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RGM in the CFL


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POSTED: Wednesday, August 26, 2009

TORONTO » It was about a year-and-a-half ago when Hawaii football star Ryan Grice-Mullins decided to skip his senior season and enter the NFL Draft, expecting to easily step into a comfortable life as a professional athlete.

Instead, he has gone on a bittersweet football odyssey. It began with the shock and disappointment of not being drafted. Then he signed as a free agent — only to be quickly released — by the Houston Texans and then Chicago Bears.

Now he finds himself outside the United States, playing for the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League. And he's getting most of his playing time not as a receiver but as a kick returner — something he never even did in Hawaii.

“;I'm just happy to play — it's a blessing to play up here,”; he said. “;I mean, if you look at the AFL (Arena Football League) folding, a lot of guys (are) out of jobs. And that's another thing, it's not easy to make a team here, especially if you're American. There's only eight teams and only 22 roster spots for Americans for each team, so it's just as hard to make a team here as it is to make a team in the NFL.”;

Grice-Mullins said he left Hawaii early because he had nothing left to prove in college.

“;If I come back for my senior season and I get 1,400 yards instead of 1,300 yards, and 15 touchdowns instead of 14 touchdowns, is that really going to make a difference?”; the soon-to-be 23-year-old rhetorically asked.

He said at the NFL combine he finished in the top 10 in three categories and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds twice, just to prove that it wasn't a fluke.

“;I did everything possible to solidify to get drafted. It (not being drafted) was a shock to everybody. It was a shock to me definitely. It was a shock to my family. It was a huge shock to my agency,”; he said, adding that he still can't fathom how Colt Brennan went as low as the sixth round, and that no one else on that high-powered offense was picked at all.

 

Despite the bitter disappointment, he persevered. He had a good training camp with the Texans and after two days of organized team activities he insists he had impressed the coaches. But on the third day of OTAs he pulled a hamstring and everything changed in an instant. He was cut with little hesitation.

“;That's the difference between a draftee and being a free agent. If you're a draftee, they've got money invested in you now so they take their time with you. But if you're a free agent, you just can't get hurt. The Texans said, 'We didn't release you because you couldn't play. We had to release you because you couldn't show what you could do.' “;

So it was on to Chicago and an even shorter stint.

“;They had already drafted a receiver in the third (round). And they just gave Devin Hester a $40-million contract to make him into a receiver. They were going to make him into a receiver no matter what. I never really got the opportunity.”;

Next stop Vancouver. The 5-foot-11, 180-pounder from Rialto, Calif., was signed to a spot on the practice roster at the end of September. That's late in the CFL season, which runs from July to October, followed by the playoffs in November.

The coaching staff liked what they saw and put him on the active roster as a receiver for the last few games of the season. He caught nine passes for 175 yards and one touchdown. Then he hauled in a 67-yard touchdown pass in a playoff game the Lions lost to end the season.

He had done so well that the team made some offseason roster moves to move him up to the top of the depth chart for this season. But he had a terrible start to the year, and after some dropped balls that drew heavy media criticism, he was placed on the inactive roster about a month ago. He was reactivated a week later when another receiver — and also the team's main kick returner — went down with a knee injury.

While Grice-Mullins is still struggling as a receiver — just six catches for 62 yards after seven games — his opportunity on special teams has taken his career in a new direction.

He had 82 return yards in his first game fielding kicks, followed by 160 return yards the next time. In the game against the Toronto Argonauts two weeks ago, he added 120 more, including a season-long 43-yard kickoff return.

Wally Buono, BC's head coach and general manager, is one of the most successful coaches in CFL history, with a record 11 division titles in 20 seasons. He believes that Grice-Mullins is perfectly suited to the Canadian game, which differs from American football in several ways.

There are only three downs, but it's played on a longer and wider field, with much larger end zones, and motion in the backfield is allowed before the ball is snapped. There are some differences on special teams, too. The uprights are placed on the goal line so missed field goals can be returned. And fair catches are not allowed, but the coverage team must give returners 5 yards of space to catch the ball.

“;Ryan's got, I believe, tremendous, tremendous skills and speed,”; said Buono. “;And in our game, if you can get him the ball in space, he is, in my mind, as dangerous as any returner who's playing right now. He's going to be one of those guys who people will stand up out of their chairs because he's that exciting. I'm just toughing him up (by making him a returner) and making him a better prepared football player and that will make him a better receiver. Every game I get excited about him because I can see the growth.”;

Grice-Mullins said he's comfortable with his new role.

“;I'm just one of those players who wants to do whatever I can to help the team win,”; Grice-Mullins said. “;So if the coaches feel I'm the best person to do that I'm going to do it. If I'm going to be on the field, I may as well do it to the best of my abilities.”;