WHEN THE LIGHTS GO ON: VERNON ADAMS JR. AND THE MAKING OF A WINNER
By CFL.ca Senior Writer Chris O’Leary
It was, in hindsight, a very awkward situation.
Vernon Adams Jr. was in the third quarter of a game where a defence and the deck was completely stacked against him.
On the field at Molson Stadium that July night, Adams was on the run. The stat sheet will show he picked up 72 yards on the ground but his step counter, if he had it on him, would tell a much more detailed story.
Kwaku Boateng, Almondo Sewell, J.C. Sherritt, Josh Woodman and Jake Ceresna shared the spoils of a seven-sack night for the Edmonton Eskimos. At times, it looked like the ball would snap and the Montreal Alouettes offensive line would vanish, with the eyes of 12 defenders zeroing in on the guy with the ball in his hands.
Still, Adams put together a decent night. He managed to complete 15 of 28 passes for 217 yards, with one interception.
Off the field, in the stands of the stadium, the fans were trying to skip ahead. The chants for Johnny Manziel were a smattering in the background most of the night. Toward the end of the third quarter, with the Als down 34-15, the fans began to demand the quarterback that the team had traded for just days earlier.
They booed when Adams continued to go back on the field.
The Als lost 44-23 that night, July 26, 2018. The fans got what they wanted a week later, only to watch Manziel throw four interceptions against Hamilton. Adams wouldn’t start another game in the 2018 season.
From his home in Lancaster, Calif., Dean Herrington turned off his TV and shook his head at what he’d seen. In the East Bay near Berkeley, Calif., Beau Baldwin did the same thing.
Both men — Herrington coached Adams at Alemany High School in Mission Hills, Calif. and Baldwin coached Adams at Eastern Washington University — found themselves circling back to the same question that had attached itself to Adams for them since he went to the CFL in 2016.
“All of us out here have been like, ‘What the hell is going on? Why isn’t he starting? Why hasn’t someone given him the keys to the car in that league and watched what happens?’” Herrington says.
. . . . .
“HE’S JUST A WINNER. HE’S FINDING WAYS TO HELP US WIN.”
Alouettes head coach Khari Jones
Almost a year to the day of that game — July 19, 2019 — there’s a vastly different feel around the Montreal Alouettes. It’s a scorching hot day in Montreal. With the picturesque Olympic Stadium in the background, the team is loose as it goes through its final practice before facing the Esks once again. Veteran offensive lineman Tony Washington wears a sombrero and comes to the sideline to interrupt interviews that his teammates are taking part in. The Als were about to stretch their two-game win streak to three; a mark they hadn’t hit in three years.
“It’s a lot more fun here,” says Washington, who came to Montreal from Hamilton in the Manziel trade. He points to his sombrero and laughs.
“You know how it is with winning. Winning solves everything. It’s fun to come to work, fun to be here and be around these guys in the locker room.”
Now 33, Washington has built up an interesting career protecting some of the game’s best QBs through stops in Calgary, Toronto, Edmonton, Hamilton and now the Als. He’s won Grey Cups with Toronto (2012) and Edmonton (2015) along the way.
“(This team) reminds me of a lot of different places that I’ve played. I start feeling that feeling and I’m seeing the ’15 Eskimos, I’m seeing those sorts of things,” he says. “I see those sorts of things with the talent that’s in this locker room. It’s fun. It’s fun to be around.”
The link between the win streaks and the good vibes around the team is Adams. He took the Als to three straight wins at the end of the 2016 season and he looked to be poised to take them to a fourth straight win before leaving the team’s Aug. 2 game against Ottawa for concussion protocol. Montreal lost both of its games in the time he’s been sidelined.
After the win over Edmonton, Als head coach Khari Jones said Adams was improving with each start that he got. His numbers were modest against the Esks — 15 of 22 for 191 yards with one touchdown and 44 yards on the ground — but the offence was confident under his watch. The highlight of the game was the successful execution of a gutsy trick play that resulted in Adams catching a pass for a touchdown. It came on the Als’ first trip to the red zone that day.
