April 14, 2015

Hard Turf: Reaves attempts historic football comeback

CFL/Anthony Houle

With files from BlueBombers.com

After a 10-year football absence, Jordan Reaves only needed two months to earn a professional contract with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Signed by his hometown team, the 25-year-old is now attempting a comeback for the ages.

“It’s a new chapter in my life,” says Reaves at his introductory press conference in Winnipeg. “I’m excited to get it going.”

Reporters assemble, eager to find out more. Camp fodder? Why does a guy midway through his 20s who never played pro or college football get his own press conference? 

The Bombers’ most recent addition is taking the road less traveled, returning to the sport after a decade-long basketball career of collegiate ball with Brandon University and an attempt to play pro ball in Europe.

A scenario often dreamed but rarely played out.

Reaves started playing football at six or seven years old, he recalls, going on to play running back until high school. His high school didn’t have a football team, leading the now six-foot-five, 220-pound receiver down a different path.

“I was playing basketball for a while in Brandon,” starts Reaves. “I went to Europe and tried to get a contract, but that didn’t work out.”

“When I came back I was training hard every day, but nothing was really coming basketball-wise.”

His return to football arrived naturally for someone away from the game for so long. Reaves’ father, Willard Reaves, was a three-time CFL All-Star (and Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame inductee) for the Bombers back in the 1980s – yet it wasn’t dad who influenced him as much as his former CFL kicker of a neighbour.

“I talked to my neighbour Demitris Scouras, who played for Ottawa,” says Reaves. “And he asked me ‘why aren’t you playing football, you should have been playing your whole life’.”

Scouras told Reaves he could get him back on the field. Reaves didn’t hesitate, and through Scouras and the work of agent Darren Gill, he was given the opportunity to work out both for the Bombers and at the Edmonton Regional Combine.

“Everything happened so fast but I was ready for it and it’s been a fun process.”

Suddenly and out of nowhere, Reaves is now re-tracing his roots.

. . .

If nothing else, Jordan Reaves has captured the attention of many across the CFL. His comeback attempt has people talking.

After 10 years out of the loop, how could he possibly come back and play pro football?

Former NFL all-pros have tried their craft in the CFL and failed – some players that, at one time or another, were the best in the world; receivers that caught footballs every day for a living.

For the last 10 years, Reaves has been posting up and defending on the hardwood, trying not to foul out. What are the odds of this getting anywhere?

A reporter presses Reaves about a former track star in the ‘70s and ‘80s named Renaldo Nehemiah. He explains the story of how Nehemiah tried to play football – how he played catch with his friends all summer before camp and felt like he was doing quite well.

Nehemiah, the reporter continues as Reaves listens intently, made it to 49ers camp the next fall and could hardly catch a thing from Joe Montana. Before letting the reporter finish, Reaves interjects his own off-season story about his brother and current NHL player, Ryan Reaves.

“My brother and I actually play a little football game every summer, just a one-handed catching game,” explains Reaves. “You can only catch it with one hand, and we get pretty serious about it.”

“If you know anything about me, my dad or my brother, we’re very competitive,” he continues. “It gets fun. I think that helped me a bit.”

The competitive spirit should serve Reaves well in mini-camp and potentially training camp, as he competes against other receivers for a roster spot — receivers with college and some professional experience.

Catching one-handed passes from his hockey-playing brother probably isn’t like catching passes from Drew Willy, like Reaves surely one day hopes to do. But the 25-year-old son of a Hall of Famer appears to be in a better position than others who have tried to cross sports.

Nehemiah weighed around 177 pounds standing six-foot-one, and while his inability to catch the ball was noted, his speed and ability to draw defenders vertically was touted. Nehemiah also came to the game without any known football background.

Reaves was a running back the last time he played, but the football instincts apparently still remain – certanily based on the Bombers’ decision to bring him in for an extended look.

Aside from instincts, he’s also a giant, even by football standards.

. . .

Those who doubt Reaves’ ability to return as a pro football player won’t dispute his athleticism.

Standing at six-foot-five and 220 pounds, Reaves says he’s changed the way he works out, from basketball endurance-related training to football strength-related training.

CFL negotiation lists are long, but they’re not overflowing. If the Bombers committed a spot to a player that hasn’t played in about a decade, there must be a pretty good reason.

