June 11, 2014

Campbell: DeMarco patiently awaiting his turn

Scott Grant

When friends back home in Palm Desert, California, come to ask Thomas DeMarco how is career is going up there in Canada, he has an answer every football fan in the continent can relate to and readily rationalize.

“Honestly, I tell them I am behind the CFL’s Brett Favre,” said the Ottawa REDBLACKS backup to Henry Burris, Burris just short of 14 years DeMarco’s senior.

“He really is that guy up here. What Henry has done up here is an amazing achievement.

“Everyone who isn’t Henry Burris wants to be Henry Burris. Even at 39, he’s in very good shape and when practice is done, he’s the first one to say to us ‘let’s go do some abs’. I really think he’s this league’s Brett Favre.”

All that said, if that is indeed the case, at some point DeMarco would like to become the next Aaron Rodgers. That’s not so much in what Rodgers can do on a field, but rather DeMarco would gladly settle for being the guy who replaced the Canadian ‘Favre’ as Rodgers did in Green Bay.

And he knows that means waiting, and waiting, and waiting some more.

“I kind of think I’m on a Henry Burris kind of timetable,” said DeMarco, one of four pivots at REDBLACKS camp, but the only one besides Burris who has either started, or better put, even played a down in a CFL game.

The battle for No. 3 is between rookies Danny O’Brien and newcomer Alex Cardner. No matter what either shows in pre-season, Burris is “the guy” and DeMarco will be the first one off the bench, possibly regularly in short-yardage situations.

“You look back and Henry was not a starter in this league until his third or fourth season,” said DeMarco, in his third CFL training camp. “I am young in this league and I recognize that.”

If DeMarco thinks he’s young now, he has to really think hard to go back to when Burris broke into the CFL, back in ‘97.

Back then, an eight-year-old DeMarco hadn’t even played a down of football. His sports were baseball and soccer and the CFL, to him, could just as easily have been another TV network like CBS.

It wasn’t until high school when DeMarco turned heads, both on the football field and the diamond.

In his senior year alone, he won every imaginable offensive award, passing for 2,500 yards and 20 touchdowns while rushing for another 1,350 yards.

That didn’t necessarily bring the big schools after him, so he enrolled locally at College of the Desert Community College and got a chance to play right away, passing for more than 1,700 yards and 14 majors while living up to the school’s nickname “The Roadrunners” by scrambling for eight more touchdowns.

Those kind of numbers took DeMarco clear across the country to Norfolk, Virginia, and the campus of Old Dominion University where he started 27 of 35 games over his three season, leaving school with a 58 per cent completion rate, over 5,700 yards through the air and an additional 1,500 along the ground with a nose for the end-zone that produced 30 TDs.

The Lions liked him enough to sign him prior to training camp in 2012 as the No. 3 guy behind Travis Lulay and Mike Reilly.

When Reilly was sent to the Edmonton Eskimos during the ’12 season, DeMarco became a specialist of sorts as a short-yardage QB and saw game action in the pros for the first time that October.

Last season, when Lulay went down, DeMarco engineered a game-winning drive for a field goal in his first start and made four more starts before Lulay returned for the playoffs.

Again, he was a better than 50 per cent passer (54) and threw for 1,325 yards and 10 majors. The black mark was his eight interceptions, though that can be written off to his inexperience. He also found the end-zone three times rushing.

Veteran legendary receiver Geroy Simon even dubbed DeMarco the “Little Matt Dunigan” though many took the comparison more to DeMarco’s size, persistence, toughness, live arm and willingness to pull the ball down and scramble…and that little fact he also wore No. 16, just like the CFL legend did in his B.C. days.

That body of work was enough to make the REDBLACKS call his name along with Glenn in the Expansion Draft. And it wasn’t long before Burris was signed as a free agent, relegating DeMarco to third-string again until Glenn held out and was oddly enough shipped to BC.

DeMarco is generously listed at 5-11 but he has the foot speed to move the pocket in either direction and buy time for receivers to get open.

And if that doesn’t happen, he doesn’t mind taking off with the ball.

DeMarco will get under centre as a REDBLACK for the first time Saturday in Regina, one of 80-odd players the team will take west.

Head coach Rick Campbell isn’t sure who will play how much just yet but the Burris-DeMarco tandem will become even more apparent the following week when the club tunes up for its season opener.

Regardless of the pre-season results, the pair are a significant upgrade on the expansion Ottawa Renegades 2002 roster and the pair are likely to make Ottawa football fans forget all about the likes of Dan Crowley, Chuck Clements, Romaro Miller and Oteman Sampson – that’s if the fans haven’t put that sorry chapter of a football team behind them.

This expansion edition would like to improve on the ‘Gades first season mark of 4-14, a season that got off at 2-3, then saw the ‘Gades lose six in a row and 11 of their final 13.

“We’re all competitors and all coming from teams that were expected to win,” said DeMarco. “This might be a new team but that expectation hasn’t change here. We want to be competitive here.”