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November 16, 2017

The Long Read: How Alex Singleton became the CFL’s fastest-rising star

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

There was a time when Alex Singleton wanted nothing more than to play football at the next level.

The talented linebacker knew from the time he was six years old, maybe even younger, that he wanted to be one of the guys he saw on TV every Sunday. But first, as a high school senior in Thousand Oaks, Calif., he had to become one of the guys that everyone saw on TV every Saturday.

“Really unique situation with him,” Singleton’s high school coach, Mike Leibin, recalls.

“He started on varsity as a junior and he was a 5-foot-10 outside linebacker and he was OK.”

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Alex Singleton is pictured at a young age, long before officially earning dual-citizenship as a Canadian (Photo provided by Kim Singleton)

Singleton graduated high school at 17. Ask anyone that knew him in those years and they’d tell you the drive was there and that his end goal was always off in the distance. But at the end of his junior year, when most high-end players have film to show college recruiters, all that Singleton’s coaches and any potential college scouts saw was a slim, lanky kid with an unrealistic dream.

“By the time he graduated in his senior year,” Leibin says, “he was 6-foot-3, 215-pounds.

“We played him at defensive end, we played him at middle linebacker. I’ve never had a kid go through a growth spurt like that and be so productive and overwhelming.”

Graduating a year early in the body of a college-ready player, Singleton was left in a sort of no-man’s land.

“I worked my tail off (talking with scouts) but the fact was he had no junior film,” Leibin says. “It’s rare that a kid has an explosive senior year and all of a sudden gets a bunch of offers. That usually never happens.”

To hear Singleton tell it, sitting in the lobby of the Hamilton hotel that the Calgary Stampeders are staying at for a mid-October clash with the Tiger-Cats, it wasn’t a big deal. It worked out. It’s all still working out for him.

“My only offer coming out of high school was from Montana State,” he says. “I met with a lot of schools. I met with all the PAC 12 schools, I met with all the big schools and all the other Big Sky schools and no one ever fully pulled the trigger and offered me (a scholarship). One day Montana State offered me one.

“You hear all these stories about these guys who go on all these (recruiting) trips and that stuff. I took one and I committed right then.”

Singleton went on to play as a true freshman at Montana State, started the next three years and made 246 tackles.

“Growing up it was hitting, getting to hit someone. I loved that . . . I remember those times. Every day at practice just getting to hit your best friend was always so much fun.”

Alex Singleton on what brought him to football at such a young age

In his second professional season, Alex Singleton set a new record for tackles for a Canadian in one year (Photo: Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Now 23, this is how Alex Singleton’s football career goes. The West’s nominee for Most Outstanding Defensive Player, a guy who’s a shape-shifting wrecking ball on the field, that many assume will have a direct line into NFL a year from now when his contract runs out in Calgary, has never for a second doubted his ability. Whenever he’s gotten the chance, he’s shown what he can do. Those chances, serious ones, have been few and far between. The rejection has been resounding enough to send others in his situation away from the game and out into the real world.

Singleton? In spite of being offered more walking papers than contract offers since graduating from Montana, he still became one of the top players in the CFL.

On the phone from Thousand Oaks, Alex’s mom, Kim Singleton, quickly falls into a story about how it was love at first sight for Alex and football. She credits her husband Steve and his family, who love the game too.

“I have a picture of Alex, he’s not quite two,” she says. “My nephew Chad, Steve’s nephew, would have been playing in high school. It was Friday night football, which is huge where we live.

“Alex is standing waiting for his dad to come home. He’s wearing the (high school team’s) hat, they’re another neighbourhood over and he’s holding the Friday newspaper because it always had the preview of the Friday night game. I had to buy him soccer cleats. He wanted to wear football cleats but they didn’t have the football cleats for him yet.”

It feels like she has dozens of stories about him, so young and already obsessed with the game. He skipped crawling, she says, and started walking at nine months. When he was around three, he had an Arizona Cardinals uniform, complete with a helmet. He’d sleep in that.

From the Arizona Cardinals uniform to him holding a football, Alex Singleton is pictured throughout his childhood (Photos provided by Kim Singleton)

“He always wanted to play. He tried flag football when he was little, but as soon as he was old enough to play tackle football, he played. There was no stopping him,” she says.

