For Matt Black, it is gratitude that is most present.
As one of the most venerable of the Toronto Argonauts, the veteran defensive back comes into the 105th Grey Cup, presented by Shaw, as a man who feels blessed and it’s not just because he has a crack at his second title in nine seasons.
That’s something. Both the gratitude and his appearance in the Grey Cup.
Black had put it on the line for the Argos ever since he graduated from Saginaw State University, a year after being drafted by the Boatmen in 2008. A hard worker and an efficient, durable player for eight seasons, it was this, his ninth, where it came crashing down and could have – could have – left the 32-year-old with a bitter taste in his mouth as he made an abrupt exit from the team he dearly loves.
“No, no. Nah,” Black said immediately after being asked if he’d felt insulted or angry when the Argos let him go back at the beginning of August, just as he was about to return from a groin injury that had him relinquished to the injured list for the entirety of the season up to that point.
Instead of holding a grudge or feeling betrayed by his team, the native of Toronto answered the call less than a week later when the Argos got in touch to see if he’d return. Safety Jermaine Gabriel had been injured in the game that followed Black’s release, and the team was in sudden need of a veteran, Canadian presence in the defensive backfield.
There was no hesitation on Black’s part. He wanted to keep playing and he wanted to do it in his hometown.
“There’s no place I’d rather play than for the double blue,” said Black, just after he and the Argos had finished their Wednesday afternoon practice at the University of Ottawa. “It’s where I started my career and it’s where I wanna end it. I’m gonna do what I need to do to be around here.”
“Getting the opportunity to come back and play with this team, it’s an absolute honour,” he said.
Along with offensive lineman Chris Van Zeyl, Black had been the longest tenured Argo on this edition of the team, although Van Zeyl had already technically held the crown considering he spent the fall of 2008 on the club’s practice roster while Black didn’t sign until the next spring.
Both of them made their debuts as the 2009 season opened.
The release hurt, it’s true. But not in the way you might suspect.
“I was really sad for my family because I could hear it in my mom and my dad’s voice,” said Black. “They were crushed. Wondering ‘is this it?’
They were worried about me. So for me that was the hardest part of it, dealing with other people’s emotions. That was really hard for me.”
What wasn’t hard, he said, was approaching the release with an even-tempered acceptance even though it seemed his time with the Argos had ended prematurely.
“This is a business,” said Black as he shrugged. “And you do yourself a disservice to think that the team isn’t always trying to get better.
That’s (General Manager) Jim Popp’s job. To find someone better than Ricky Ray. To find someone better than James Wilder, to find someone better than every person on this team.”
“There’s certain restrictions that have to be placed on a roster and if you’re the odd man out, you’re the odd man out. That’s just how it works.”
True enough. But Black was a veteran, a Grey Cup Champion in 2012 and a man who was well-loved by his teammates. He’d been released without playing a regular season down for new coach Marc Trestman. Wasn’t he owed that? Black was shaking his head before the question was finished.
“There’s no favours, especially after the year that we had last year,” he said, referring to the Argos’ disappointing 2016 campaign. “You have to earn and prove it.”
As you can tell, the page got flipped super quickly for Black and he returned to play some safety, some corner and some weak side linebacker as the Argos shuffled things around as scheming, injuries and ratio considerations demanded. Finishing the season with 22 defensive tackles and 3 more on special teams, he picked up a single, very important sack; one that ended the game and secured an Argonaut win over a driving Edmonton Eskimos squad, back in September. He’s played well.
“It’s everything,” said Gabriel when asked what having Black on the team means to him and his mates.
“He’s seen a lot of football. He has experience with the game on and off the field, which can help a guy like me out. They were able to bring him back and it was huge for us. We welcomed him like he never left.”
Black has an energetic tone to his voice when talking about his team and the coaches. Hold a grudge after being released? Far from it. He is exceptionally complimentary when talking about defensive coordinator Corey Chamblin and Assistant defensive backs coach Tyron Brackenridge.
“It’s inspiring and encouraging to come into a locker room every day and know that you’re gonna get coached so that you’re the best possible player that you can be,” he said enthusiastically. “That’s all I can ask for at this point in my career. Someone who’s gonna push me and not say ‘oh, he’s a nine-year vet. He’s stuck in his ways.’ They want me to be the best. They see something that I can improve, they’re gonna talk to me about it.”
“They allow you to have that professional room to grow and develop but at the same time, apply pressure to make you better and better. It’s really fun to be around.”
That bleak week at the beginning of August now well in his rear view mirror, Black is focused on attaining another championship for the football club he loves and the teammates he wants to get a first sip from The Cup.
“I really like this group of men that we have and I’m excited about this opportunity for us because there’s a lot of guys in here that worked their tails off for a lot of years and this is their first opportunity,” he said. “And I want this for them.”
“To come back and be a part of this group, it’s a privilege and I feel really honoured.”
Like I said off the top: Gratitude is most present when you’re speaking with Matt Black.
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