“This was a tough game,” Jones, the former MOP quarterback said, noting that Edmonton put a ton of pressure on Adams and that he made good decisions and kept drives alive. There was also room for improvement, he said, pointing to two interceptions that came back on Edmonton penalties. Most important, though, Jones said, Adams was giving his team a chance.
“I think overall he made pretty good decisions,” he said, then tried to carefully choose his next words. He settled on something that just about anyone that has crossed paths with Vernon Adams Jr. has learned.
“He’s just a winner. He’s finding ways to help us win.”
. . . . .
You can hear the pride in Vernon Adams Sr.’s voice when he talks about his high school.
Adams graduated from John Muir High in Pasadena, Calif. in 1990. It’s the school that Jackie Robinson attended (class of 1936), before breaking barriers in baseball. Over the years it’s produced musicians, like David Lee Roth, actors, and pro athletes. One of Adams Sr.’s classmates was Rodney King.
Muir High shaped Adams Sr. in his time there. Great coaching instilled a love of the game for him and he watched a number of his classmates and teammates over those years — Ricky Ervins, Marcus Robertson, Chad Brown and Darick Holmes — go on to play in the NFL.
It’s what factored into Adams Sr. wanting his son to play football as soon as he possibly could. Vernon Jr. was born on Jan. 3, 1993. By 1995, he was on the field for flag football. The only problem was that the league was open to kids starting at the age of three. He had trouble convincing his son to tell people that he was a year older than he was, but Vernon loved to be out there.
“I was supposed to be three but he couldn’t wait,” Vernon Jr. says.
“Kids are so honest,” Vernon Sr. says, laughing. “But the first time he got the ball he ran for a touchdown. It was cool.”
He was in tackle football by the time he was seven. Vernon Sr. coached him in those Pop-Warner years and said he was immediately impressed with how his son threw the ball.
“It was easy for me to be there and be the coach and have my son as the quarterback,” he says.
“We could go home and talk about plays. It had its pluses and minuses, good times and bad times. As a father and a coach you have to know how to separate the two. I was pretty tough on him as I look at it now, compared to how other kids are.
“There were games I had him crying coming home because we didn’t do a certain play right, we’d get too caught up in it.
“But I told him if he could handle me, he could handle any other coach. I pushed him to be the strong young fellow he is now, through all the things he’s been through.”
Vernon Sr. always envisioned his son going to John Muir High, so he could take the same path that he did. But as Vernon Jr. grew up, the community was changing. The public school that Vernon Sr. thrived in was drastically different by the time Vernon Jr. was old enough to become a student there.
“Once I’d seen how the kids were acting and…once I’d graduated, it was his turn and it was a whole different era of kids. It was different and I felt that vibe,” Vernon Sr. says.
“My household was more…we were good,” Vernon Jr. says.
“We didn’t live in the middle of the hood. But we lived around (rough) areas and a lot of my friends that I grew up with playing football or stuff, they got mixed up in gang violence or armed robberies and things like that. And I could have been right there with them.
“I mean, two of my best friends are still locked up right now. They’re locked up for six-plus years.
“My dad took me to a private school 20 minutes outside of Pasadena so I could be away from all that stuff.”
“It was the best decision I ever made for him in my whole life,” Vernon Sr. says.
Vernon Jr. may not have known it at the time, but he knows it now. He’s reminded of it when he thinks of those friends, kids he liked and got along with, that made the wrong decisions and had everything change on them. His father made a choice for him, made it work and Vernon Jr. became a student at Bishop Alemany High School in Mission Hills.
A part of your high school years is learning about those moments, about the gravity of decisions. Vernon Jr. would come face to face with that in time for his graduation.
there was sort of a level of magic when the lights came on
. . . . .
“THERE WAS SORT OF A LEVEL OF MAGIC WHEN THE LIGHTS CAME ON.”
