November 16, 2012

Morris: Veterans Simon and Bruce put team first

Rebecca Rempel/BC Lions

They’ve been like two Alpha dogs straining on a leash.

Injuries forced slotbacks Geroy Simon and Arland Bruce to watch from the sidelines as the B.C. Lions finished first in the CFL West. Being patient and waiting their turn, hasn’t been easy for the veteran receivers.

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Simon and Bruce will both return to the lineup Sunday when the Lions play the Calgary Stampeders in the Western Final at B.C. Place Stadium. The winner will book a trip to the 100th Grey Cup game in Toronto.

“It’s been tough,” Bruce said about recovering from a concussion he suffered in a Sept. 29 loss to Saskatchewan.

That injury kept him out of the lineup for the final five games of the season. Being denied the chance to play made him appreciate the game that much more.

“I love my job,” said the 11-year veteran. “You appreciate the little things when you have to sit out. You miss those things because you can’t compete.”

For Simon it’s been one of the most dissatisfying seasons of his 14-year career.

On opening night he had five catches for 105 yards to move past Milt Stegall as the CFL’s all-time leader in pass receiving yards. After that Simon would have only one more game where he had over 100 yards receiving. His first touchdown catch didn’t come until Sept. 22.

Along the way Simon suffered two hamstring injuries that saw him miss five games. In his first 10 full years in the league he had missed a total of three games. The 37-year-old finished the year with 54 catches for 700 yards and just two touchdowns. It’s the first time since 2002 he didn’t have over 1,000 yards receiving.

“It’s been kind of a frustrating year with the injuries and not having the numbers that I normally have, but it doesn’t matter,” said Simon. “We are where we wanted to be.

“The numbers don’t really matter. It’s all about the number of wins.”

No one questions Simon’s sincerity when he says repeating as Grey Cup champion is his ultimate goal. He’s the kind of player that puts team first.

A proud man, it hasn’t been easy for Simon this year. Usually effusive and approachable, Simon has been more withdrawn. His answers have sometimes carried an edge.

For years Simon was the go-to guy among Lions receivers. This year, even when he was healthy, Simon was just one more pair of hands among a talented group that included Andrew Harris, Shaw Gore, Marco Iannuzzi, Nick Moore and Ernest Jackson.

“I’m used to having 10 looks a game and maybe six, seven, eight catches,” said Simon. “The type of offence we are running, that’s just not the case anymore.

“The key to success is figuring out what your role is. Whether you like it or not you have to accept that role. That’s what I am going through right now. I don’t think it’s a reflection on what I can do because I still think I can be a dominate receiver in this league.”

A hint of anger crept into Simon’s voice when asked if age is a factor.

“It has nothing to do with age,” he said. “I am playing next year. No matter what.”

Simon has proven he can still make the clutch grab. Late in an Aug. 24 he made a key catch that set up the winning field goal in a 20-17 win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

“He knows the team is better if he’s not just the focal point,” said head coach Mike Benevides. “He’s been that guy at times and we haven’t been good enough because he’s carried the load too much.”
Quarterback Travis Lulay said Simon has adapted to his new role without complaint.

“You haven’t heard a peep out of him about any of that kind of stuff,” said Lulay. “He knows some of the stuff is out of his control.

“When injuries take you off the field it’s easy for a guy to get flustered. He’s done everything he could to get his body back in position to get back on the field. He hasn’t changed his leadership role within the football team. His presence is still every much felt.”

Bruce had 43 catches for 603 yards and five touchdowns this year. At 34 he still has the speed and slippery moves to turn a short catch into a long gain.

The time away made Bruce even hungrier to weave some of his magic against the Stampeders.

“I come out here with a chip on my shoulder every day,” he said, flashing his trademark grin. “I’m looking forward to scoring. That’s why they brought me over here, to make plays and put points on the board.”

Simon is far less bombastic than Bruce but equally confidence he can contribute.

“If I get the opportunity I will step up,” he said. “I always tell them, if they throw me the ball I will catch it.

“I can’t make people call my number. All I can do is give the quarterback an open target. When he throws it, I catch it. That’s all I have ever done. I can’t control anything else but what I am doing.”