Once the face of the Argonauts franchise, Saskatchewan Roughrider and former Ticat Chad Owens will return to Toronto this weekend to try and knock his old team from the playoffs – and punch his own ticket to the Grey Cup.
The receiver and kick returner spent six seasons with the Argos and was often front-and-centre in the team’s marketing efforts, making countless public and charitable appearances while gracing the cover of the 2013 media guide.
He also played some spectacular football, wining the league’s Most Outstanding Player award in 2012 while setting a new CFL record for all-purpose yards in a season while helping the Argonauts win the Grey Cup on home turf. He’s been a league all-star four times and won two titles.
But the Argonauts let him walk as a free agent before the 2016 season, a decision he later admitted stung given his contributions to the franchise. He signed with rival Hamilton and had an excellent season before breaking his foot, then joined the Riders last winter and has slowly worked his way into the line up. He had one catch for 16 yards and another carry for 19 in Saskatchewan’s 31-20 Eastern Semi-Final win over the Ottawa Redblacks last Sunday.
Now 35, Owens has heard the doubters say he’s too old to contribute, to go along with those who were unsure a 5-foot-8 guy could succeed in pro football.
“Any time you’re an underdog, there’s added motivation. It’s an up and down thing but that’s been my life,” Owens said after Sunday’s win. “The main thing is that you enjoy the ride, you enjoy the ups and work harder than you ever have throughout the downs.”
Coming back to Toronto won’t carry the same emotional weight as it did last June, when he returned to face his old team for the opening game at BMO Field wearing Ticat black and gold. He made six catches for 67 yards and scored a touchdown.
“Last year I played with emotion and I’m always going to do that but this year I feel like I’m in much more of a relaxed state,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of new guys but there’s still a few guys there that I played with so you never lose those relationships.”
Former general manager Jim Barker and head coach Scott Milanovich – the two men at the helm when Owens was allowed to walk – are gone, replaced by new GM Jim Popp and coach Marc Trestman. They had Owens briefly in Montreal at the start of his CFL journey and Trestman has always been a fan.
“I’ve kept up with him throughout his career,” Trestman said. “He’s another guy that adds value to their team offensively.”
The Argonauts held a light practice on Sunday, then Trestman joined some of his fellow coaches and players to watch the tail end of Saskatchewan’s win. Toronto lost both games to the Riders this season but Trestman said both teams have improved since then.
“We view them as one of the most athletically talented teams in the league and they have a veteran quarterback in Kevin Glenn that we have tremendous respect for,” Trestman said. “We’ve been playing playoff football for a month in some regard. I’m confident we’ll come into Sunday as a confident, well-prepared team. That’s our expectation.”
Owens’ family remained behind in Mississauga this season and it’s expected he’ll eventually return to the Toronto area once his playing days are done, though he is under contract for next season. He clearly still has a soft spot for the franchise that helped launched him to stardom and seems mystified by their continued struggle for relevance.
“They’re getting the players out in the public, out at Leafs games, Raptors games, they’re trying to get the city to back them. But I don’t know what the issue is. I really wish they had the support because they have the people there,” he said. “We won the Grey Cup in 2012 that didn’t change much. New stadium didn’t make a difference. I don’t know what it’s going to take. But they need to get that city backing the Toronto Argonauts.”
Could Owens, still one of the franchises’ most recognizable faces be a part of the solution at some point? He demurs.
“I just want to see the league healthy, I don’t know what my future is,” Owens said. “Right now I’m just focussed on winning a Grey Cup.”