Beau Baldwin, Adams’ former college football coach
At Bishop Alemany, Herrington said Adams made an impression on him the first time he saw him on the field. Herrington had a quarterback that he thought would be their starter for the future and Adams quickly undid that. He played receiver his freshman season and was the starting QB on the junior varsity team in his sophomore year. He joined the varsity team for playoffs as a sophomore receiver and by the time he got to his junior year, the QB job was his. Herrington learned quickly that Adams was a gym rat, down to the finest details.
“It’s funny, his junior year we played Oaks Christian School and they were loaded,” Herrington recalls.
“They had 10 or 11 Div 1 athletes. We played them tough but lost and the following year we were playing them again. Vernon had drawn up every play we ran against them the year before. Every defence, explained what everyone was doing. Meticulous work, super neat. (The coaching staff) was like, ‘Wow.’ And we beat them.
“When he’s done playing one day he’s going to be a coach and he’ll probably be a famous coach. His football intellect (is incredible). I’ve coached 16 Div 1 college quarterbacks and two that played in the NFL and Vernon just loves the game. He’s a student of the game.”
In his two years as the starting quarterback, Adams went to work. He threw for 5,234 yards and 49 touchdowns and rushed for 1,263 more yards on the ground, with 19 touchdowns. Alemany was 22-5 under his watch in those years. While the numbers and accomplishments — Serra League MVP, first-team all-league both years — accumulated, the interest from colleges didn’t. Adams had two schools make him an offer to continue playing football. Portland State and Eastern Washington University.
“I was happy,” Adams says of the attention, or lack thereof for a player of his calibre.
“I just wanted one (offer). I really didn’t want to be one of those guys with 20-plus offers, having to sit here and make a decision and have a top-five list.”
He looks back on choosing Eastern Washington now and it was the easy choice, a no-brainer. But after an impressive visit to Portland State, Adams gave the school a verbal commitment.
“Then my dad kind of changed my mind into going to Eastern,” Adams says.
“That was kind of simple on my part,” Vernon Sr. says.
“He came in with all this Portland stuff. All these coaches came, nine of them, they’re all friends, they all knew him…but the team wasn’t quite there as a whole.”
The Eastern roster was loaded with talent and peppered with future CFL players. Bo Levi Mitchell was the starting quarterback and J.C. Sherritt (linebacker) and Greg Peach (defensive end) played defence. Two players on that team — Matt Johnson and Taiwan Jones — went on to NFL careers. Eastern Washington won the 2010 FCS Div 1 championship while Adams Jr. was being recruited.
“I looked at Eastern and said, ‘If Bo leaves, (after winning the 2010 season) they have some great wide receivers like Greg Herd and Brandon Kaufman,” Adams Sr. said. “Even if he wasn’t starting, he’d compete and get the first-string guy ready, the second-string guy ready. He’d wait his turn and be patient. I’m so glad he’s been patient.”
“I think the offensive line coach was the quarterback coach at Portland State,” Adams Jr. says.
“So (Vernon Sr.) was telling me at Eastern Washington that our quarterbacks coach was a quarterback in college. He was an all-American quarterback and our head coach was all-American quarterback.
“So my dad was telling me, ‘How are you going to let an offensive lineman teach you how to play? No, you need to go to Eastern Washington.’ They had three all-Americans over there, they had Bo Levi Mitchell, they had J.C. Sherritt. They’re good guys. And they had just won the national championship.”
Baldwin makes it clear that he’s not the type to call up a recruit and ask him to reconsider a commitment, but he felt like Adams was a unique situation.
“I got on the phone a lot with him. I think he spent some time sitting down and talking with his dad the night before signing day,” he says.
“I think in the end he just…you can get excited about a weekend. Any of us can. But then you have to decide is it going to be the best thing for me long-term? We talked about that.
“This wasn’t something he’d been set on for a long time and I was trying to talk him out of it.
