There aren’t many days in the football calendar that allow for full, unbridled optimism, but draft day is one of them.
That feeling may have been at its strongest across the CFL on Thursday night in Toronto, where the Argos reaped one of the few rewards of a four-win season by choosing Oklahoma State o-lineman Shane Richards with the first overall pick in the draft.
At the Argos draft party, the season ticket holders were high on hope and possibly a little fuelled by an easily accessible bar at the side of the room. After the team brought Richards out to sign his contract, you could hear fans literally marvelling at what they saw.
Look at the size of him, one said of the six-foot-six, 335-pounder.
James Wilder is going to love this guy, one said.
When Richards held up the token Argos 1 jersey on the stage and it looked like a kids’ sized jersey at best, another fan yelled out, don’t worry, the ring will fit!
As he put pen to paper on his contract (two years plus an option, according to TSN’s Matt Scianitti), the crowd gave Richards the first of what they hope will be many long, loud ARRRRGOOOOOS chants.
The celebratory mood wasn’t lost on Jim Popp, either. He had nine more picks to make, but he still jumped in. Asked what it would be like to go up against Richards on the field, the Argos GM thought about it and said, “It’d be like fighting a bear.”
That’s the hope. A 23-year-old grizzly in the trenches with right guard and right tackle experience can be the starting point of prolonged success for a franchise. Even when your shoulders are as big as Richards’ there will be a lot of weight on them for him to produce at some point.
“Being the No. 1 pick is very important to me. It’s very fun but for me personally, if I was the No. 1 pick or the 25th pick, whatever, I’d have the same mentality. I’ve got to get to work,” he said.
“Going first, you get a lot of attention. People will be criticizing every little thing I do technique-wise. Now it’s more important than ever that I’m on top of my game and that I’m doing what I’m preaching.”
The Argos’ spent the last week flying as many as eight prospective No. 1 picks into Toronto for face-to-face meetings. Richards’ get-to-work attitude was the key factor in Popp and the Argos deciding to go with the Calgary native.
“There were a couple of guys that stood out but right now like what Jim said also, (it came down to) who can come in now and who’s ready to play?” Argos head coach Corey Chamblin said.
“His mindset was that he’s ready to come in and play he’s ready to be a part of the CFL. He’s ready to be a part of the Toronto Argonauts. I had a conversation with him, all of us did and it felt like a natural fit.
“He’s a very humble individual but he’s very business-oriented. He has a no-nonsense mentality. I think he’ll fit in here.”
Thursday night was the first part of that process and it was more celebratory than anything else. Richards was already talking about getting into the playbook but he was also taking time to meet with the Argos fans and appreciate the moment.
He didn’t start playing football until he was in grade nine, but at six-foot-six and 250 pounds, the game came easily to him. He jumped to the Calgary Colts for a year and thanks to territorial rights, was able to get on the field with the Stampeders for practices during the 2014 season. He spent a year at New Mexico Military Institute before transferring to Oklahoma State University, where he spent the last three years. He’s loved the journey, but his family is happy to have him back in Canada, even if they’re a four-hour flight apart.
“Listen, my mom already told me she’s coming to that first game, no matter if I’m playing or not,” Richards said, laughing.
The Argos open their season in Week 2, on June 22 when they host Hamilton.
“I’m going to be nervous but it’s going to be exciting, honestly. The last time (my family) saw me play was my first year in junior college. I think my emotions will be overloaded when that time comes.
“It’s going to be very very special having them there the first time I touch the field, play or whatever, just having them watch me play for the first time. (Playing) in Canada as well, that’s going to be a very special moment for me.”
There’s a lot of work to be done, for Richards and for the rest of the Argos. But on Thursday, the organization took a moment to stop and think about what the future could hold.
“He’s played at a high level,” Chamblin said of Richards, “but the biggest thing is the athleticism at his size.
“Him being able to play guard and tackle helps him. He’s had a high level of coaching but I think, once he connects with (Argos o-line coach) Dan Dorazio I can see him going through the roof.
“He has the size, he has the skill, he has the want to and I think he has room for tremendous growth.”
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