May 20, 2024

The Lede: “It means a lot. Now, I’m a professional.”

Kevens Clercius -- photos by Cameron Bartlett

REGINA – It’s a phrase guaran-damn-teed to have been uttered in a grumble or a low whisper during every Winnipeg Blue Bombers training camp dating back to the days of leather helmets:

‘Can we please – pretty please — just fast-forward to the regular season now?’

Yes, tedium can often set in even during the Canadian Football League’s notoriously short training camps as one practice blurs into another, as veterans moan about two-a-day sessions and fans and media alike yearn for the games that really matter in the standings.

As the late, great Jim Murray of The Los Angeles Times once opined, ‘preseason games have all the entertainment value of watching a tree form its annual ring.’

Well, gather round Blue Bombers fans, as a couple of players make the case in defence of preseason games in advance of today’s tilt against the Saskatchewan Roughriders…

Meet receiver Kevens Clercius, the Blue Bombers first pick, 13th overall, in the 2024 CFL Draft earlier this month. His story is about much more than the fight for a roster spot and to earn a living in the game. It’s about his family, too, and about trying to become a beacon of hope for the athletes from his neighbourhood in Montreal.

Kevens Clercius in conversation with Kenny Lawler

“It’s been a dream of mine since I was young to play pro,” Clercius said in a conversation with earlier this week. “This game means a lot to me. Now, I’m a professional. This was my dream, to play professionally on a team and so it doesn’t matter if it’s preseason or regular season, or even just a scrimmage. I’ll do anything not just to be a receiver, but to be on the team on special teams. I’ll do whatever.

“The other big thing for me is I know at home there are a lot of people watching me. A lot of people will be watching the game because they feel like I inspired them. They support me. So, this is about being able to play for my people at home.”

The son of Haitian immigrants, Clercius grew up in Montreal-Nord, a tough neighbourhood notorious for gang violence and one of the highest crime rates in the city. There are good people there, too, and they helped Clercius shine as he moved on to eventually play for Canada’s gold-medal winning squad at the 2018 International Federation of American Football World Junior Championships and ultimately earn an invitation to a University of Connecticut ID camp.

He barely spoke English upon arrival at the UConn campus but took language courses and not only made contributions on the football field as a receiver and bruising contributor on special teams but also earned a sociology degree.

It’s all of that, perhaps, which gives Clercius a bigger-picture take on the preseason than some others.

“It’s true we’re athletes and now as professionals, we’ll get paid,” he said. “And yes, in some cases people play just because they want some money. For me, this is truly about getting the chance to play the sport I love. Football is something I love. I have a degree and will one day hopefully do something with that but for now I don’t have to sit in an office all day. But getting paid or not getting paid, right at this point I don’t care. I just want to play.

“I’ve been saying this a lot: where I’m from, it’s a tough neighbourhood and a lot of people don’t see the potential they have as athletes and as people. I just want to be seen by people at home and help create a path for the next generation, in a way. People focus on the drug side of things when they talk about my neighbourhood, but there are people who play sports and do good things, too.

“I just want the athletes at home to recognize they can be an athlete at the next level, too.”

Gabe Wallace is also a 2024 Blue Bombers CFL Draft pick, selected four spots after Clercius at 17th overall. He’s starting at right guard for the club against the Roughriders today and has made a solid first impression through the first 10 days or so of training camp.

Gabe Wallace

He’ll also have his parents in the crowd today at Mosaic Stadium.

“It’s huge for a lot of the guys and for me,” he said. “I’m going to have some family come and watch. A game like this, it’s everything I’ve worked for to this point. In a way, it’s a culmination of all that even though I know there’s more after. To get to play in a professional game, even if it’s the preseason, is a lifelong dream. I’ve made it to this level, and I want to stay here.”

Born in Nelson, B.C., Wallace essentially grew up in Salmon Arm — aside from a six-year stretch in New Zealand where his father worked in the forestry industry. His dad now works as a health and safety advisor in the oil and gas industry and recently started a job in Yorkton.

Both his parents have been spectators in training camp and plan to be at both preseason games. And hopefully many, many more over what Wallace hopes will be a long career.

“I want to stick around and play as long as I can,” he said. “Plus, I don’t ever want to treat anything as ‘oh, it’s just this, or it’s just that.’ I want to always put my best foot forward.

“That’s why I try to look at every practice and the preseason games as opportunities. That’s what this is for me and a bunch of the new guys: an opportunity.”

So, meaningless preseason game? Nope. Try again.

This isn’t about fast-forwarding to the ‘real games.’ These are job interviews where every snap could mean a thumbs up or thumbs down on a pro career. Indeed, in some cases, they could be last chances in the game.

Right here and now, this afternoon means everything to Clercius, Wallace and so many other wannabe Blue Bombers.