“I think by the morning (of signing day) he came to the conclusion that he felt like over the long haul, Eastern was going to be a better fit for him.”
Adams redshirted his first season with the Eagles in 2011 and started the following three years. Even when Adams was running scout team in his redshirt freshman year, Baldwin could see something special.
“What he always had was, there was sort of a level of magic when the lights came on,” he says.
“And I know on scout team the lights aren’t necessarily coming on. But when it got to be those moments where you can try and beat the first-team defence and make a play and do those sorts of things, he flourished.
“Where he set himself apart is when the when the ball is snapped, so to speak.”
Some quarterbacks set themselves apart in practice, through drills or analyzing a defence, Baldwin explains.
“But that doesn’t always compute to being great in games. Vernon’s more the opposite and that’s why I love him.
“His best, his very best stuff is when it’s game time and that’s rare. It’s only certain guys that have that, that something to play at their highest level in the most high-pressure situations. That’s what you get, you kind of sense that with him.”
The lights grew bigger and brighter when Adams decided to make the move from Alemany to Eastern and Baldwin was proven right. In his three years as a starter, Adams proved he was one of the best college football quarterbacks in the country.
He was a Walter Payton award runner-up in 2013 and 2014. He may have won the award in 2014 were it not for a broken bone in his foot that cost him four games. His 110 touchdown passes were school and Big Sky Conference records. The more success he had in the Big Sky Conference — his bio at EWU is a serious time investment — the more he moved into the company of and sometimes past names and faces he’d come to know in the CFL, like Matt Nichols and Dave Dickenson.
He left Eastern Washington with 10,438 passing yards and 110 touchdowns to 31 interceptions. He rushed 297 times for 1,232 yards and 11 touchdowns. With three years of momentum behind him, he transferred to Oregon for his senior season.
Despite two obstacles — a math class that almost made him academically ineligible and a broken finger in the season opener against Eastern Washington — Adams still put together a solid senior year in the PAC-12. He made 168 of 259 passes for 2,643 yards and 26 touchdowns to six interceptions, while rushing 83 times for 147 yards and two touchdowns. The Ducks went 7-3 and Adams was optimistic about his NFL chances.
Of course, those best laid plans went awry.
Adams didn’t hear his name called in the 2016 NFL Draft. There were mini-camp stays with Seattle and Washington, but nothing else materialized. Looking back, he recognizes that he wasn’t at his best.
“During the NFL combine prep, my former agent and other school donors and stuff like that were just throwing me money. Money I’d never seen before,” Adams says.
“I’m coming from getting a scholarship of $1,200.00 to $1,500 a month. Now I’ve got guys coming down putting $50,000 cash in my face, offering to buy all of my Oregon jerseys, all of my cleats.”
Adams detailed his transition from the college game to the pros over the winter on the Insights From The Locker Room podcast hosted by Nik Lewis and Adams’ former Oregon teammate (and current Als teammate) Tyler Johnstone.
“During that time I wasn’t really training the way I was supposed to,” Adams continues.
“Nobody really stopped me from doing what I was doing, partying so much and I thought you know, I went to Oregon and I had a good year. I thought I had already made it.
“I was paying for not one thing. My car, everything. I let it all get to me, I let it get into my head and after that, it was just on me. I’m not downtalking the CFL. This is just how I got here.
“I feel like if I would have taken it more serious, maybe I would have had a better NFL shot. My body wasn’t the way it is now. It was sloppy. It was just…bad.”
. . . . .
In the spring of 2018, Liz Griffin’s notifications caught her attention.
A doctorate student at the University of Washington with a jazz and ballet background, she’d been going to a personal trainer in Bellevue, Wash., just west of Seattle. Her phone was buzzing, letting her know that she was getting likes on her Instagram account. They were not new pictures.
“He’s probably going to hate me for saying it, but it started with Instagram,” Griffin laughs.
