hands — a lot of the catches that you see the average receiver probably can’t make. He goes up for the ball really well, and that is not taught.”
With Toronto losing in the third quarter of its Week 9 game against Edmonton, Ray arced a beautiful throw 20 yards to the back of Edmonton’s end zone. Inman watched the ball fall as he ran behind Eskimos defensive back Rod Williams. Then Inman uncoiled his whole body to grab the touchdown before Williams could set his feet.
“Some guys you just click with right away, and [Inman’s] one of them,” Ray says.
The media is moving off the field, and Inman is staring at his hands. His fingers are long and bony, and look like retractable hooks. His palms are calloused. The young man still learning his craft says catching a football feels as natural as breathing.
“When I think about my hands and I think about my feet, I just think about how much of a blessing it is, because at times I might make a catch but I don’t understand how I made that catch,” Inman says blinking. “I could make a crazy grab and I’ll get up after that grab and I’ll be like, ‘I don’t know how I caught that ball…but I did.’”
The field is almost bare now, and Inman stares out at the artificial green space, and has a toothy, fearless smile. On Sunday the space could belong to him. Toronto head coach Scott Milanovich says the next play is the only one that matters, and Inman thinks about little else.
“All I see [on the field] is me, [the defender], and the ball, that’s it,” he says. “I see the ball leave Ricky’s hands, I see the ball in the air, and I see the position of the defensive back…To be that spark.”