May 23, 2019

O’Leary: Mexican receiver hopeful sacrifice pays off with Ticats

Ticats.ca

Four mostly cool days into training camp, Jose Noriega might be thinking about home more than he anticipated.

The Tijuana-born, six-foot-two, 227-pound receiver was two years into a career as a lawyer when the Hamilton Tiger-Cats chose him fifth overall in January’s CFL-LFA draft in Mexico City.

“I’m a graduated lawyer and I was working but as soon as I was drafted I left everything behind. My job, my house,” Noriega said on Wednesday.

Job security and the comforts of home have been swapped for a training camp spot and a month of dorm living at McMaster University. That and some disappointingly cold spring weather to start the camp.

“Everybody’s saying that it’s not supposed to be this cold,” he said, as the temperature sat around 10C with a cold wind blowing. Conversely, in San Andres Cholula, where Noriega’s LFA team plays, it was around 28C on Wednesday.

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Noriega left the life he knew behind for an opportunity to play for the Tiger-Cats (Ticats.ca)

But when you’re 27 and you have a dream, you follow opportunity wherever the wind takes you; even if it’s colder than anything you’ve ever dealt with.

“I’m here and I want to make the most of this opportunity and improve my game,” he said. “I want to grow as a player and a man. We’ll see what happens.”

Noriega has two familiar faces with him, in LFA running backs Omar Cojolum and Luis Lopez. That’s helped for all of them, but particularly since Noriega’s English is the strongest of the three. He’s spoken for his teammates at times and helped bridge any language barrier issues.

“I have (Cojolum and Lopez) and that’s great,” Noriega said. “The coaches have been great and the players too, the’re making us feel like we’re in the family. We’re welcome, we feel welcome.”

It’s early days but the on-field experience has been very limited for all three players, who have essentially only taken part in drills so far. Noriega got a glimpse in a small role on special teams during Wednesday’s practice.

“It is (hard to be a spectator). For sure it is. We’re used to being the (first-team) guys in Mexico,” he said.

“I know it’s the process. We’re a bunch of guys trying to earn a spot, just like other guys in here. I guess that’s OK. We’re just waiting for the opportunity and will try to make the most of it.”

“Just absorb the culture, learn the process, get better each day,” Ticats coach Orlondo Steinauer said of the approach he’s taking with the trio of Mexican players and their first-overall pick from the CFL European draft, French defensive end Valentin Gnahoua.

“You don’t want to put people out there if they’re not sure what to do because then you’re not going to get their best. They’re not going to play full-speed, they’re going to play tentative.

“They’re anxious to get out there. Each person is going to learn at their own rate and as they learn we’ll give them more.”

From his limited view of the action so far, Noriega sees a faster game and notes different technique from the players.

“I’m here and I want to make the most of this opportunity and improve my game. I want to grow as a player and a man.”

Jose Noriega

Noriega looks to make a catch against DB Frankie Williams (Ticats.ca)

“There are some great athletes here. Athletes that have been in the NFL and are now playing here,” he said.

“It’s great for us to get to watch and learn and to compete with them. That’s the main thing for me, the chance to compete with them and to improve my game.”

If that means taking unconventional routes, like going from Mexico to Canada and to doing special teams work to show coaches that he can play, he’ll do it.

“I just have to work on whatever reps they’ve given to me. It’s OK. I’m just trying to get better. If it’s on special teams or offence or whatever.

“I’m a receiver, I want to play at the receiver (position). I want to be catching balls, scoring, but if that’s the way in then I’ve got no problem with it.”