“He went back and started liking pictures from a while ago, kind of getting my attention. But he would never message me. So after he liked a couple pictures I was like, ‘I’ll just message him.’ It kind of went from there.”
She’d met Adams at the training facility, but had no idea what he did until they started talking more.
“I just remember seeing him around and he had this super positive energy,” she says.
“He was just always happy making everyone else happy. Then as I started getting to know him, he’s just genuinely a good person. He cares about his community. He cares about other people, wanting to mentor younger kids, even people his age. He just has a genuine caring and compassion for other people.”
On their first date, he gave her an autographed football card. She laughs at the memory now, being a few years older than Vernon and unsure if she was supposed to be impressed by the gift (she wasn’t). In the card he gave her, he wore a Saskatchewan Roughriders uniform.
As their relationship progressed, Griffin saw the uncertainty that follows a quarterback that’s not yet established in the CFL. In his short time in the CFL, Adams has gotten the football card treatment. The BC Lions had his negotiation list rights and dealt them to Montreal in May of 2016. He signed a three-year deal with the Als and won the final three games of that season, but was traded to Saskatchewan in August of 2017. In February of 2018, Adams was traded again as part of the Charleston Hughes deal and landed in Hamilton. Manziel’s arrival in Hamilton led to a crowded QB stable and Adams was the odd man out. Released by the Ticats on June 21, 2018, the Als brought him back five days later. They traded for Manziel less than a month later on July 22.
“When we first started dating, he was going off to Hamilton. And I didn’t know that much about how he had been moved around a lot,” Griffin says.
“But then obviously while he was Hamilton he was released and he actually came back to Seattle. He was getting calls from other teams and working with his agent and deciding where to go. That’s when I started learning about how much he’s been through and been moved around and not really given his shot. So it’s awesome to see him get that chance (in Montreal) and be excelling like he is.”
It’s not the path he would have drawn up for himself, but Adams has tried to take advantage of every stop he’s made. His coaches, Herrington and Baldwin, see a coaching career in front of Adams when he stops playing. While he tries to secure his starting quarterback gig, he’s trying to get a foot in the door on his next career as well.
“I want to take something from each coach I’ve ever met and I think I have,” he says.
“You talk to Chris Jones, June Jones, you talk to anybody, Torey Hunter, they know I’m coachable. They know I have a lot of energy, great energy to give to the team. I’m a great leader and that’s all that matters.
“When this stuff is done I want to be able to call those guys and say, ‘Hey, I want to be your running backs coach, I’ll be your quarterback coach, I’ll be your receivers coach.’ I’m meeting a lot of great people, a lot of great coaches and learning different things.”
Griffin continually brings up Adams’ positivity and how through trades, through second-string or third-string roles, through his stint in Hamilton as a receiver (“He just loves the game, he never saw that as a negative.”) he never got down on himself or thought about quitting. The only time he was upset, she says, was that night last summer when Als fans chanted for Manziel while he was on the field.
“I think I was more frustrated and upset than he was,” she says.
“Even that, he kind of checked himself after a couple of days and turned it right back around. Other than that he’s stayed optimistic about things.”
“I think whatever self-doubt there sometimes is for him, get the ball in his hands and it’s gone,” Baldwin says.
. . . . .
Griffin was in Montreal with Adams in the days leading up to the Als’ win over Hamilton on July 4. She had just completed her doctorate in education from the University of Washington. She’d wanted to be a university professor, focusing on mental health, social work and social justice, but her dissertation led her down a different path, shifting her interests to intercollegiate athletes and mental health and wellness.
She was there to support Adams and for some fun, but she could tell that something was bugging him. He hadn’t been himself all week.
“He wasn’t doing well in practice and as a mental health professional, I could just tell, this was is in his head, he’s better than this. I wondered why he was getting so in his head about it?” she says.
That week, Griffin started doing relaxation and visualization techniques with Adams. There was deep breathing and positive self-talk. The morning of that game, she had him lay down and they ran through what he thought every play of the game would look like.