Him and his brother Matt liked a lot of sports. They played soccer as kids and Alex was a left-handed catcher in baseball until his freshman year of high school. He played basketball, he wrestled, but there was nothing like football for him.

“Growing up it was hitting, getting to hit someone. I loved that,” he says. “The rules have changed now for kids, they don’t hit as much. But I remember those times. Every day at practice just getting to hit your best friend was always so much fun. Growing up, I played with the same core group of guys and it was really awesome.”

He’s also grown up with his biggest fan by his side from the first time he picked up a football. His older sister Ashley is another big part of what’s made Alex who he is, on and off the field. She has Down Syndrome and competes in the Special Olympics. She’s competed in swimming and bowling for more than 20 years. It’s Alex’s motivation in being such an eager participant with Special Olympics in Calgary.

“He watched her and her friends and different people. He always helped with volunteer work, coached football,” Kim says. “He’s always seen people that have had so much difficulty trying to do the littlest thing and how they feel, how wonderful it is when they hit what they can do, they’re so excited. He’s always realized he’s lucky to be able to do what he can do.”

Alex Singleton has always been close with his sisters Ashley and Melissa and his brother Matt (Photos provided by Kim Singleton)

“She is the best athlete in our family, by far,” Alex says. “She makes everything better, I guess, and the happiness she gets through everything she does. It makes it easier to not care about the little things that can bug you along the way and just know that everything can be OK.”

Kim says the two of them are very competitive. Ashley loves the Stampeders, but remains a L.A. Kings fan, while Alex has adopted the Flames as his team. They love to taunt each other when their team comes out on top.

“Any time she gets to Calgary we go bowling,” Alex says.

“We always go out and compete and do her events and to watch her compete is awesome. You see the same drive that I have when we go on the field. Same thing with when she’s in the pool. She always wants to win. She gets second or third and she’s mad. You can tell, she’s not happy with it.”

. . . . .

Alex and Kim landed in Bozeman, Montana in January, 2011, straight from their always-sunny home of Thousand Oaks for the only college recruiting trip he’d ever take.

“He wanted to go to SC and play football for SC forever,” she says, remembering taking Alex to visit Trojans’ QB Matt Leinart at spring football practices when Alex was little.

“But it ended up Montana State was the best decision.”

“I remember getting off the plane and it was negative (Fahrenheit) out. From Southern California. It’d be like getting off the plane in Calgary,” Alex says. “It was cold, it was snowy but I fell in love with it. It was the greatest experience of my life.”

Alex Singleton didn't hesitate to accept an offer from Montana State (Photo provided by Montana State Athletics)

Singleton instantly connected with linebackers coach Kane Ioane, a Montana State alum that played with Travis Lulay. Ioane had recruited Singleton there.

“He taught me everything I know about the game now,” Alex says.

Under Ioane, surrounded by older, talented linebackers like Jody Owens and Michael Foster, Singleton thrived. He had high-level coaching and teammates to learn from that pushed him to be better.

“He showed up on campus as a freshman and physically you were like, ‘Wow, this is what a linebacker is supposed to look like,’” Ioane says. “We were very fortunate that he was I guess you could call a diamond in the rough, where he was under-recruited and we lucked out in that regard.

“That’s the thing with recruiting, you never really know. As far as the formula, with a mix of the immeasurables and the intangibles, a lot of cases those worked out pretty good and in Alex’s case it worked out really well.”

Alex always knew he could play at whatever level he was at. By the end of his college career, people around him believed it too.

“From the time he came in (to Montana) he knew that he wanted to play at the next level,” Foster says. “ He had always committed to doing whatever it took to get there. Of course we had our fun times together, it wasn’t all business, but he made decisions throughout his time at Montana State that other kids didn’t, sacrifices that other kids didn’t make. And it paid off for him.”

“He was disappointed. It was really hard for him to come home and run into someone that he knew. Then you have to go through the . . . I think he always felt like he was letting everyone else down.”

Kim Singleton on the early lows of Alex’s professional football career

(Alex Singleton is pictured alongside brother Matt during the 2017 CFL Combine in Regina (Photo: Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

“It’s because of his work ethic. It’s because of his desire to be great and his willingness to learn and soak in as much information as he possibly could even in a backup role,” Ioane says.

