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September 12, 2018

O’Leary: Age is just a number for CFL’s top pass-rushers

Adam Gagnon/CFL.ca

Aside from greatness and maybe just a slight slowing of time, Charleston Hughes and Odell Willis aren’t asking for a lot. They just want their jerseys.

Hughes, the 34-year-old former Calgary Stampeder, is in Saskatchewan and leads the league in sacks, with 13. After five years in Edmonton, the 33-year-old Willis is in his first season with the BC Lions and is second in the league with eight sacks.

Members of the 2009 Stamps team but on separate squads since, they’ve got a basic friendship. They talk on social media and when they were in Winnipeg during Mark’s CFL Week in March, they shared a laugh about the odd day that links them together.

Both players were traded on Feb. 2. Twice.

“We talked about it,” Willis said on the phone from Vancouver this week. “We joked and laughed about it. We felt like no matter where you trade us to we’re still going to be two of the top-three defensive ends in the league.”

“It just shows that hard work and determination pays off,” Hughes said from Regina. “Odell got traded and I know he had some goals set for himself and I know he’s probably crushing them right now just like I am.”

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It was a truly bizarre day, with the moves coming just under two weeks out from the start of free agency. Hughes had spent his entire 10-year career in Calgary. Willis had spent the last five in Edmonton. Then Hughes was sent to Hamilton and Willis to Ottawa. Hughes figures he was a Ticat for about 15 minutes. Willis thinks he was a REDBLACK for 17 minutes. Then they were both flipped back to the West Division.

Both would like to commemorate their short times as members of the East Division.

“Should I get a Ticats jersey?” Hughes asked, wondering if it was an appropriate question.

“I think I should, just to hang it on the wall.”

Willis didn’t need to think about it.

“For sure!” he said. “My plan is to get a jersey from each team I have so-called been on before I retire.”

Neither player had much interaction with their temporary teams that day. Charles found out he’d been dealt, spoke with Calgary media and shortly after his press conference was over, found out he was a Rider.

Willis first got word from Edmonton that he’d been dealt and then missed Ottawa’s call. Before he could return it, Lions GM Ed Hervey called and told him about the second trade going down.

“Whoever that was from Ottawa, sorry I missed the call,” Willis said, laughing. “But I didn’t do it on purpose. I enjoyed my 17 minutes there and I wish them the best.”

Both can agree that it’s worked out for them. Hughes is well on his way to leading the league in sacks for the third consecutive season, making good on the promise he made to the media on his way out of Calgary. After his three-sack outing on Friday against Ottawa, Willis is poised to hit double-figures in sacks for the first time since the 2014 season when he had 13.

“I know how much I’ve got left in the tank. I know what I can do and I know what I can do to get better,” Hughes said. “I knew from last year there was a lot of stuff I left on the field and that I could be a lot better. I just knew in my heart that I’m going to lead the league in sacks again.”

With more than a sack per game, Charleston Hughes is on pace for a career year at age 34 (Matt Smith/CFL.ca)

When he got to BC, Willis said a talk with Wally Buono put him in a good place.

“Wally just told me to be me. He’s not worried about all of the other stuff about what people say,” he said.

“He knows what type of player I am and he just let his own judgement judge me as a person, instead of believing what someone else said or what he heard. Once a coach calls you in and tells you, ‘Don’t worry about nothing else, just play football and do what you do best,’ it’s easy for you to go and be successful. When the head man gives you the green light, everything else just falls in place.”

At this point, neither player is looking at or thinking about a finish line.

“I’m enjoying playing the game, enjoying playing outside of what people think I’m going to play,” Hughes said. “The challenge for myself really is to line up and play it for as long as I can. If I can aim for No. 1 in all-time sacks, that’s what I want to aim for.”

Grover Covington holds the record for sacks, with 157. Hughes is currently at 112.

Now in his 10th year in the CFL, Willis sees his career ending one of two ways.

“They’re going to have to kick me out of the league or it’s going to come to the point where I can’t dominate a tackle anymore,” he said.

“Why cut your blessings short? God blessed me to rush quarterbacks, so why would I decide after this year I’m going to retire just because?

“I haven’t missed a game due to injury but once. Why would I cut my blessings short? When I can’t just win one-on-one reps or if the league kicks me out, that’s the only way I’m leaving the CFL. Until then I’m trying to be like Damon Allen.”