Hamilton Tiger-Cat receiver Bakari Grant has always played the game of football with something resembling barely controlled fury, his emotions pouring out after every tough catch or touchdown grab.
It would have seemed impossible to motivate him any further.
The Ticats unwittingly found a way. They weren’t willing to pay Grant top dollar when he was a free agent this winter. Sure, they wanted him back but at a team-friendly price, not in the pay band of top-tier guys like Montreal’s S.J. Green or Saskatchewan’s Weston Dressler.
He grudgingly signed a one-year deal in March — more than a month after free agency opened — and has spent the first six weeks of the season putting up big numbers.
“I think Bakari is on mission,” says quarterback Zach Collaros. “We talked a lot in the off-season, especially when the contract negotiation was going on and I just told him how much I wanted him back.”
Loyalty, however, is a rare commodity in football and from a pure numbers standpoint, it’s not hard to see the Ticats’ argument.
Over his first four seasons, Grant has been a consistent contributor with 207 receptions for 2,535 yards and 12 touchdowns. His best season came in 2013 when he led the team and set career highs in receptions (69) and receiving yards (947) and was named an East Division All-Star.
Still, that works out to a shade under 52 catches, 633 yards and three touchdowns a season. Green — who signed a lucrative contract extension in the off-season — has averaged 68 catches and 1,033 yards over the last five years. Dressler has five 1,000-yard seasons in his seven years in the league. And after four years, it was fair to wonder if Grant had hit his ceiling as a player.
It would appear not.
So far this season, Grant is sixth in the CFL in receiving with 389 yards and has four touchdown catches, good enough for second. He’s on pace to set career highs in every statistical category that matters when it comes time to talk contract.
“I’ll be motivated until next off-season. As a player, you give a certain amount to a team and sometimes they don’t get recognized the way you think they should,” Grant says. “At the end of the day, you have to perform, regardless of the situation.”
Grant had another strong game Sunday against the Bomber, registering four catches for 77 yards and a touchdown while also providing his usual stellar downfield blocking. In each of the Ticat’s six games this season, he has at least three catches.
Motivation is different than holding a grudge. Grant says that the off-season conversations with Collaros as well as offensive co-ordinator Tommy Condell and head coach Kent Austin were a significant factor — maybe the significant factor — is his decision to ultimately return.
Grant has also maintained his team-first approach, recognizing that dwelling on his contract situation had the potential to undermine his season.
“I’m not playing for myself, I’m just attacking every play, putting in the work, doing all the right things as a pro,” Grant says. “One year more in the offence, one year more in the system so I’m able to play a little bit more free.”
Grant has been living a monastic lifestyle the first month of the season, living by himself in a small apartment. His family will join him later this summer but for now, it’s all business. Just like it is at contract time.
“I’m going to get better and better every week,” Grant says. “Be ready for it.”