September 21, 2023

Morris: Sankey feeling right at home in return to CFL

No matter the league, Montreal Alouette linebacker Darnell Sankey brings a simple philosophy to football.

“Playing linebacker is linebacker, whether it’s the CFL, the NFL or the XFL,” Sankey said in a telephone interview from Montreal. “Run and hit. See the ball, get the ball. Make plays, be a playmaker.”

Sankey’s adaptability was tested when he signed with the Alouettes on Sept. 11 then played his first game just four days later against the Toronto Argonauts.

“Once they signed me I kind of knew what I was getting into,” he said. “I knew I was going to get thrown into the fire and I was ready for it.

“I play the game the same way everywhere. I just go out there, fly to the ball, lead the defence and do as I’m asked.”

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Sankey spent two previous seasons in the CFL with Calgary Stampeders, where he was a West Division All-Star, and the Saskatchewan Roughriders so he understood the game. His football IQ and Montreal teammates helped him get ready for Toronto.

“When I got here, they gave me the playbook and the coaches did a great job of getting me adjusted,” he said. “The players did a great job. I had extra meetings every day before practice and after practice.

“Any extra time we had I was meeting with them, going over everything, making sure I was able and confident to lead. If you’re confident out there, then you can play fast.”

Sankey had five tackles, second most on the team, in the 23-20 loss to the Argos. He expects a better performance from himself Saturday when the Alouettes (6-7) travel to Calgary to play the Stampeders (4-9) at McMahon Stadium.

“I’m always aiming to improve my game every week,” he said. “I plan to elevate my game every single game. I want to continue to be the best player I can be to help my team get in a position to win as many games as possible.”

Playing against the Stampeders will give him the chance to see some former coaches and teammates.

“I’ve got a lot of love for Calgary,” said Sankey. “They are the first team to give me an opportunity in the CFL and I’ll forever be grateful to them.

“I have nothing but good to say about them. It’s a business at the end of the day. When we go out there, I’ll shake their hands and go to war.”

Sankey has played a lot of football over the last 18 months. The 28-year-old San Jose, Calif., native appeared in 18 games with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2022, where he led the league and set a club-record with 120 tackles. He also had three sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception and two special-team tackles.

Sankey signed with the XFL Arlington Renegades in February. He played 10 games with the Renegades, collecting 47 tackles and a sack during the regular season, then added four more tackles during Arlington’s 35-26 win over the DC Defenders in the XFL championship game in May.

When the XFL season ended several CFL teams showed interest but Sankey liked the direction Montreal was heading under general manager Danny Maciocia and head coach Jason Maas.

“I saw what Coach Maas is doing with the organization,” he said. “I’ve been watching games and been pretty up to date.”

Sankey also liked being reunited with defensive end Shawn Lemon, a former teammate in Calgary, and Cody Fajardo, his quarterback while with the Riders.

“I had conversations with them,” he said. “They told me what was going on here and I was excited to come to be a part of it.”

Lemon, who leads the Als with five sacks, is a close friend.

“I consider him a brother,” said Sankey. “He was one of the first people to call me an all-star before I was an all-star when I was coming up here from the NFL.

“I’ve always had a good rapport with him, we kind of connect. We have a good chemistry. We understand each others playing style. It’s easy to get along with guys who have a similar mentality as you.”

The Als started the season an impressive 6-3 before starting a four-game losing skid. Montreal remains tied with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for second place in the East Division with 12 points.

Sankey is confident Montreal can turn its fortunes around.

“I believe we’re going to win every single game and we’re going to win the Grey Cup,” he said. “If that’s not your belief, you shouldn’t be on the team.”

The six-foot-one, 245-pound graduate of Sacramento State bounced around with eight NFL teams before landing in Calgary. He led the CFL in 2021 with 98 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble and was named a West Division All-Star.

He signed with the Riders as a free agent in 2022.

Sankey follows a rigid training regime, which begins at 4 a.m., six days a week. He still finds time to attend church and give back to the community with his DAND Academy in San Jose, which helps train young football players.

“I train very when I’m not in season,” he said. “I don’t really look at it as a lot of work. I enjoy giving back to the community, helping the homeless, going to church, spending time with my family and friends.

“The best way I can describe it is you prepare for anything. I train my body like a gladiator. We are modern gladiators and it’s a gladiator sport.”

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