THE CANADIAN PRESS
TORONTO -- He's still unsigned just over three weeks before CFL training camps are scheduled to open, but Noel Prefontaine still has reason to smile.
For the first time in years, the veteran kicker/punter is pain-free.
The 39-year-old was limited to seven regular-season games last season after being forced to undergo major hip surgery in the summer. He returned earlier than expected to help the Toronto Argonauts win the historic 100th Grey Cup game but was released less than a month later.
After starting his off-season workouts in March -- two months later than usual to give his hip more recovery time -- Prefontaine is no longer experiencing the lower back and hip pain he endured for years before finally going under the knife.
Prefontaine admits he's not ready yet to resume playing but remains intent on continuing his CFL career. And when Prefontaine returns to the field, it will likely after a team's regular punter or kicker is injured or struggles badly once the 2013 season begins.
A California native, Prefontaine is deemed a non-import in the CFL because he spent time growing up in Quebec.
"My hip feels really good right now and I still feel I can be productive and help a football team win," he said. "I'm still a good two months away from being game-ready in my opinion but there are no after-affects anymore.
"I'm no longer going out there to kick and having to take a few days or a week off to let it rest. I can pretty much go out and kick every day right now."
The five-foot-11, 205-pound Prefontaine began his CFL career with Toronto in 1998 and spent 10 seasons with the Argos -- with a stint in the XFL and NFL tryouts with Baltimore and Kansas City before being dealt to Edmonton prior to the 2008 season. The Eskimos dealt Prefontaine back to the Argos in October 2010.
The six-time league all-star and two-time Grey Cup champion has appeared in 235 career CFL regular-season games. Prefontaine boasts a career 45.8-yard punting average and has made 332-of-457 career field goal attempts (72.6 per cent).
Prefontaine opened the 2012 season with Toronto but the club looked to American rookie Swayze Waters to handle its kicking and punting duties in Prefontaine's absence. Prefontaine returned ahead of schedule to resume punting chores after Waters suffered a hand injury that prevented him from handling third-down snaps.
There didn't appear to be anything wrong with Prefontaine's hip in Toronto's 35-22 Grey Cup win over Calgary at Rogers Centre last November. He averaged a solid 44.6 yards on seven punts but admitted afterwards he was nowhere near 100 per cent.
Prefontaine said he's been working out four-to-five times weekly this off-season and has spent time on the field kicking and punting. And each time, Prefontaine adds, his back has been more than able to handle the workload.
"I'm able to do all the things I need to do in order to prepare for a season," he said. "I'm not kicking every day but I am training with weightlifting, doing cardio and running in addition to kicking.
"It's really the only thing I know in terms of getting ready for the season and I'm just going to approach it that way."
When Toronto released Prefontaine in December, GM Jim Barker kept the door open to Prefontaine possibly returning sometime down the road. That would certainly be ideal for Prefontaine, a married father of two young children with a baby girl due in July who has an off-season job with Canadian Title Loans, a Toronto-based company that provides vehicle finance options to consumers.
Prefontaine says he'd consider playing for any team once he's healthy. Last season, Prefontaine was able to play football and work with Canadian Title Loans during the season and would prefer to have a similar situation in 2013.
That's because Prefontaine understands, given his age and health issues, his CFL tenure will continue on a year-to-year basis although Prefontaine believes he has at least three good seasons left in him.
"I think there's a lot of question marks for teams," Prefontaine said. "I think there were question marks for Toronto.
"I have no ill will towards Toronto, if I was sitting in their shoes looking at my situation I would've done the same thing. The only thing I can do as a player is get ready, get an opportunity to play again this year and show I can do it at a high level."
Even if that means being employed as just a punter or kicker.
I'd be open to that," Prefontaine said. "I'm training and preparing to do all three because I'll never know exactly what issue a team is going to have.
"If a team needs me to do just one I'm fine with that."
But should Prefontaine's CFL career be over, having it end on a winning note in an iconic championship game isn't a shabby way to go.
"The way I see it, I've accomplished a lot in this game," he said. "I've had the privilege of playing for 15 years and if this is how it's supposed to end, then it really couldn't end any better."
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