“He had the immeasurables that I thought an NFL team and now CFL teams would love to have. You add up the immeasurables and the intangibles and I think that’s what you’re seeing, why he’s so successful going forward.”

To many parents, a kid with a dream of being a professional athlete is a nightmare scenario. It’s one of the ultimate longshots and the pursuit of it can eat up other areas of a kid’s life along the way.

“I always thought he could do whatever he wanted to. My only thing with all of them was I only cared if they graduated college,” Kim says. “You get your degree and I’m good with whatever your dreams are.

“He’s had some stuff with the NFL coming out of college and not getting (signed). He’s always had little setbacks but it’s always, ‘If this is what you want, this is what you do.’ And maybe it’s because we have Ashley, but it’ll all work out in the end. I think he believes that and we believe that. He’s the happiest (in Calgary) he’s ever been in his whole life.”

. . . . .

Alex didn’t expect to be chosen in the 2015 NFL draft, but he was confident as always that something would work out. Shortly after, he signed a contract with the Seattle Seahawks. He was cut at the start of September, quickly signed by New England, but cut again two weeks later. These temporary highs and crushing lows would become the norm for a year.

“Full cut and signed I think it was six (times), but I tried out for 13 different teams,” he says. “Those teams didn’t even sign me and I got cut. Seattle four times alone. New England twice and Minnesota once.”

The Stamps' middle linebacker celebrates after a win over the Eskimos early in September (Photo: Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

“It was really hard. He’d come back home or he’d call and he’d say (he’d been cut),” Kim says.

“He was disappointed. It was really hard for him to come home and run into someone that he knew. Then you have to go through the…” she trails off and you can almost feel her cringing over the painful memory.

“I think he always felt like he was letting everyone else down. By the end, then he was on the Vikings or whatever and he literally got let go the week before they went to training camp.”

Ioane says he was in touch with Alex after each NFL cut.

“What makes Alex great is his resiliency and his ability to learn from each one of those experiences,” he says.

When he was training for his pro day at Montana State, Alex’s agent, Bill Lower, had asked him if he’d be OK with looking at the CFL as an option if the NFL didn’t work out. When it came up that Kim was Canadian — she lived in Toronto and her family moved to the States when she was still a kid — Alex’s value and the demand for him increased. He became a dual citizen in time for the 2016 Canadian Draft.

“He said no to the Patriots the day of the Canadian draft,” Kim says. “He said, ‘Unless you’re going to sign me, guaranteed sign me, I’m not coming to be a body for the summer. I can’t do it. I just want to play.”

The Stampeders took him sixth overall on May 17, 2016. He played in all 18 games for the Stamps in his rookie season and started 10.

 

“That’s who Alex is,” Ioane says. “I think part of the reason why he was great for MSU was because he used that extra motivation of only having that one scholarship offer to fuel his fire that much more.

“He plays with that chip on his shoulder, that edge all the time. I think those instances where he had an opportunity in the NFL and each time it didn’t work out for him, it added fire.

“There isn’t a team in the CFL that wouldn’t want him. He’s going to play himself into a position where there could be teams in the NFL that are going, ‘Woah, we missed out on that one’.”

. . . . .

Alex and his family sat in a downtown Toronto restaurant late on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016. A stunned silence hung over the table, with Alex in shock over his team’s upset loss to the Ottawa REDBLACKS in the 104th Grey Cup.

Kim can’t forget the crowd at the game. Maybe it had made up its mind before kickoff to root for the underdog, but as Ottawa built up its big first-half lead, it ramped up its venom toward Calgary, to her son. The game sits on the family’s PVR in Thousand Oaks, never watched.

“That’s not getting watched,” she says, at least able to laugh about it now.

“The game was on every TV (that night) and…the only places that were open were sports bars by the hotel. It was awful.”

“The whole season is about winning the Grey Cup. I remember walking off the field last year without it. To win it this year would change all that. That’s all anything is about. Winning the championship.”

Singleton talks about last year’s disappointment and motivation for this year

Now a sophomore, Singleton believes he can build on the letdown of last year's devastating Grey Cup loss (Photo: Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Awful is the word that comes up over and over again from Kim and Alex. She’d never seen her son so inconsolable after a loss. All it usually takes, Kim says, is for Ashley to find her brother after a game and a smile quickly finds his face. She’ll hug him and tell him he had a lot of tackles and that he played well and everyone’s mood picks up. It wasn’t like that that night in Toronto.

