With Jim Popp doing more coaching and less GMing over the next few days and weeks, his not-so-secret agents will have to pick up the slack to improve the Alouettes over the next few years. One of those not-so-secret agents, Uzsooma Okeke, is in the 7th season of his second CFL career as Football Operations Department assistant and scout.
They say “those who can’t DO anymore” teach.
Not Uzo. He can spy.
Okeke, a dominating guard and tackle over 13 years, is part of a growing number of former CFL players extending their years in Canada outside of the coaching profession by gathering intelligence on talent.
By the time he turns 43 this September, the 7-time CFL All-star will have turned in reports from espionage missions to the training camps of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Miami Dolphins.
Some NFL teams don’t want other pro clubs poking around their prized possessions. Others are welcoming.
“I like the way the Saints practice,” says Okeke between flights, having just spent a few days in the sweltering Louisiana heat. “I got to watch film and talk to personnel people, right on the field. “
“We look at guys who might help us in two or three years. You never look to address an immediate need.”
The native of Beaumont, Texas won’t see the Cowboys, the team of his boyhood dreams, because they’re training in California. But he does chuckle at the recollection of the time he blocked for NFL All-pro Emmitt Smith.
“After playing for Forrest Gregg at SMU (in Dallas) I was working at a club as a doorman. It was called ‘Fish Dance’ and a lot of the Cowboys players used to go there...Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin were regulars.
“One time I did tell Emmitt Smith he wasn’t dressed appropriately---he had a sweater vest on and you needed to have sleeves. I gave him a hard time just to mess with him. I let let him in eventually.”
Okeke never told the NFL’s all-time leading rusher of his own pro aspirations.
“I didn’t consider myself a ballplayer anymore so I never said anything. I was just another doorman.”
Then out of the blue a call came from Coach Gregg.
Playing in the CFL, like scouting for the Als, would be someone else’s suggestion. And a life-altering one.
But for then Commissioner Larry Smith’s end-run for financial survival around the geographical dictates of the “Canadian game”, players like Okeke and Anthony Calvillo may never have had their shot at 3-down football.
Gregg was launching the Shreveport Pirates and granted Okeke a tryout even though he wasn’t in his best football shape.
After another tour of duty with the Ottawa Renegades, Okeke found a home in Montreal with the Alouettes, already heavy on import lineman blocking for future CFL rushing king Mike Pringle.
“I wanted to be the best at my position,” recalls Okeke of proving himself all over again in the trenches. “I strove for that every week: to be a player who causes us to win. You have players you win in spite of or because of. I always felt I was able to be that type of player.
“They’d always come to my side if we were running out the clock....me and Verch (Pierre Vercheval) or me and Lambert (Paul Lambert).
“I don’t mean to be boastful, but I thought I was one of the best in that era, going by what we did in the scheme...Pringle doing what he did.”
There can be no doubt Okeke is deserving of Canadian Football Hall of Fame recognition. It is only a question of whether the soft-spoken Texan-turned-Montrealer will be recognized by others. He knows so much in football comes down to timing and chance.
“I have mothers and Dads pushing their sons...We get calls daily from players ,” says Okeke, who soon found out being a scout means even your barber may know talent when he sees it.
“My barber back home in Garland, Texas had a son whose knee injury prevented him from getting an NFL look. He ran a 4.3 for us at tryout camp, so we gave him a training camp invite. He didn’t make it, but got his shot.
“You give your contact info to one player, 20 others will e-mail or call to try to get the look.”
Okeke never figured he’d get a look from Popp for front-office work.
“I was still thinking about playing in 2007,” Uzo recalls. “Popp asked me to think about getting involved and I decided to do it. I’ve never looked back. I really enjoy being around the guys. Getting guys signed makes me you feel great.”
“Uzooma was such a smart and dedicated football player,” says the Als’ GM. His eagle-eye for talented players didn’t let him down when it came to playing a hunch on a future talent spy.
“Uz is such a great guy and a passionate football man and it’s been a smooth transition for him. I hope he does make it to the Hall of Fame one day...he deserves it.”
The statute of limitations is now off. Popp admits he also wanted Okeke staying in Montreal for insurance in case injuries struck the O-line of a club Popp coached that year.
“There was a couple of times I thought it was close to me getting back on the field,” Okeke admits. “I stayed around as a security blanket but Drew Grigson (Arizona Cardinals, but then an Als’ scout and brother of Colts GM Ryan Grigson) taught me a lot.”
“I love seeing more ex-players in football ops and coaching and doing well. I played with Barron Miles, Mark Washington. Now we’re all giving back after the CFL gave to us. Guys want to grow the league that gave them a chance to play.”