- Free Agency
Truth be told, football wasn’t Johnny Augustine’s first choice. Or even his second or third.
Growing up in Welland, Ont., Augustine’s first love was martial arts. He also played basketball, ran track and spent a summer in baseball.
“If I could go back in time I would probably do something with baseball,” said the Winnipeg Blue Bomber running back.
But football? No way.
“It’s crazy coming from a martial arts background, I just thought it was too violent,” said Augustine. “I didn’t like the fact I was being brought down to the ground. I just stayed away from it.”
Friends and coaches were insistent Augustine should give football a chance. He finally relented and his attitude toward the sport changed the first time he stepped on the field for a game.
“I remember I broke through on my second carry for 90 yards,” Augustine said. “That feeling of scoring and that feeling of your teammates rallying behind you was like no other. I just fell in love.”
Despite his affection, football didn’t always return the love.
Even though he put up some good numbers in college, Augustine was overlooked in the 2017 CFL Draft. There were short stints with Edmonton and Saskatchewan before he finally landed a job with Winnipeg last year as a backup to all-star Andrew Harris.
Fate intervened and Augustine was given the chance to demonstrate his talent when Harris was handed a two-game suspension after testing positive for a banned substance.
In his first CFL start, Augustine rushed for 98 yards on 12 carries and also had three catches for 17 yards in Winnipeg’s 19-17 loss to the Saskatchewan Roughriders in last Sunday’s Labour Day game. His 55-yard run in the second quarter helped set up Winnipeg’s first touchdown of the game.
“It was unfortunate how I came to that situation but at the same time I was privileged to get that moment and opportunity that a lot of people don’t get,” said the 26-year-old. “It was very overwhelming but very exciting.”
Prior to last week’s game, Winnipeg coach Mike O’Shea described Augustine as calm and soft-spoken but someone with “an ability to flip a bit of a switch and bring some violence to his runs.”
The description brought a chuckle from Augustine.
“When you’re on the field a lot happens,” he said. “For me, when I run with the ball there is a purpose and a meaning behind it. There is an intention to get every yard, every inch, anything I can get.”
Harris casts a large shadow to play in. He’s a five-time CFL all-star and has won the rushing title the last two seasons.
In his first 17 games over two years with Winnipeg Augustine rushed 16 times for 111 yards.
“I’m not comparing myself to Andrew,” said Augustine, who at five-foot-nine and 206 pounds is about an inch shorter and 10 pounds lighter than Harris. “Andrew is versatile. He can run the ball, he can catch the ball, he can block. That’s what I’m trying to do, be a versatile back that can do everything.
“I’m not trying to say I’m a speed guy (or) a power guy. I’m trying to be an all-around back.”
Watching how Harris conducts himself has shown Augustine what it takes to succeed both on and off the field.
“Just the way he approaches the game, day in and day out,” he said. “There is a reason why he’s an all-time great because he does all the right things and the little things.
“It’s not just practice. It’s what you do before and after, whether it’s taking care of your body or getting the extra mental reps. He does all that like a true professional. That’s what I want to be, a true professional outside the field.”
Augustine believes his football career has benefitted from his martial arts training.
“The discipline with martial arts, working on your craft, working on our skills, those are what sets you apart,” he said. “All those little details in martial arts.
“We always talk about being patient in martial arts. That has really translated to the game. I’ve been patient. Even when things weren’t going my way I stayed patient and calm. It’s worked out the best.”
Augustine played five seasons of college football with the Guelph Gryphons, rushing for 2,742 yards and 28 touchdowns on 483 rushes. In his senior year, he had 690 yards and nine touchdowns on 122 carries.
Augustine believed he could play professional football so not being taken in the draft came as a blow.
“I was very frustrated,” he said. “It was my dream. To see it get shattered, especially with the amount of time I put into it, it was hard. I cried. There’s nothing wrong with that.
“At the end of the day, I was strong about it.”
Augustine’s performance in the loss to the Riders sent a message to all those who didn’t believe he had the talent to play in the CFL.
“Not giving up and proving the doubters wrong,” he said. “You get put down a lot of times. I knew I had a window and I wanted to capitalize on that.
“Coming from the situation I did, not getting drafted, now I’m actually able to display what I can do as a Canadian running back or a running back in this league.”
Despite struggling early on offence, the Bombers came close to beating the Riders in Regina. That gives the Bombers confidence heading into this weekend’s Banjo Bowl rematch in Winnipeg.
“Nothing changes, we have the same process,” said Augustine. “Continue to work hard in practice, fix mistakes. We have the same mentality.
“We know how close we came and how many points we can put up.”