“She was the one I couldn’t go see (after the game) because I knew she’d be sad that we lost,” he says.

“That’s the hardest thing. She gets into it too, just like everyone else and I think it was hardest on her that we didn’t (win). Those are the times it’s hard I guess, when I let her down.”

He looked back on it that day in Hamilton, on a trip where his team improved to 13-1-1, mirroring its record from that time a year earlier. He doesn’t think his team underestimated Ottawa, with its 8-9-1 record.

“To just go into the Grey Cup as a rookie on the team and how we’d played Ottawa before, I just assumed we were going to win. I’m not saying I didn’t prepare the same, or focused on them the same way,” he says.


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“We assumed…it’s not saying that they’re not a good team or that we didn’t think it was going to be a good game. We just knew we were going to win no matter how it happened and it didn’t.

“It was hard in the off-season. It was hard to watch TSN because they always talked about it. Still now, it’s the commercials of them holding it up. We know it should have been us. No ifs, ands or buts about that. But it wasn’t.

“So we have to take that, knowing that it wasn’t and to make sure that it is us this year, that there is no letdown for a second or a millisecond with your focus or your preparation, whether it’s the first play or the last play of the game. Everything leads up to that game. If you can’t close in that game nothing else matters.”

. . . . .

Singleton picks up his phone quickly on Tuesday morning, a month and two days since our last conversation. It’s also a month and a day since the Stamps’ last won a game. They closed the season out with three straight losses. Now, they host the Edmonton Eskimos on Sunday in the West Final.

He would have liked a few more wins to close out the season, he says, but right now that’s not the focus.

“The whole season is about winning the Grey Cup,” he says. “I remember walking off the field last year without it. To win it this year would change all that. That’s all anything is about. Winning the championship.”

He’s excited about hosting Edmonton and the chance to chase Mike Reilly around the field, about playing his team’s top rival at home with the season on the line. He and those players that were on last year’s Stamps team have waited a year for this moment, the first of what they hope is a two-step journey.

Singleton won three team awards for the Stamps this year, including Most Outstanding Player (Photo: The Canadian Press)

Singleton has put together an incredible season. His 123 tackles were a record for a Canadian player and a single-season team record. In Weeks 11-13 he set a league record for three games with 10-plus tackles. Throw in four sacks, 12 QB pressures, an interception, a forced fumble and four knockdowns and you can see why he picked up three team awards (Outstanding player, Canadian and defensive player). He improved upon his rookie season, was named a West all-star and solidified himself as one of the top players in the CFL.

He very well could end up doing a bit of everything on Sunday, but going into the game he sees himself having one role.

“Keeping guys calm. Don’t let the situation get bigger than it is. It’s just a game and we don’t need to treat it bigger than that,” he says.

“I think last year in the Grey Cup that’s why we lost. We almost treated it bigger than a game. It’s not. Everyone needs to do their job every play. There is no secret formula on each play. It’s just doing the job you’ve done all year to get to that point where we won 11 straight games.

“If you can continue or get back to doing those things and doing the little things correctly I think you have a lot better chance of winning.

“Edmonton last week had four penalties, no turnovers and not a lot of mistakes. Those are the things that win games. Against a team like that you’ve got to play perfect football.”

A year later, one thing hasn’t changed for Alex. Ashley is convinced that her brother’s team will win this Sunday and the Sunday after that.

“She has no doubt that we’re going to Ottawa. She says it doesn’t matter what happens, we’re going to Ottawa,” Kim says.

. . . . .

In full proud mom mode, Kim tells a story about how Alex and Matt ended up being extras in a couple of movies when Alex was around 12-years old.

One of them was the 2006 Tim Allen movie, The Shaggy Dog. In it, Alex is part of a football team. He crushes a kid with a tackle in the movie, just a semi-truck rolling over a deer in the headlights.

That scene was filmed in Thousand Oaks, 2,300 km from Calgary, 10 years before this Canadian-born woman in California would watch one of her children go back across the border to pursue his dream.

“He’s actually wearing No. 49 in the movie and he’s on the red team, in red and black,” Kim notes. “All things do work out.”