Nine months later, Derel Walker still remembers all of the details of what turned out to be his final game as an Edmonton Eskimo.
The star receiver was in Calgary, playing in the Labour Day Classic. Early in the second quarter, he reached up to make a catch and Calgary defensive back Tre Roberson made contact with him. Walker’s body went one way and his left leg stayed planted. He went down to the turf and didn’t get back up.
He didn’t feel anything pop, he said, but he knew it wasn’t good.
“I had a grade 2 MCL. I think it was a grade 2 or I stretched out my PCL and I stretched out my ACL as well,” Walker said on Wednesday.
Walker stands on the field with teammate Shawn Lemon during last week’s pre-season game (Shannon Vizniowski/CFL.ca)
Had the Esks been in a position to play for their playoff fate in their regular-season finale, Walker said he could have played with a knee brace on. It was probably better for his long-term health that it didn’t come to that.
“I’m really fortunate I didn’t have to have surgery and things went the way that they did,” he said. “I’m thankful for that and I’m just happy I was able to get through my rehab and be out here right now.”
The here, of course, is Toronto, where Walker reportedly became the highest-paid non-quarterback in the league as a free-agent. Last Thursday’s pre-season win over Montreal marked the first time Walker played in a game in almost nine months. Excitement is hard to come by in the pre-season from a four-year vet, but Walker was thrilled to be back on the field. He pulled in a McLeod Bethel-Thompson throw for a touchdown in his new team’s 45-20 win over the Als.
Now, he gets to do it all again in the Argos’ pre-season finale at Hamilton (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, Ticats.ca/CFL Game Tracker).
“It was my first big-time injury. I’m happy to be playing, I’m excited,” Walker said.
“I’m loving this offence, I’m loving being in the city of Toronto, I’m loving being in the double blue. I’m just loving the way things are right now and hoping and praying that they continue to stay on this line for me.”
Walker’s arrival in Toronto was one of this year’s biggest free agency moves. The CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie in 2015, he posted a career-best 1,589 yards in 2016; the only year he’s played a full 18-game schedule. He played the final eight games in 2017 after coming back from a NFL shot with Tampa Bay and he was on pace for a monster year in 2018 — he had 875 yards and eight touchdowns in 10 games — before his injury.
His presence should help free up veteran slotback S.J. Green this season and as Argos coach Corey Chamblin points out, Armanti Edwards is a part of that receiver mix as well. For all of the change that the Argos players talk about in their offence under coordinator Jacques Chapdelaine, the ability to spread the ball will be the biggest and most important one. Green was the league’s most targeted receiver last year. This year, the Argos will try to make defences guess where the ball is going.
“I’m loving this offence, I’m loving being in the city of Toronto, I’m loving being in the double blue.”
“He’s done an excellent job of picking up the scheme. He showed some explosiveness and he’s given us some oohs and ahhs in terms of his speed and the different things he’s doing,” Chamblin said of Walker.
“I’ve been proud of his progression and I think he’s headed in the right direction to solidify himself as a star in this league, a star in the East Division and a star in Toronto.”
Based off of last season’s results, many will question the Argos’ ability to get the ball into Walker’s hands. He came to Toronto fully confident in James Franklin, after spending three seasons with him in Edmonton. The two started their careers there, both of them working their way off of the practice roster.
“Just knowing what I’ve seen in Franklin throughout the years, practicing with him and knowing what he’s capable of…I’m really confident in Franklin,” Walker said.
“I know his arm and his arm strength and we have a great chemistry.”
As happy as he was to be back on the field, Walker is also thinking about what could have been. He had a touchdown reception in his hands from Franklin on the first drive of the game last week but it slipped through his hands and went off his knee.
“I’m pretty upset about that. I had one touchdown, one drop as well. I’ll continue to build and eliminate the negatives,” he said.
“It’s always nice to find the paint in the pre-season for sure, get a touchdown, but it was a blessing to be out there. It was a real humbling feeling to be coming off an injury and being able to be in that situation to go out there and play football and help a team out, do everything I can to put us in position to win.”
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