Robert McCune is moving his head forward and back in quick and jerky motions, chin jutting out, and with a grin on his face. Over and over again.
To see him from afar, he looks like one tough hombre. Professional linebacker, ex-National Guardsman. And here he is, up close, moving his head like a chicken, in comical fashion.
Not so much a chicken, actually. More like a piston. Or, a hammer.
Like many, I automatically jumped to the conclusion that the 34-year-old native of Mobile Alabama was nicknamed 'The Hammer' because of the position he plays and the ferocity of blows he lays on ball carriers.
"If you watch film, you can see, if I’m at a full sprint, my head kind of does that." He shows me again. "I noticed that.”
'Hammer' actually started out as 'Hammerhead,' a nickname given McCune before he ever got into football, before he ever barreled into a running back.
At the age of 15 or 16 - he's not exactly sure when - and a sprint star at Leflore High, his buddies got a kick out of the way his head moved when he was booking it.
"When I ran, my head was always thrusting," he explains, his noggin moving again.
|Shoring up the defence|
"First two or three games we had a couple of breakdowns that made the score come up on us. Now, the young guys, they’re starting to get it, they’re starting to learn the defence. I think mostly just starting to get a feel for what it is to play in the CFL. We’re coming along. We’re coming along."
- Argos LB Robert McCune on the progression of the Toronto defence.
"They started calling me 'Hammerhead.'
While sprinting remained a love of his - McCune was a member of the University of Louisville track team - he got noticed as a football player and the nickname got shortened.
“As I got older and started making the big hits, they took the ‘head’ off of it and just starting calling me ‘Hammer.’
'Hammer' is having a pretty good season for the Argonauts, among the league leaders in tackles, with 38. That places him fourth and just 7 shy of Montreal's Chip Cox for the overall lead. McCune would be even closer, he reckons, if only he'd made a few more takedowns that he feels he should have.
"Sometimes I have eight tackles, go watch film and I see I could have had twelve," he says matter-of-factly.
McCune led the Argos in tackles in 2012 and that's something he'd like to do again. While last year's 86 marked a career high, this season his average number of tackles per game has him on target to finish 2013 with 114, which would be the third highest single season total in team history.
It's been a very productive first third of a season for McCune. That he would be needed in such a way came as no surprise to him, what with all the new faces in front of him on the Argos' defensive line, so many more behind him in the secondary.
Argonauts' General Manager Jim Barker had indicated during training camp that the linebacking corps would have to be steady early on. McCune and fellow linebacker Marcus Ball have been more than that so far this season. They knew they'd have to lead, says McCune, having dealt with a similar situation when he arrived in Toronto at the beginning of the 2012 season.
"I got that message last year. When coach (defensive coordinator Chris Jones) reached out to me and asked me to come over here, he said he needed me to be a leader, help the young guys out. He didn’t really have to say it this year because he knows what type of guys he has in me and Marcus."
"He’s vocal when he needs to be vocal and sometimes he blends in with the group," said Jones, describing The Hammer's leadership style. "When he needs to step up and say something, he’ll step up. In camp we had a little issue and he stepped up and talked in front of the entire team. When he needs to do something he does it."
"I’m not a big rah rah guy," McCune offers. "But if I can help any of the players on the field, off the field, I will. That’s what I’m here for. That’s what a middle linebacker will do."
For McCune, football is pretty much all about pursuit. Be it of the guy in opposing colours who happens to have the ball, or of his own quest to be a little more perfect, each and every game. While he knows that being flawless for a whole match is a little like harpooning the Loch Ness Monster - "I don’t think nobody in football ever had a perfect game," he says - it doesn't keep him from the attempt.
"It’s a progression. If it were perfect we wouldn’t need the coaches out here," he says, one handing sweeping the practice field in front of us. "We could just go play the game."
Of course it is not that simple and the seemingly endless hours of film work and scheming, while essential, can never completely and accurately replicate what a middle linebacker will experience on the field on a weekly basis.
"That’s just the game of football. It’s never perfect. The x’s and o’s move," he says with a grin.
When that happens, all those x's and o's launching at the snap of the ball, McCune needs to be in the right spot in order to be able to do what then seems simple.
"I see the ball. I run to the football like I’m supposed to."
Middle linebackers traditionally need to be among the most fleet afoot on a football team's defence, pound for pound the most explosive combination of speed and hitting force. Whether meeting a running back head on in the trenches or hightailing it to the sidelines to crash into a pass receiver. Jones' defence depends on it and the coach praises McCune's reliability.
"He’s a guy that you can depend on and he’s gonna give you the same thing each and every day. He’s a great effort guy and it goes without being said what kind of physical shape he’s in."
With a third of the season done and those new faces on the Argos' defence progressing as a unit, the man in the middle of it takes stock of the strides that have been made. While the Boatmen have given up a league worst 394 yards of offence per game, they've yielded only 23.5 points per game, second-stingiest in the CFL.
"First two or three games we had a couple of breakdowns that made the score come up on us," says McCune. "Now, the young guys, they’re starting to get it, they’re starting to learn the defence. I think mostly just starting to get a feel for what it is to play in the CFL. We’re coming along. We’re coming along."
"It’s still not perfect," says the man formerly known as 'Hammerhead.'
The Extra Point
McCune and the rest of the members of the Argos' defence were each given a piece of paper and a pen at the beginning of the year by Jones. On that paper, he asked them to write down all their personal goals.
At the top of McCune's list was the goal of again leading the Argonauts defence in tackles. But there were others.
"Second one was try to make all-star," he said. "Third one was be great on all my assignments, which like I said earlier is a progression. My other goal was try to help the team in any way, you know win the Grey Cup. If it’s on special teams, if it’s on defence, that’s pretty much it."
A freelance broadcaster and writer, Don is also the in-stadium announcer for Toronto Argonauts home games. A familiar voice to Toronto sports fans, he hosted the morning show at The FAN for more than 10 years. Follow Don on Twitter @CFLLandry