October 4, 2012

Riders’ Brackenridge a big part of 2012 resurgence


Football and longevity don’t often go together.

Roughriders strong side linebacker Tyron Brackenridge is a pretty good example of that.

Aside from likely changing his clothes every day, it’s hard to figure out what’s changed more for the 28-year-old native of Pasadena, California over the first six years of his professional football career.

He’s changed teams, coaches, and cities in just about every season since his college days with the Washington State Cougars.

Since catching on with the Riders in September of last year, he’s already gone through a coaching change and a major roster overhaul. Oh, and a position change.

But as we hit October and the importance of winning increases each and every week, everything’s starting to settle into place.
With 45 tackles, two interceptions, and a punt block and touchdown on special teams, Brackenridge is making a name for himself in Riderville. Now, the only thing that’s really changed of late for the second-year Rider is his team’s Grey Cup chances.

“As long as I’ve been a professional player I’ve never played in the playoffs – that’s something I haven’t done since high school,” says Brackenridge. “Winning the Grey Cup would be huge for me.”

Being able to focus on winning a championship without thoughts of what’s next must be refreshing for the second-year Rider, who appears to be a key part of a solid foundation of youth and talent upon which the Green and White will build.

After graduating from Washington State and going undrafted in 2006, Brackenridge signed with the Kansas City Chiefs. He stuck with the Chiefs for two seasons before being cut, eventually leading him to a short stint with the New York Jets.

Just three months later, though, he was claimed off waivers by the Jacksonville Jaguars, starting five games at corner in 2009 as a result of an injury to Rashean Mathis.

But after two seasons with the Jags, Brackenridge was released yet again. He waited and hoped for another team to sign him, but with uncertainty over the impending lockout, he found himself without a team.

Position change

Tyron Brackenridge

“They knew I was an aggressive player coming in last year, they knew that I could cover and come down and make tackles as well, so they gave me confidence and them confidence to be able to put me in that position.”

– Tyron Brackenridge

» Bio: Tyron Brackenridge

That led him to Riderville.

Brendan Taman and Jeremy O’Day had the defensive back on their negotiation list, and with Brackenridge remaining unclaimed by an NFL team, they had a chance to add a key piece.

“I just wanted to play football,” says Brackenridge, who makes his off-season home with his girlfriend in the busy city of Ontario, California.  “The lockout kind of hurt me, and then I got released in training camp and I just waited around for a couple of weeks into the season and I just got impatient.”

Brackenridge knew about the CFL, and had trained with players who once played north of the border. He was also teammates with quarterback Darian Durant’s younger brother, Justin Durant, a linebacker with the Jaguars.

“So I got the phone call to come up here and play some ball, and the Riders took a chance on me and brought me in and it was lights out from there,” he says.

It didn’t take Brackenridge long at all to fall in love with his new team, and especially, its fan base.

“A lot of teams in the NFL don’t have a fan base like this, he says. “No matter what part of the province you go to you’re going to have Rider fans, and sometimes it’s half and half when you go to other games – it still feels like a home game.”

Playing in Saskatchewan, he says, reminds him of his college days with the Cougars. They played in one of the smallest stadiums in the Pac-10 Conference, holding just 32,000 fans – but they were rabid.

“So I’m a little familiar with being in a town similar to this,” says Brackenridge. “Fans here are unreal, they embrace you. It’s hard to say in words I guess because I haven’t been in an environment on a professional team like this. It’s kind of like college.”

The path on the field wasn’t always so clear. The Riders were 4-9 when he was added to the practice roster in late September, having already fired first-year head coach Greg Marshall and replacing him with Ken Miller.

Then a defensive back, Brackenridge was simply trying to make the best of a grim situation in Saskatchewan, but had trouble making a major impact in his first CFL months. After finishing the season with seven tackles, he turned his attention to the following season.

“No one wants that nasty taste in their mouth again,” he says. “Coming into a program that has history of winning, to have a down year like that it was very ugly, it was very upsetting.”

Once again, a lot changed for Brackenridge. And quickly.

