O’Leary: Enjoy Argos Qwan’tez Stiggers while you can

Josh Bell pulls no punches when he looks back to the start of the Toronto Argonauts’ training camp.

When the team’s second-year defensive backs coach looked at the list of hopefuls to make the team, he figured he might have already known the first name to go.

Qwan’tez Stiggers‘ name felt like it was in a font bigger than the rest to Bell, who had spent six of his nine-year pro career in the CFL, after a four-year stay at Baylor University.

First, there was the blank space in the college spot; Stiggers hasn’t played any college football. Then there was his date of birth: Jan. 8, 2002. The Atlanta, GA product was all of 21 years and four months old when he set foot on the field at Guelph University back in May for rookie camp. There are players on the Guelph Gryphons’ roster older than Stiggers, whose only prior pro experience was taking part in the Fan Controlled Football League earlier in the year. He tied for the league lead there, with five interceptions.

“We were fitting to cut him first,” Bell said, laughing nearing the end of a conversation spent heaping praise on the team’s youngest cornerback.

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Stiggers has three starts on his growing resume and had an interception in each of his first two games, against Hamilton on June 18 and BC on July 3. He has 13 tackles to go with that. PFF gives him a coverage grade of 73.4 to this point in the season; his teammate, Royce Metchie, has the top coverage grade in the league, at 83.8.

When Bell’s sights went from what he saw on paper to what was in front of him on the field, he pulled a quick 180.

“Our minds are so shackled, that instantly we were like, ‘Oh, he can’t play, he’s got no experience.’ So it was a negative, pessimistic approach first,” the coach said. “After the first day, it was optimistic. It was something I hadn’t seen before and for a couple seasons in a row, coming to camp and having things that you’ve never seen before, he took the cake.”

Stiggers stands in front of you at an even six-feet and 197 pounds, looking on one hand like a young man still growing into his professional frame and on the other, showing a measuredness that hints at an explanation as to how he’s racing down this unique path.

When he’s asked about the difficulties that rookies of any age, particularly American ones, face when they come to the CFL, he shrugs them off. The biggest challenge he faced, he said, was switching from boundary corner to field corner in defensive coordinator Corey Mace’s defence.

“Football is still football,” he said. “Out here the field is bigger and you’ve only got three downs but that’s better for DBs because when it comes to second down and nine, you know it’ll probably be a pass. It’s like 85 per cent pass, 15 per cent run.”

“Honestly, I believe after two seasons of winning football in this defence, we’ll be thanking him for his time and the NFL will be beating down the door for him.”
— Argos’ DBs coach Josh Bell on Qwan’tez Stiggers

While most 21-year-olds with the natural football ability that Stiggers possesses are immersed in the college football life and dreaming of the NFL, Stiggers is here in Canada, earning a paycheque and playing against grown men. It takes something substantial to disrupt what is usually a standard high-school-to-NCAA journey for an athlete like Stiggers. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what found him and his family.

“So, February 14, 2020, my dad was involved in a single-car accident. His car flipped 13 times. I graduated in May 2020. That’s when I went to Lane College in Tennessee on a scholarship. Then my dad passed on September 19, 2020. I went through a depressing time. Didn’t come out of house for several months,” Stiggers explained.

“Then my mom finally signed me up for this league, Fan Controlled Football. I went out there, had a blast, was balling and then that’s when (former Argos offensive coordinator) John Jenkins put the word from me up here.”

Bell sees Stiggers’ challenges in life reflected in the player on the field.

“Football is a game of life. In 21 years old, he’s lived a life. I think his life experiences show the man that he is on the football field,” Bell said.

“You never want rookies on the field. Rookies can get you fired. Yet, his demeanour is always calm. He doesn’t radiate high with nervousness or anxiety, things like that. You see him under control. If not, he has small things that he does that relaxes everybody around him. He has these small expressions that keep everybody relaxed.”

One of 13 children in his family and a father himself, Stiggers felt a need to step in and support his family, including his mom, Kwanna, who helped him move forward in life when that felt impossible for him.

“My mom really instilled in us, you grow up you can do anything you want to do,” Stiggers said.

While it’s only a handful of games into his CFL career, Stiggers’ ceiling seems to be as high as he’ll want it to be.

“I feel I can be an All-Star either this year next year,” he continued. “I will try to win rookie of the year…I’m trying to finish the season with nine-plus interceptions, couple more tackles, couple more pass breakups. The sky’s the limit.”

“We didn’t anticipate him doing it this fast,” Argos head coach Ryan Dinwiddie said of Stiggers’ quick emergence in the defence.

“We’d seen a lot of potential there in camp, we felt like we want to keep him in the building and continue to have him grow but I mean, the kid took the next step. Not too many guys would come in here without college experience and go take some grown man’s job and he’s done it.”

On Friday, Stiggers and the Argos landed in Halifax for Saturday’s Touchdown Atlantic game. It’s the latest stop for the 21-year-old in a football journey that he couldn’t have imagined just a couple of years ago. Bell, who has won Grey Cups as a player and a coach in the CFL and won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers in 2010, had a clear message for fans in Halifax and across Canada when it comes to the Argos’ rising cornerback.

“Honestly, I believe after two seasons of winning football in this defence, we’ll be thanking him for his time and the NFL will be beating down the door for him,” he said. “That’s where I think his ceiling is.”

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