So what’s it like, breaking hearts on a regular basis?
That’s a question I ask Montreal Alouettes’ electrifying kick returner James Letcher Jr., who has made a habit of doing just that since being activated by the Als late this season.
“I’d rather break hearts than get my heart broken,” says the friendly and funny Letcher with a smile.
A light rain was falling at Tim Hortons Field as the Alouettes wrapped up their practice session on Friday, but Letcher’s sunny disposition could not be dampened.
He’s that way, naturally, say his Alouette brothers. And when you burst on the scene late in the season, leaving would-be tacklers in your wake, your opposition’s hearts flattened, that can only add to a guy’s positive outlook.
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The man formerly known as “Wheels” from his baseball days but now known amongst his Alouette teammates as “The Human Joystick” has a touchdown triple to his credit in just a few weeks of action with Montreal, including a dagger of run against the Argonauts in last week’s Eastern Final in Toronto.
“All of ‘em were momentum swingers for sure,” says Letcher of his touchdowns. “I think Toronto was probably the worst heartbreak, in my opinion. They just scored. They were tryin’ to get momentum back and I just shattered it.”
The Alouettes would love to see more of Letcher Jr.’s heartbreaking skills in action this Sunday, when the team takes on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the 110th Grey Cup game.
For a team whose offence can get a little stuck in the mud, a continuation of Letcher Jr.’s spectacular entrance to the Canadian Football League would sure be welcome.
“He’s dynamic, man,” says Montreal running back William Stanback with a slow shaking of his head. “He can literally change the game in one play.”
In Week 17, against Edmonton, Letcher Jr. returned a missed field goal against the Elks with just seconds left in the first half, harpooning the Elks’ hopes of taking a lead into halftime. In the final game of the regular season, against Hamilton, he hiked a punt back 99 yards to turn the tide and point the Alouettes towards victory.
And in last week’s Eastern Final, with the Toronto Argonauts hoping they’d swung momentum with a fourth quarter touchdown, shaving the Montreal lead to 14 points, Letcher Jr. obliterated those plans on the ensuing kick-off, sprinting 105 yards to suck all the life out of the Argo bench as well as a bewildered crowd at BMO Field.
The missed field goal return was especially epic, listed, officially, as a 125-yarder. But in actuality, Letcher Jr. covered so much more ground as he deked and dashed and hurdled on the way to a final dive into the end zone. It’s rather humorous in some ways. Early in the return, you can see teammate Darnell Sankey pull up, turn sideways and just flat out get out of Letcher’s way.
No wonder they call him the Human Joystick.
In four regular season games, Letcher Jr. returned 23 punts for 392 yards and five kick-offs for 109 yards. Plus that one missed field goal return.
His formula for success is a bit of a complicated mix of skill and study, but it all comes from a very simple place for him.
“I don’t like to get tackled,” he says, brightly. “So either you run past them or you make ‘em miss. I try to do both.”
“Making people miss has always been my thing,” he shrugs.
But of course there is more to it than that, and Letcher Jr. knows it. For a long time, the 24-year-old grad of Washburn University admittedly relied just on his natural speed and agility to get things done on a football field. It was easy for him. But during his junior year at Washburn, he tweaked his attitude, and he says he knew he’d have to.
Film work, and lots of it, came into his life. It’s a discipline he’s carried into his splashy debut with the Alouettes in 2023.
“My first week activated I was at the facility at six in the morning, says Letcher Jr. “I’m watching film with Coach B (Special Teams Coordinator Byron Archambault), and I’m watching by myself. ‘Cause if I don’t, I could get cut. I’m trying to make the most of it.”
Archambault is happy to have Letcher’s nitro glycerin to add to his team’s return game, an ingredient that came to be when Montreal’s usual – and very talented – returner Chandler Worthy went down with an injury in October. And Archambault can confirm that the Alouettes’ five-foot-eight, 175-pound dynamo is no prima donna. He shows up – early – to work.
“A lot of guys spend extra time – more than what is required,” says Archambault. “He comes even before then.”
“What he does actually comes from work,” the coach continues. “It’s not just goin’ out there and playing football. He spends a lot of time watching film, understanding what we’re trying to do, how we’re trying to get about it. What’s the philosophy behind each of the returns that we run?”
“There’s coaching and there’s stuff that we can work on,” says Archambault. “But some guys come with just pure skill that they worked on before they were here. And they’re ready to seize that moment when it’s presented. And Letch is a good combination of all of that.”
Letcher agrees. With all the prep, and with all the help he gets from his teammates – “My blockers are blocking their tails off. All I gotta do is run,” he says – a returner’s success hinges on relying on quick decisions and gut feelings when the high-speed craziness of special teams is in motion.
“There’s a lot of things that go into it,” says Letcher. “But I don’t think about it I just do it. It’s second nature. It just kinda happens.”
“It’s easy to catch a ball and run. It’s not that hard. To me.”
He was smiling when he said it. It’s fun, I guess, to break the hearts of a team of grown men.