“I would guide him through it,” she says. “Literally asking questions down to what he was wearing. ‘Do you have a towel hanging? Is it out the back? What cleats are you wearing? How are you feeling?’”
They ran through plays for each quarter of the game, all with a positive outcome. Griffin would tell him to speak things into existence.
“Then he killed it,” she says.
Adams led the Als to a surprising 36-29 win. He made 14 of 25 passes for 202 yards and rushed six times for 60 yards and a touchdown. The win ended a two-game slide that kicked their season off and sparked their three-game win streak.
“I think it’s helped with building his confidence,” Griffin says of the relaxation techniques.
It’s become a part of his game day prep now. She’ll FaceTime him for games when she can’t be there to see him. She stresses the five Cs when they talk: Cool, calm, collected, confident and composed.
“And after you do well, you can add a sixth C of being cocky,” she laughs. “I always remind him to breathe before each play and remember the Cs.”
They’d been together for a few months when they started talking about their futures and what they wanted. Both have an interest in helping kids through the things they’re passionate about: Adams with football and Griffin through dance and mental health education. Adams remembered his friends in Pasadena, the ones that fell into trouble and made bad choices. He thought about those friends’ children, who he visits when he’s back in California.
They both looked around at their community in the Seattle area, which has the third-largest homeless rate in the United States. Of the estimated 22,304 homeless people in Washington State, 2,184 are unaccompanied young adults aged 18 to 24.
They want to attack those numbers.
“We just thought, ‘What if we put it together? What if put a dance studio/yoga/mental health facility with personal training and sports, everything like that,’” Adams says.
They’ll call it Empire Fitness, a holistic training facility. They’ve targeted an industrial warehouse in Lakewood, Wash., for a location (they’re fundraising to help build the facility).
“We both had the vision of it being something that would serve marginalized and oppressed populations,” Griffin says.
“I’m from Lakewood and that’s where Vernon stays with me during the off-season. Lakewood is one of those communities that has a huge population of marginalized and oppressed individuals.
“We thought, you know, we met at a training facility and there’s no facility like that in our area. So one, it would be nice to have a training facility like that in our area, but also to add these things: Equitable pricing so that kids from low-income families could afford to be there. We wanted to add a mental health component, yoga, dance. My brother is a chef, so we want to (teach) kids meal prep and nutrition. It just kind of kept going from there. It’s something that we’ve become really passionate about it and are going to make happen eventually.”
“I want to help people and see smiles on fans’ faces. I want to see smiles on kids faces,” Adams says.
“I know that if I was a kid, I would love for someone to do something like that for me. It’s all about giving back. Our youth is the future and we’re nothing without them. You want them to know what’s right from wrong and have a good life and live as long as possible.”
Adams’ success with the Alouettes is a welcome addition to that equation. They both realize that if he were to secure the starting job and build a career in Montreal that a lot of their time would be spent there. If he can take care of things in Montreal first, it opens the door to other potentially bigger things for him later in his life.
There’s an irony in the timing of it all, of having to take this circuitous route to get back where his CFL career started. That night last summer, when the stadium buzzed for Manziel, some key pieces in what could help this Als team turn the corner were on the field.
Even now, with the Als in position for their best year in the post-Anthony Calvillo era, there’s noise around the players on the field. Mike Sherman was fired as head coach six days before the start of the season. Kavis Reed was fired on July 14. The team remains under league ownership while a new owner is sought.
For Adams, whose play elevates the brighter the lights get, those things don’t matter.
“He’s the best football player I’ve been around in terms of when the lights go on,” Baldwin says.
“I’ve been around a lot of good ones but man, he’s one of those guys that whatever you think he is in a combine or in drills or in practice, it’s a whole different deal when you kick that ball off.
“He has that something…he may end up missing a throw two or three times in practice and all of a sudden the game’s going and does it from the worst, most awkward position possible and yet it gets right there. It’s how he’s wired.”