“He’s a tremendous athlete,” says Bombers General Manager Kyle Walters after seeing Reaves work out twice.

The first time, Reaves caught passes from former CFL quarterback Buck Pierce during a private workout with the Bombers. He then worked out with some of this year’s draft hopefuls at the Edmonton Regional Combine.

His biggest concern was the one-on-ones, where there was the potential for better-rounded and college-tested football players to expose his lack of experience. Reaves thinks he stood up well in the end, though, and seemingly so do the Bombers. 

“All of his measurable qualities were really remarkable, and he did not look out of place even with his limited football background,” Walters added. “He’s a very intriguing prospect for the future.”

All football players are athletes. You can’t point at any football player – kicker, quarterback, whoever – and say he’s not an athlete. Not all athletes, however, are football players.

The odds aren’t in Reaves’ favour, yet something about his situation fuels optimism.

The CFL is a league of opportunity – a league where if you’re the best player on your team at your position, you’ll play. The Bombers see that opportunity in Reaves, and Reaves sees it in the Bombers.

There’s a chance he’ll be cut either during or before training camp (the Bombers are holding their mini-camp in Florida later this month) and never be heard from again. Or, he could make the practice roster and never see the field.

Yet in Reaves’ story, there’s potential for so much more.

. . .

While others speculate and wonder aloud where this Canadian comeback story is headed, Jordan Reaves has little doubt. These are new and unchartered waters for him, but he appears fully fuelled.

This football comeback isn’t about money, nor is it about chasing his father’s accomplishments. Both of those things he makes abundantly clear.

It’s all under his own steam.

“Money’s not an issue for me,” he says. “I’m out here to prove myself and prove I can play with the big boys at the pro level. The money comes second.”

“I’m here to play right now and help the team in any way I can and any way the coach sees fit.”

His dad wore number 38 with the Bombers. He hopes to wear number 10 – his ‘own number’, he called it. Brother, Ryan, is a pro hockey player with the St. Louis Blues. The Reaves’ family star is a bright one, and while Jordan wants to accomplish similar feats, he wants to do it his own way.

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“It’s amazing to think that we have that much athleticism in our family, and it’s nice to finally leave their shadows,” says Reaves. “It’s nice to finally make a name for myself and come from the shadows of both of them.”

His dad, he adds, didn’t even know about Jordan’s contract with the Bombers until the day it was signed.

“He wasn’t really much part of this process, simply for the fact that people would think just because of my dad, I’m here,” Reaves says adamantly. “Of course my name – that helped out, but I did all the work on my own.”

“I just wanted to show people I do this on my own and not just because of my name.”

Dad has given him pointers and tips, he continues, but most of his training has either been on his own or with current top prospect and former Manitoba Bison Nic Demski. Demski has helped him out with the wide receiver aspects of the game, including footwork, that are a little more foreign.

“Hopefully it’ll be like riding a bike – just natural and it should come back to me,” says Reaves.

“I’m a physical guy if you watched me play in Brandon,” he adds, recalling his basketball career. “My first two years I fouled out almost every game just because I was so physical.”

“I’m not too worried about the physical aspect – I welcome it.”

Reaves doesn’t seem concerned with much. All he can think about now is his goal of making it to professional football – and we’re not talking about just dipping his toe in the water. Reaves is diving in.

He has no quarrels with playing special teams and says he can do so with confidence. And he also knows he’ll have to take one step at a time, starting with making the practice roster.

But in the entire scheme of things, Reaves’ football dream is grandiose.

“My expectation is to make the practice roster and try to make the game roster, and just show everyone the abilities I have,” says Reaves. “The abilities I know I have and the skill-set I bring to the program.”

“I’m just ready to get out there.”

As for his father, Jordan says he gets advice from Willard all the time, and that his dad couldn’t be more excited.

Now, however, it’s the younger Reaves’ turn to live the pro football dream. If there’s one thing Jordan doesn’t lack, it’s belief in himself.

“Of course there’s pressure and expectations from everyone, but I’m out there to make a name for myself now,” says Reaves. “I don’t really focus on the outside noise.”

“If they want to pressure me, that’s fine – I’m still going to do what I do and play to my abilities and give it all I’ve got.”

We don’t know if Reaves’ CFL comeback story ends up one for the ages. We’re positive, however, that it’s one worth keeping an eye on.