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February 16, 2019

“I’m over-the-moon excited” | Lalama returns home

It’s a violent and sometimes cruel sport. And just surviving, let alone thriving, in the world of professional football can often leave a player feeling like he’s being crushed at the bottom of a long piling-on penalty.

As evidence, we offer up DJ Lalama, the University of Manitoba linebacker who signed a deal with his hometown Winnipeg Blue Bombers late Friday.

“I’m pretty freaking excited,” began Lalama in a chat with bluebombers.com. “I’m over-the-moon excited about the opportunity.”

A little background is in order here to put Lalama’s enthusiasm into perspective…

A year ago during an intra-squad game in training camp with the Montreal Alouettes, Lalama was running down field on kick cover when his right shoulder popped out and back in again. But this wasn’t a mere separation, as doctors discovered his labrum was damaged and his posterior shoulder capsule had been torn. Surgery was performed here in Winnipeg and his 2018 campaign was lost.

But it gets worse. Not long after, Lalama had another health scare.

“About a week after surgery they found a blood clot on my right lung. I went through a lot of symptoms… they called it almost like a mini heart attack,” Lalama recalled. “It was pretty scary at first. It was probably a 10-12-hour ordeal where I got rushed to the hospital and was hooked up to everything, doing every scan they could do.

“When the blood clot came through they put me on blood thinners and then the doctor looked at me and said, ‘With 9 of out 10 people we’re not having this conversation because it’s too late.’ That’s why everything has been put in perspective for me. God works in mysterious ways, man. I’m just thankful I’m here now and you and I are having this conversation.”

And so last summer, Lalama went through a stretch where he wasn’t just thinking about life in football, he was thinking simply about life itself. He spent weeks and months working on trying get healthy again, then tried to stay involved with football on the side by helping coach at St. Paul’s High School, his alma mater.

“When you hear words and terms like ‘blood clot’ and ‘near-death’ and ‘You’re lucky’ you have the realization you have so much work to do,” said Lalama. “It’s not that I forgot about football, but I was away from the game dealing with my injury. You focus then on what’s most important in your life, and that’s your own health.

“Going through that, every time I graduated to another step – whether it was being able to do resistance band work or walking on a treadmill or riding my bike – you start seeing that the end goal might be more realistic.”

Lalama was on blood thinners for six months, and just this past Wednesday, he got clearance from doctors to continue playing. As fate would have it, a day later Bombers GM Kyle Walters was on the phone with a contract offer.

Lalama was originally drafted by the Edmonton Eskimos in 2016 and they saw enough athletic ability to move him to fullback when a rash of injuries befell that position during training camp. He spent a few weeks on the Esks practice roster learning the position before ultimately deciding to return to the Bisons to play another season and continue with his education.

It was an excellent decision, as Lalama was awarded The President’s Trophy as the top defensive player in Canadian college football. He was offered a chance to return to the Eskimos as a linebacker again for 2017, but was caught in the purge of a managerial change that year that saw Ed Hervey ousted as GM. He surfaced in Montreal not long after before the shoulder injury led to the blood clot scare, and finally, to this shot with his hometown squad.

That’s a whole lot of pot holes in his road travelled.

“It’s been a crazy whirlwind year,” he said. “I wasn’t even sure football was an option anymore. And then Kyle calls 24 hours after I get clearance… it’s like a match made in heaven for me. I feel very fortunate just to be able to play again and now with the fact of being a hometown kid, it’s so much bigger than football. I got a little emotional when my agent told me it was Winnipeg. I didn’t know if this was ever going to happen again. Now it is. I’m beyond thankful.

“I know I have a lot of work ahead and this is just the beginning. I’m just willing to contribute in any way I can: defence, offence, special teams and in the community… it doesn’t really matter. If I get the chance to run out of the tunnel there will be a realization that this is bigger than football. The way I look at it,” Lalama added, “is I’ve got a brand new shoulder. And a good chip on it now, too.”