This time, though, the change was happening around him. He was one of the few constants, on a roster and coaching staff that had been given a makeover.

A day to remember

Tyron Brackenridge

Brackenridge had his best game as a Rider back on September 2, blocking a punt and returning it for a touchdown in the Riders’ 52-0 win over the Bombers. The linebacker also added an interception and three tackles.

» Video: Brackenridge punt block TD

Taman and co. hired Chamblin, now the youngest coach in the league, to change the mentality in the room and the outlook of the club.

“It was more of a ‘want to’ mentality, more of a ‘win’ mentality, more of a ‘championship’ mentality,” says Brackenridge of the team after Chamblin took over.

The changes didn’t stop there. Back in town for training camp and ready to erase the 2011 campaign, the six-foot, 189-pound defensive back learned he’d be playing a new position this year.

Suddenly, Brackenridge was penciled in at the dime, or sam linebacker position, on the strong side.

Learning an entirely different position in just your second season in the league can never be an easy task. But the role also put the newly-anointed linebacker in a position on the field where he could make more plays.

“Being in this position you’re around the ball more often than not, and our defence is built to put the dime in a position to make a lot of plays and be around the ball,” he says, recalling the added responsibility.

“They knew I was an aggressive player coming in last year, they knew that I could cover and come down and make tackles as well, so they gave me confidence and them confidence to be able to put me in that position.”

Since then, all Brackenridge has done is make plays. He currently sits atop the team leaderboard in tackles with 54. His two interceptions, meanwhile, fall short of his goal of five on the season right now. But it’s still enough to tie him for the team lead, and with five games remaining, three more picks isn’t out of the question.

“As time goes on I’m getting a lot more confident,” he says. “My vision has expanded a lot more, I’m getting used to the motions, the waggles, different formations – being inside the box in certain formations and being out covering in certain formations.”

“It’s starting to slow down for me a little bit.”

Brackenridge’s best game of the season came as a result of a special teams play, though. At home against the Bombers on Labour Day weekend, the Riders ended their five-game winning streak with a 52-0 pounding of their heated rival.

A key play in the second quarter that may have sparked the rout was a punt block from Brackenridge, which he scooped up and returned for a touchdown.

With Mike Renaud lined up to punt at his own 42-yard-line, Brackenridge rushed through his gap untouched for the clean block. He gathered the ball at the 15, and the rest was history.

“It was a huge play, I didn’t think the hole was going to open up as wide as it did and allow me to go untouched,” says the linebacker.

It was a game Brackenridge won’t soon forget, not only because of the big play, but because of who was in the stands watching. His mother was there with his daughter Brooklynn, who turns two years old on November 24.

“That was the first time she was able to see me play live,” he recalls. “It was just a very, very special moment for me and that’s something that’s going to stick in my head all throughout my CFL career.”

With five games left and a legitimate shot at a deep playoff run, and possibly even a Grey Cup championship, Brackenridge hopes he’ll be able to make more memories like that one.

Last weekend, the Riders played their only night game of the season at Mosaic Stadium in front of a raucous home crowd to the tune of a 27-21 win over first-place BC.

That puts Saskatchewan just two games out of first place in the division, with an edge in the tiebreaker thanks to a 2-1 lead in the season series. The two teams meet again in Week 19 to close out the season, in a game that could potentially be for a berth in the West Division final.

This Thanksgiving weekend, the Green and White will be in Toronto to take on the Argos, seeking a fifth win in six tries and a chance to move into a second place tie with the Stampeders.

While beating the Lions for the second time this year was a major statement, Brackenridge is quick to point out that every game from here on out has similar meaning, including Monday’s showdown at the Rogers Centre.

“Each game is pretty much a statement, especially the position that we put ourselves in losing five games in a row and just crawling out of that hole,” he says. “We all know this is a crucial time of the year where a lot of things can happen and a lot of things can change.”

As for his play individually, he feels that as long as he stays disciplined and does his assignments, he can be a big-time playmaker in the CFL, and that there’s a lot of room to grow.

Of course, being a playmaker, he’s still hungry for more turnovers, too.

“I just need to get more picks, and go from there.”