- Free Agency
TORONTO — There isn’t a playbook on how to transition from the quiet pastures of small town Louisiana to the bright lights of Toronto.
Then again, Diontae Spencer has a knack for changing pace rather quickly.
“It was a good home for my family,” he said. “It’s just relaxing in the country, man.”
Population 30,797, New Iberia, La. certainly has its charm. But little in common with the Big Smoke.
Speed’s never really been a problem for the 23-year-old slotback, who ran a 4.27 second 40-yard dash while at McNeese State.
It actually seems fitting that quickness brought Spencer to the fastest place he’s ever been.
So far, he’s adjusted well.
“I had never been that far away from home for a long period of time,” he said. “I’m not going to lie, I was nervous about it. But as soon as I got to Toronto with the guys, the team, the camaraderie, it just felt like home.”
At 5-foot-8 and 163-pounds, Spencer has always had to prove his worth. Not getting a scholarship offer from Louisiana State University was just added incentive early on.
“Being from Louisiana you want to go to LSU and play in Tiger Stadium,” he said.
“But my dream was to play college ball and I had a scholarship from McNeese just down the road. My family was still able to come and watch me play.”
Once he got there, he hit the ground running.
“I felt like I had something to prove. I always play with a chip on my shoulder.”
Spencer earned national attention in his senior year when he posted a five-touchdown game in a Southland Conference win over Stephen F. Austin. He racked up 365 all-purpose yards, highlighted by two kickoff return TD’s, a punt return TD and added an additional 152 yards and two scores in the air.
“I call that game just being in the zone,” he said.
“At one point I didn’t even know I had five touchdowns. I wasn’t thinking about yards or anything. I was just in the zone, going with the flow of the game. It just so happened that I broke a bunch of records along the way.”
11 of them, to be precise. The message was sent.
Size matters in pro football, but a potent blend of drive and athleticism can do wonders.
“He’s just one of those guys who wants to be good,” said New York Giants receiver and close friend Odell Beckham Jr. One of the biggest names in sports let alone football, Beckham Jr. recorded 2,755 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns in his first two seasons, knowing what it takes to reach the highest of levels.
“He’s one of those guys who’s going to pick my brain and the brains of others because he wants to make it,” said Beckham Jr.
After a couple brief training camp stints with the NFL’s Chicago Bears and St Louis Rams, Spencer started talking about moving up north for a shot in the CFL. He’d never been so far away from home. There were hesitations about making the leap.
A former CFL Most Outstanding Player and Toronto Argonaut, who also happens to hail from New Iberia, reached out.
“Kerry Joseph encouraged me to make the move,” he said.
“He helped prepare me mentally and was one of the guys who helped me get ready for the CFL. I came this far and know I have the ability to play. I knew I wasn’t going to stop chasing my dreams.”
Beckham Jr. thought it was a great move.
“(I thought) it could be a lot of fun,” he said. “The field is a lot bigger in the CFL, it’d be fun for him to run around with that much space.”
When the Argonauts signed Spencer in December of 2014 they added a weapon on offence that’s as crafty as he is versatile. He opened eyes in training camp with his ability to make plays in the open field as well as return kicks.
But the Argos had a wealth of talent at the receiver position in 2015 and had a hard time finding room for him in the lineup.
“I really just learned that you have to be patient,” said Spencer.
“The biggest thing was preparing myself each day like a starter and learning the right habits in practice.”
His opportunity finally came in Week 7 against Saskatchewan when an injury opened up a spot in the lineup. The Argos activated him from the practice roster and started him at slotback.
Spencer didn’t hesitate.
With the game tied in the fourth quarter, he caught a screen pass in open space and used his blazing speed to take it 52 yards to the end zone, outrunning five Roughriders in the process. The touchdown turned out to be the game winner.
“To be honest I just felt relief,” he said.
“I had weight on my shoulders coming into it. I had a good camp and people were expecting me to come in and play. I was relieved I got to show the world, Toronto and the CFL who I really was and what I could do.”
His phone blew up. His family was jumping for joy in front of their TV. Beckham Jr. even asked him for tape of the play.
“I told him it was big time,” recalled Beckham Jr. “Big time players make big time plays in the biggest games.”
“(Odell) was excited, he really liked the dance,” said Spencer.
“I used the ‘whip’ in the endzone, which was kind of booming back then.”
One play at a time, Spencer was fast-tracking his way into the fold. He played in 11 of the team’s remaining 14 games, starting in eight of them, including the Eastern Semi-Final vs. Hamilton when he led the Argos with eight catches.
He also finished the year with a team-high 1,146 all-purpose yards — a total he hopes to build on in year two as he continues to adjust to his new surroundings.
“I feel like Toronto isn’t that far from home now,” said Spencer. “I made the jump, I’ve embraced it and I like it. My mom is probably going to come up this year and she’s pretty excited.”
A 21-hour drive from New Iberia is no small task, but watching her son operate as an important part of an offence that already features the likes of Ricky Ray, Andre Durie, Tori Gurley, Kevin Elliott and Vidal Hazelton is worth the trip.
After all, he’s come a long way, too.
“I can’t wait to get back,” Spencer said. “For me to have the opportunity to compete and do good things for the Argos, I’m ready to help bring a Grey Cup to the city of Toronto.
“With hard work anything is possible.”