Metaphors are all around us. Look closely and you can spy them everyday, everywhere. They even pop up at a football game. There was one for all to see, late in the fourth quarter of the Toronto Argonauts’ 38-21 win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Tuesday night.
In a massive tangle of a couple of thousand pounds of humanity, there it was: A metaphor for running back Curtis Steele’s career as an Argo.
With the Argos scrimmaging from the Winnipeg 50 yard line, Steele takes a hand off from quarterback Ricky Ray and jukes to avoid a diving Zach Anderson, the Bombers’ defensive tackle who’d slipped into the backfield and looked good to blow up the play.
Steele bursts through the line, before veering to his left and taking on a Bombers’ tackler at the first down marker. Then another tackler. And another. All the while, his Argonaut teammates are joining the fray, looking to counter the collective downward force of those Winnipeg defenders.
Having racked up 119 total yards and two touchdowns in Tuesday’s win over the Blue Bombers, Argos running back Curtis Steele received high praise from quarterback Ricky Ray.“They were coming off a short week . . . at the end of the game when it was still tight, for us to be able to run like we did and kind of wear them out really helped us.”
Steele disappears underneath all those helmets and shoulder pads. Comically, the pile is growing, but keeps moving, like a mutant crab with a dozen extra legs. Six Bombers and four Argos surround him when he is brought down at the 30 yard line.
The whistle finally blows. An official peers into the pile to check for survivors. Or, maybe, just to see if there’s been a fumble. There hasn’t. Steele surfaces with an Argos’ first down.
I’ll get to why that play is a metaphor for Curtis Steele’s time in Toronto in a second but, first, I have to know: What does THAT feel like for a running back?
“It really made me feel like the Man of Steel,” the second year Argo says with a laugh. “I just lowered the shoulder and kept my legs driving. Continued to move my feet. It’s just a wonderful feeling, man. You just feel really strong, like you could carry the world.”
Not the answer I expected because, frankly, it looks like being stuck underneath that blob of bodies would be frightening and miserable. Steele admits that it’s not all fun, assuring that Bomber defenders were doing all they could to get him to give up the football, something he was reluctant to do.
“High and tight,” he said of the way he was carrying that rock. “No way they were gettin’ that ball.”
On that play, you see Steele, then you don’t. He disappears for a short period of time, then emerges again, front and centre. That is how one play serves as a metaphor for Curtis Steele’s time in Argoland.
Making the Toronto roster, in 2013, as understudy to Chad Kackert, Steele got his looks. He spelled Kackert the odd time and filled in as a starter when the 2012 Grey Cup MVP was injured.
Then, Steele got injured himself. Another running back, Jerious Norwood came in. Kackert returned. Steele disappeared, figuratively, into the pile. When Kackert retired, the Argonauts brought in competition for Steele at tailback, in the form of Steve Slaton and Jeremiah Johnson.
Down the depth chart again, the 27-year old Franklin, Tennessee native came front and centre on Tuesday night, scoring two touchdowns and rushing for 92 yards despite not beginning the evening as the featured back.
“This year I just thought I might be doing the same role,” explained Steele, referring to being a full time special teamer and part time running back. “I was just being patient. I just knew that at some point in time that something was gonna happen and they would have to come to me. And that I’d just have to step up to the plate. Just be ready.”
He seems to carry himself with a great deal of pragmatism – “You live and you learn,” he said of his failure to crack the Baltimore Ravens’ roster as a special teamer in 2011. That mindset has served him well in Toronto, where he has become an invaluable kick and punt coverage demon and an indispensable substitute in the backfield.
You could easily argue that Curtis Steele ought to be the Argos’ number one running back and not just because he stole the show Tuesday night. He won’t make that argument, however, saying he is content with whatever role the Argos carve out for him. Still, for a brief time, he may have felt a little overlooked when Slaton and Johnson arrived at training camp.
“Um… a little bit, a little bit,” he concedes, before quickly dismissing that as nothing big. “I mean, not really because this is the game of football. You’re always competing. They’re always bringing in someone. You might be the guy they feel comfortable about but you’ve always gotta prove your worth. Every play.”
“I loved it (the competition) because it brought the best out of me and it brought the best out of the other backs,” he continued. “Because they knew it wasn’t going to be easy taking this guy’s spot. It brought the best out of all of us which is what you want.”
With both Slaton and Johnson nicked up, Steele might get the start against the BC Lions on Sunday. If neither Slaton nor Johnson can spell him, the more than capable Anthony Woodson would need to be ready for more action than he’s seen this season, as you can’t have Steele playing every single down on offence and every single down on special teams.
Injuries have made for an interesting situation in Toronto’s backfield this season, with four different tailbacks earning featured time in the Double Blue backfield:
» C. Steele: 35 ATT, 239 yards, 3 TD » S. Slaton: 25 ATT, 129 yards, 0 TD » J. Johnson: 16 ATT, 97 yards, 0 TD » A. Coombs: 8 ATT, 75 yards, 0 TD
“No man, that’s very tough,” answers Steele, when asked about a full game at tailback AND on specials. “That’s very tough. You’re asking a lot of a player. Trying to do that, full-time, you’re taking a lot out of that player. You’re also putting a lot on his body.”
Sounded like he might not be quite finished with that thought, however, and before the next question is asked, he says “I don’t know…. I might be able to, but I don’t know, man.”
So, he might be up for the challenge, if asked.
Whatever pile the Argonauts show him, Curtis Steele will try to move it. Figuratively and literally.
THE EXTRA POINT
Steele’s rise on special teams has been a bit meteoric. Having almost no experience with it – other than returning kicks – in high school or college, he didn’t really get to know the job until he was plopped into the assignment in a game against Edmonton, last fall.
“It just started from there and I just tried to get comfortable with it,” said Steele, who had one special teams tackle during the regular season and two in the Eastern Final.
More than just accepting the role, Steele decided to embrace it.
“I just tried to lock in and tried to dominate. I just try to get better at it each and every week.”
As for those who believe American running backs don’t have a craving for the nastiness of it all, Steele’s happy with trying to explode the myth.
“I like that. Some people think ‘aw, he’s a running back.’ They don’t expect that out of running backs. Taking pride in special teams.”
Steele has six special teams tackles this season, tied for second spot on the Argos with Shane Horton. James Yurichuk leads the Boatmen with eight.