August 4, 2010

Santiago makes unlikely return

Herb Zurkowsky
Montreal Gazette

MONTREAL — As debuts go, O.J. Santiago’s was hardly memorable for the Alouettes.

He got into only a handful of plays -perhaps eight or 10 -last Thursday, against Toronto. He was assessed the game’s first penalty, a 15-yarder for unnecessary roughness, and was seen scampering off the field in the second quarter, when the Als were nabbed for delay of game. The 6-foot-7, 267-pound tight end/slotback didn’t catch a pass. Indeed, he wasn’t thrown to.

But that wasn’t the story. This was -Santiago, at age 36, marked his return to professional football against the Argonauts, seven years following his last game in the National Football League, and three years since he last attended a team’s training camp.

And that’s nothing short of unique. Just to have the willpower to remain in game shape all this time was startling.

“In part, it hasn’t sunk in yet. But it felt great to get my feet wet,” Santiago said after the Als practised indoors yesterday at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard. “Once I sit back and take a look at it later … yeah … on paper, it has been seven years.

“It was a long time between regular-season games,” added the native of Whitby, Ont. “But I was always in it and ready to go. By the end of the year, I hope things progress and that I contribute and am a factor. Then I can sit back and admit it was an accomplishment.”

Eyebrows were certainly raised shortly before training camp, when the Als announced the signing of Santiago, one of the more recognizable Canadians to play in the NFL. Drafted 70th overall by Atlanta in 1997, he went to the Super Bowl with the Falcons as a rookie the following season, enjoying his most-productive season. Santiago caught 27 passes for 428 yards, scoring five touchdowns.

In 68 career games, he scored nine times between stops in Dallas, Minnesota, New England and Oakland on three separate occasions.

Montreal head coach Marc Trestman was the Raiders’ offensive co-ordinator in 2003, when Santiago started seven of 12 games, and it was a chance encounter with Trestman last winter that led to a workout.

Santiago hadn’t been on a field since 2006 and ’07, with Oakland, when his training camps were cut short by injuries. And he likely thought Lady Luck wasn’t with him again this year, when he sustained a lingering groin injury during workouts at Bishop’s University. But the Als stuck with him, knowing a player of Santiago’s size would potentially add a new dimension to the offence.

“Honestly, I didn’t think about it. We’ve got a few older guys who don’t play their age,” said offensive co-ordinator Scott Milanovich, a year older than Santiago. “You’ve seen him on the field, in his gear, and seen how big he looks. It’s a different body type.

“Like any new player, we’ll see how much he picks up and can handle, and we’ll adjust accordingly. But I think he has the ability to be very versatile and valuable in the things he can do.”

Although it would have been easy to get out of shape, Santiago continued working out, believing the phone would again ring one day. And, given his age, the chances of a call emanating from an NFL team were remote, at best. He also continues watching his diet to this day, eating oatmeal for breakfast along with protein shakes the day of games, for example.

Named after O.J. Simpson, a running back who was in his prime with the Buffalo Bills in the 1970s, Santiago drives an expensive luxury car and said he was frugal with his money while playing in the U.S. And he certainly won’t get rich while in the Canadian Football League.

“You know what it is to be a pro player and what you should do,” Santiago said. “I’ve been given the chance to come back and do those things. If you love football and they’ll pay you, I don’t see any reason not to do it. I’d play forever if I could.

“I’m sure a lot wondered about my comeback. I’m not surprised, although others are.”

Notes -Als owner Robert Wetenhall and president Larry Smith are expected to announce a contract extension for general manager Jim Popp today. Popp was in the final year of his contract. … As expected, Trestman said receiver Brian Bratton (concussion) won’t play Friday, against Saskatchewan.