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June 12, 2017

Training Camp Day 14 | A Second Chance

Brandon Alexander (39)

Brandon Alexander had just about washed his hands of football when the call came this winter from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

His last real shot had come with the Atlanta Falcons in 2015, but bothered by a pulled hamstring from a pro-day workout earlier, he wasn’t at his best and was cut.

Then this winter, during a break from teaching algebra to high school kids, his life changed. The Bombers were on the phone with an offer to come to training camp. Nothing more, nothing less.

“When I got the call, honestly, I broke down and cried,” Alexander said Monday. “It had been two years and I never thought I’d get another opportunity to come out and play football and be around these kinds of guys. It’s why I won’t take anything for granted.

“I was working out from time to time but once you get out there and are working… I had moved out of my parents’ house, I had a lot of bills, it was like I was moving forward in my life. And then when this opportunity came up I sat down with my parents and asked them about the decision. I would have to drop everything and there was still a chance I could get cut. They asked me, ‘What do YOU want to do?’ I told them how much I loved football and they told me to follow my dreams because your body’s not here for ever, but you can always go back to teaching.

“And here I am.”

Roc Carmichael (left) & Brandon Alexander (right)

What Alexander has done during his short stint with the Bombers is continue to get better, day after day after day. On Monday he was working at the field corner with the No. 1 defence after Terrence Frederick – who started nine games last year – was among 11 players released earlier in the day.

“He’s got an all-day motor. That’s one of the things that everybody really likes,” said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea. “He’s smart and he’ll continue to learn the nuances of the CFL game. We think he can cover, he’s a physical guy, his physical stature (6-2, 195) is good. But I would say the No. 1 thing you know about him when you watch the film is he can run all day. He’s that type of guy that if he’s on the roster you’d think he’d play every special team and have the possibility to start, too, and that doesn’t come around very often.

“You love guys with that kind of motor.”

That motor might be a natural gift, but Alexander’s desire comes from a different place. A 5-11, 145-pound defensive end during his high-school days in Orlando, he was a walk-on at the University of Central Florida, earning a full scholarship in 2012, becoming a member of the American Athletic Conference All-Academic Team in 2013, and twice nominated for the Burlsworth Trophy, awarded annually to the college footballer who began his career as a walk-on player.

Those credentials earned him that free agent tryout with the Falcons two years ago.

“I come out here and give it my all every single day,” said Alexander. “It’s just my nature, going out here and competing. It doesn’t matter how fast or how strong or how big you are, if you come out here and give 100 per cent, anything is possible. I take that from being a walk on to this opportunity right now.

“Wherever I’m needed, I’m here, whether it’s on defence or special teams… if I have to go back on the D-line I will. I’m just here to work. That’s all I care about.”

BOMBER TRAINING CAMP DAY 14

Deep cuts the knife: The Bombers released 11 import players Monday morning, bringing their total down to 77 (excluding the two Winnipeg Rifles players).

Cut adrift were: receivers Darrin Peterson, T.J. Lowder, Quinshad Davis and Larry Raper, quarterback Austin Apodaca, offensive lineman Kodi Kieler, defensive linemen Lawrence Virgil and Caleb Bostic, linebacker George Stone and defensive backs Tahaan Goodman and Terrence Frederick.

The biggest name in that bunch was Frederick, who started nine games last year and finished with 33 tackles, one interception, one sack, two knockdowns and three tackles-for-losses – including a critical one in the Banjo Bowl win over Saskatchewan on a fake field goal.

“We’ve got a few guys that can work at that spot and provide a little more,” said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea of the decision to release Frederick. “Now, Terrence jumped in – and this is the sad part of the business – he got his first start (last year) against Edmonton when we started to turn things around. I think he had an interception in that game and it was big for us. But it’s our job to try and put the best team on the field every single year and I think the players understand that’s pro football. It doesn’t make it any easier… there’s a guy that’s been around for us.”

The release of Apodaca leaves three quarterbacks in camp – Matt Nichols, Dom Davis and Dan LeFevour. O’Shea said the club is not in a rush to bring in another pivot.

“We’re talking about it,” he said. “But with the roster shaping up this is how it had to be for right now. We’re always going to look at the possibility if we find a guy we like and want to develop and is available then we would bring him in. But we don’t have that need right now.”

Back to work: Both SB T.J. Thorpe and DB Kevin Fogg were back practising on Monday; Thorpe for the first time since the opening of training camp and Fogg for the first time since last year after offseason surgery.

“It’s amazing. It’s always good to get back with the team,” said Fogg. “We’re going for that Grey Cup so everybody has to do their part, everybody has to be in it and everybody has to be healthy. I’m just happy to be a part of the team.”

The return of both men looks to positively impact the return game. Fogg was a dynamic punt returner last year, while Thorpe broke the North Carolina school record for kick-return yards.

Still among the wounded are: WR Addison Richards, WR Matt Coates, LB Maurice Leggett, DB Abu Conteh, DB Darnell Walker Jr., DT Ian Marouf, SB Gerrard Sheppard.

O’Shea indicated Sheppard will be out two weeks; Walker Jr. will be lost for six weeks and Coates won’t play against Edmonton on Thursday.

Scrap City: Monday’s practice was the most intense of training camp, with the offence and defence operating at a high level before tempers flared near the end. The first skirmish saw safety Taylor Loffler and offensive tackle Manase Foketi getting after it before the whole team got involved and O’Shea and the coaches intervened.

Not long after, Brandon Alexander brought down Weston Dressler and tried to strip the ball from him while he was on the ground, prompting the veteran receiver and quarterback Matt Nichols to get in the rookie’s grill. By the end of the workout, there were hugs and handshakes all around.

“It was a spirited practice,” said O’Shea. “As a group we probably needed that. We probably don’t need all the shenanigans, but it was high-intensity work, that’s for sure.”

Added Dan LeFevour on the increased intensity:

“It picked up, didn’t it? I think it’s time to break and start playing some other teams more often, if you can’t tell. Things were getting a little chippy at the end. You don’t make it at this level unless you’re passionate about the sport, so that kind of thing is very common.”

New week, new approach: The Bombers will take a different approach to this week’s final dress rehearsal. More veterans will play and get more reps in order to get ready for the season opener July 1 in Regina (Winnipeg has the bye in Week 1).

“With the second one, the last one, you’ve got to get your rotations a little more set,” O’Shea explained. “You’re still evaluating, obviously, but you’ve got to set your rotations and have guys beside each other that are going to be working together during the season.

“There’s still a lot of guys here competing for a spot and you have to let them compete. If you shut them down too early and you don’t get a good picture of what they can really do, you end up making a bad decision. So we’re going to make sure that everybody that’s here gets some reps.”